Op-ed by Lara Friedman originally published in the Nation, August 17, 2017.
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.
But setting aside legal and moral arguments, is it true that ending this program would stop terror? Experience would suggest that the answer is no.
Israel’s existing standard response to terror includes harsh collective punishment: destruction or sealing of the attacker’s family home (often home to an extended family); arrests of fathers and brothers; humiliation of mothers and sisters; cancellation of work permits; bans on movement and travel; closures and raids on entire villages; revocation of residency rights in East Jerusalem; and most recently, multimillion-dollar lawsuits against surviving relatives and, where applicable, revocation of citizenship. In the wake of his attack in Halamish, el-Abed’s village has faced ongoing closures and raids; his family will soon be homeless; and his father, mother, and two brothers have been arrested.
While Israel insists that these policies of collective punishment “deter” terror, el-Abed was undeterred. He was ready not only to die or spend years in jail, but to do so knowing the brutal retribution his act would unleash on his loved ones and community. Even assuming that el-Abed consoled himself with the knowledge that his family would receive financial support after his death or arrest, it defies credulity to believe that removing this support would have significantly altered his calculus.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand why Danon and others want to focus on these payments. Doing so further delegitimizes Abbas, whom Danon and others have long rejected as a “partner” for peace. If Abbas refuses to stop the payments, he is painted as supporting terror, despite longstanding security cooperation with Israel and a long record of speaking out and acting forcefully against incitement and armed resistance to the occupation. For this, he has earned harsh criticism from his own people. If Abbas stops the payments, he will be seen domestically as abandoning his people and further weakened.
Likewise, this campaign validates the view that there is no cause-effect relationship between Israeli actions and Palestinian violence. It bolsters the argument that, rather than pursuing diplomacy or a two-state solution, Israel must adopt ever-more-uncompromising positions toward the Palestinian leadership and its people. By diverting focus away from Israeli policies that defy international law and contradict any serious intent by Israel to end the conflict—like the continuing blockade on Gaza and the expanding settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—it dovetails with increasingly frequent Israeli denials that there is such a thing as an “occupation” and Israel’s increasingly energetic efforts to erase any distinction between sovereign Israel and settlements.
More broadly, by painting Abbas and the PA as supporters of violence—and depicting Palestinians living under occupation as morally bankrupt savages ready to attack Israelis for financial gain—this campaign seeks to turn the clock back to the pre-Oslo era, when the word “Palestinian” was synonymous with “terrorist” and the words “two states” and “Palestine” were anathema.