Pressure grows on Palestinian officials to end payments to prisoners and families of 'martyrs'

Palestinian authorities have for decades made payments to Palestinian prisoners and families of those killed by Israeli forces. But as Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel writes, officials are under increasing pressure to cut the money off.

Israel says money encourages violence against citizens, proposed U.S. act would cut Palestinian funding

The parents of Mohammad Abu Shahin stand in front of a poster of the 32-year-old, who was convicted of killing Danny Gonen, in their home in the Qalandia refugee camp. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

An oversized poster of Mohammad Abu Shahin is pasted to the white living room walls inside the sparse apartment his family rents in the Qalandia refugee camp, near Ramallah.

His family enlarged the photo days after Abu Shahin, 32, turned himself in to Israeli authorities, admitting he killed an Israeli man.

Now, as their son sits locked in an Israeli jail after being convicted of murder, the family collects a monthly payment from Palestinian authorities to cover the costs of their food, rent and other expenses.

These controversial "salaries," as they're referred to by Palestinians, are paid to prisoners and their families, both in and out of jails, as well as to the loved ones of Palestinian "martyrs" who have been killed by Israelis. 

'Blood money'

To Israel, the stipends are "blood money," paid to people who have attacked Israelis, meant to encourage the killing of Jews. 

Palestinian officials are under increasing pressure, particularly from the United States, to end the transfers.

"I am extremely worried that they would stop these payments," said Umm Mohammad, Mohammad Abu Shahin's mother. "We need that payment, because my husband is sick."

They have no money to support their son's wife and two children, she added.

Danny Gonen was shot and killed by Mohammed Abu Shahin in the West Bank in 2015. (Facebook)

Abu Shahin was sentenced in January to two life sentences behind bars for killing Danny Gonen and injuring his friend while the pair were visiting a spring in the West Bank in June, 2015.

The two Israeli men had finished a swim and were driving to a main road when they were stopped by Abu Shahin, who shot both of them at close range. Gonen, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student, died in hospital, while his friend, Netanel Hadad, was injured.

'My son felt oppressed'

Abu Shahin's family says a year after their son was arrested, they began to receive a monthly "salary" of 2,400 Israeli shekels, about $840 Cdn. 

Umm Mohammad, who says all of the money is spent by their daughter-in-law, is adamant that his son did not carry out the killing to seek out money.

"My son felt oppressed. My son felt that the settlers had taken the land," she said in an interview at her home in the Qalandia refugee camp. 

Umm Mohammad, the mother of Mohammad Abu Shahin, in the Qalandia refugee camp, near Ramallah, in the West Bank. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"When a person, like Mohammad, conducts an act like this one, it's not because of money or buildings or luxury. It's because of an inside feeling that all Palestinians have against the [Israeli] occupation."

The exact figure spent by Palestinian authorities on these payments remains unclear. An official with the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs told CBC News he was unaware of the total amount.

A report by the Jerusalem Centre of Public Affairs, a pro-Israel think-tank, found that the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing body that administers much of the West Bank, allocated 1.24 billion shekels ($432 million Cdn) for the payments program in 2017 — which equals half of the foreign assistance given to the Palestinian Authority, the think-tank estimates.

Pressure from Washington

"Put simply, this is official Palestinian blood-money, rewarding terrorists who murder Jews," wrote Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, in a letter to the Security Council earlier this year. 

It's believed that the Obama administration quietly urged Palestinian officials to stop the payments, but since Donald Trump became president, the pressure on the Palestinians has grown. 

Some U.S. lawmakers are backing legislation that would force the United States to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it stops paying the monthly stipends. 

Taylor Force, a former U.S army soldier, was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian attacker in 2016 (Facebook)

Known as the Taylor Force Act, the measure is included in a Senate bill expected to come to a vote in December. The legislation was named after Taylor Force, a 29-year-old former U.S. army officer who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian while visiting Tel Aviv in 2016.

Under international pressure, the Palestinian Authority transferred responsibility for the payments program to the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2014. 

Domestic pressure on Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York later on Wednesday.

Despite growing pressure, Akram Alayasa, the international relations co-ordinator for the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs, said he believed Abbas "will not stop" the payments.

Akram Alayasa in the offices of the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs in Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"It's almost like social welfare support to the families. Imagine a man who entered the prison and he has two or three kids. Who will [support] them?" Alayasa asked.

"End the occupation and then the issue of the [payments] will stop," he added.

Abbas would certainly face political pressure at home — and protests in  the streets — if he ended the payments, which began as the Palestine Mujahideen and Martyrs Fund, established in 1964 by the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

One mother's fight

Since the murder of her son Danny more than two years ago, Dvora Gonen has fought against the "salaries" paid to Palestinian families.

Dvora Gonen holds a photo of her son Danny, who was killed by Mohammad Abu Shahin in 2015. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Gonen told CBC News she has hired a lawyer and plans to sue the Palestinian authorities to claim any funds paid to the family of her son's killer. 

"I will use the money for a memorial to Danny," she said. "He was marvellous boy, a brilliant student."

Pictures of Danny on visits throughout Israel are hung along the walls of Dvora Gonen's apartment in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod in central Israel.

"Even though an Arab killed my son, I do not hate Arabs," she said.

But "if you really want stop the terror, stop paying money. If you're paying money to a terrorist, it's never ending."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.