Senate hears testimony on slashing funds to the Palestinians until payments to killers stop

Giovanna Paz

Former Knesset member Dov Lipman leading the memorial service for Taylor Force, the American killed in the Tel Aviv stabbing spree, at Ben Gurion Airport, March 11, 2016. (Flash 90)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered whether massive cuts in aid to the Palestinians would help end terrorism or spur a breakdown that could compound the violence.

The Foreign Relations Committee met Wednesday to discuss the Taylor Force Act, named for an American studying for a graduate degree in Tel Aviv when he was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian terrorist in 2016.

As of now, the Palestinian Authority pays the families of Palestinians who were killed, injured, or jailed for attacking Israelis, with murders receiving up to $3,500 a month. This legislation would reduce certain funds given to the Palestinian Authority – infrastructure money and debt assistance for instance- for as long as it continues these payments.

The bill now has mostly Republican backing. Democrats have expressed interest in advancing a modified version of the bill, but say its provisions — cutting all but security aid to the Palestinian police force, which helps Israel keep the West Bank quiet — goes too far.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., who introduced the bill, launched the hearing by noting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains committed to the payments.

“Here’s what Abbas said last week, president of the Palestinian Authority, ‘Even if I will have to leave my position in response to U.S. and Israel pressure, I will not compromise on the salary of a martyr or a prisoner,” Graham said.

Two witnesses argued for and against the bill’s provisions. Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, and the witness speaking on behalf ogf the bill, said the United States had a moral obligation not to underwrite terrorism in any way.

“I do think that aid that goes to the PA should now stop,” said Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We’ve got to be sure that aid money does not indirectly sustain the current system…The moral point is crystal clear now is the time to act.”

Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, agreed overall with the ends of the bill, calling the payments “an abominable practice.”

He noted that under Obama, the United States cut aid to the Palestinians commensurate with the amount they were paying out to the Palestinian assailants, but that this had no effect on the payments.

“It is possible that a total cutoff would be more persuasive,” he said, but argued that it could also remove U.S. leverage and further radicalize Palestinians. He also noted that an array of Israeli security officials have said that a total cutoff of non-security assistance, which now stands at $260 million per year down from $400 million in previous years — would undercut security, even if the payments to the Palestinian police were to continue, by destabilizing the West Bank. (U.S. support for the Palestinian police runs at under $100 million annually.)

“Stability in the West Bank, both economic and political, serves Israel’s security interests by dampening the atmosphere in which more Palestinians might be drawn to extremism,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro honed in on the notion of utilizing diplomatic leverage within the international community – from the U.N. Security Council to Arab governments – to indicate that the payment practice is indefensible. Shapiro also said the bill should provide waiver authority to the president if he wishes to and avoid unwanted effects of cutting off the Economic Support Fund, which provides humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Throughout the hearing, there was an emphasis on reducing incitement and the glorification of violent attacks in the West Bank.

“Look this is very difficult to explain to the American people why we’re doing this,” Senator Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said. “You can trace U.S. money right into these textbooks teaching kids from the time they’re born that their ambition in life is to kill somebody who thinks differently than they do.”

In terms of the connection between U.S. funding and Palestinian terrorism, many of the senators present even argued for more punitive measures to be taken against the PA. Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., said “Cut it. Cut it all”

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked if the assistance itself was hindering Palestinian development by making Palestinians dependent “Isn’t a welfare system, even that in an of itself, an incentive?” Rubio said.

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