Last year, the Trump administration abruptly axed $10m in US support for vital people-to-people work which brings together Israelis and Palestinians to promote the values of coexistence, peace and reconciliation.
Now this crucial work has sustained another blow with the cessation of all US aid to the Palestinian Authority.
It is the result of a series of complex legal and legislative moves which led the PA to announce it no longer wished to receive assistance from the US.
The PA’s action was the result of the coming into force of the new Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. Passed by the US Congress last year, it was designed to make it easier for American victims of terrorist attacks to take legal action against entities alleged to have provided such terrorists with support.
One unintended consequence is that US aid which supports the PA’s security cooperation with Israel is under threat. Israel has quietly been urging Congress and the administration to amend the law to allow this to continue.
Another is that civil society groups which receive US government grants for coexistence work are alsofacing crippling financial losses.
As the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella organisation of such organisations, has pointed out, these programmes have nothing to do with the PA.
LFI, which has led the campaign in the UK in support of ALLMEP’s plan for an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, last year organised Labour MPs to protest against President Trump’s attack on coexistence funding and urge the UK government to help fill the void. We described the US’ actions as a “mean-spirited and counterproductive step that will only damage the prospects of a lasting agreement between Israel and Palestine” and “further evidence – if any were needed – that despite President Trump’s warm words about his desire to do the ‘ultimate deal’, his actions show that he is a barrier to peace, not its facilitator”.
People-to-people programmes are often targeted at children and young people and aim to inculcate peacebuilding values and raise levels of trust between young Israelis and Palestinians. In 2017, a major report authored by Ned Lazarus, an international academic expert in conflict resolution, provided robust evaluations demonstrating that coexistence work builds strong constituencies for peace.
While the Trump administration has now rightly attempted to ensure money for US security support to the PA continues, it has unsurprisingly shown little signs of being concerned about the impact of ATCA on peace-building civic society groups.
As ALLMEP director Joel Braunold has suggested: “It is in no one’s interest whatsoever to cut off funding to the very groups that are dealing with the hate and incitement that this conflict generates. By crippling those who are building peace from the ground up, we only deepen the challenge that we are all facing. I would hope that Congress takes urgent steps to remedy the misreading of the Anti-Terrorism [Clarification] Act. It was not the intent of the authors to completely remove any funding from groups that have nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority.”
It is important to recognise that coexistence funding and the Palestinian people are the victims not simply of the White House, but also of their own leaders. It is the PA which has actively decided to request the US stop aid to it, and it has done so because it wishes to continue to its so-called “pay for slay” policy.
The PA pays salaries to those convicted of terrorism offences serving time in Israeli prisons, and the families of “martyrs” who have died or been injured attempting to carry out attacks.
Allowances range from $364 a month for a term of up to three years in prison to $3,120 a month for a term of 30 years. Terrorists from Jerusalem receive a monthly $78 supplement, while Arab-Israeli terrorists receive a $130 supplement. By making greater payments for longer sentences, the policy thus incentivises the most heinous acts and rewards the perpetrators and their families.
In 2017, it was revealed that the bill for such payments has exceeded $1bn over the last four years. They are also estimated to take up roughly seven percent of the PA’s budget.
Last year, the PA chose to lose US aid rather than cease the payment of salaries to terrorists after the passage of the Taylor Force Act. Named after a young US veteran who was murdered in a terrorist attack in Israel, it made most US assistance to the PA contingent on it ending “pay for slay”. The act was designed to ensure that US funding was not used to pay salaries to those serving time in Israeli jails for terrorist offences. At the time, President Abbas made clear his priorities: “Even if we have only a penny left, we will give it to the martyrs, the prisoners and their families. We view the prisoners and the martyrs as planets and stars in the skies of the Palestinian struggle, and they have priority in everything.”
In January, the PA once again placed its desire to reward and incentivise terrorism above the welfare of the Palestinian people. Following the passage of ATCA, the Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, wrote to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo: “In light of these developments, the Government of Palestine respectfully informs the United States Government that, as of January 31st, 2019, it fully disclaims and no longer wishes to accept any form of assistance referenced in ATCA.”
As legal expert Maurice Hirsh wrote for Palestinian Media Watch: “The truth is that the US aid ended because the PA positively decided to reject the assistance in favour of continuing its ‘Pay for Slay’ policy and in order to avoid being held responsible for its terror promotion and involvement in terror that has claimed the lives of hundreds of victims, including numerous US citizens.”
Coexistence programmes – which serve as an antidote to the hatred which fuels the conflict and terrorism – will thus suffer due to the PA’s utterly ambiguous stance on the peace process and Trump’s ill-designed, short-sighted and half-baked approach towards the Palestinian people.