On July 21, Omar el-Abed, a 19-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank village of Khobar, brutally murdered three Israeli civilians inside the settlement of Halamish. Three days later, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, spoke about the attack in an address to the Security Council. In his remarks, Danon insinuated that money was a prime factor motivating el-Abed to attack: “The terrorist who murdered this family did so knowing that the PA [Palestinian Authority] will pay him thousands of dollars a month.”
Danon’s comment was another salvo in the ongoing—and exceptionally successful—campaign to stoke outrage against PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian program providing financial support to families of those imprisoned or killed by Israel. The program has existed for decades and some of the funding in question may actually end up in the Israeli prison system, since it enables Palestinian prisoners to purchase goods in prison commissaries. Yet it only recently became a point of contention, with critics like Danon now arguing that these payments incentivize terror, nicknaming the program, “pay-to-slay.” Today, a chorus of voices on Capitol Hill, in the US media, and from Israel demands that the United States cut off assistance to the Palestinians, unless and until the program ends.
That is one side of the argument. The other side holds that even as terrorism is wholly unacceptable, the root cause of Palestinian violence is Israel’s now 50-year-long military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, implemented through policies that are intrinsically violent, and that stoke popular misery, despair, and outrage. Such sentiments echo in the Facebook post el-Abed published immediately before committing his heinous crime: “I am young, I have not yet reached the age of 20, I have many dreams and aspirations. But what life is this, in which they murder our wives and our youth without any justification. They desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque and we are asleep, it’s a disgrace that we sit idly by.”
It is a fact that Israeli military forces detain an extraordinary number of Palestinians, often for long periods without any due process. Many are convicted in military courts that have nearly a 100 percent conviction rate. According to Palestinian sources, Israel has arrested 40 percent of the male Palestinian population since 1967. This is in addition to Palestinians killed while attacking, or accused of attacking, Israeli targets.
Most Israelis sees these men as terrorists; most Palestinians view them as martyrs and political prisoners. This is the brutal, zero-sum ethos of national struggle—something that will change only after the conflict ends. In the meantime, given this rate of arrests, funding for families of those killed or imprisoned by Israel represents a critical social safety net. Removing it would amount to collective punishment, illegal under international law and viewed by most of the world as immoral.