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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Prisoner aid cut could trigger Palestinian crisis, activists say

Palestinian officials say some 850,000 people have spent time in Israeli prisons in the 50 years since Israel seized the Palestinian territories in the 1967 Six-Day War

International pressure on the Palestinian Authority to halt payments to the families of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including those convicted of attacks, could trigger political crisis, rights groups say.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is caught between pressure from US president Donald Trump's administration and a potential backlash from Palestinians, most of whom view their prisoners as heroes.

Those killed carrying out attacks against Israelis are regularly venerated as "martyrs".

Palestinian officials say some 850,000 people have spent time in Israeli prisons in the 50 years since Israel seized the Palestinian territories in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel currently detains some 6,500 Palestinians for a range of offences and alleged crimes.

It says making payments to the families of attackers encourages further violence.

But for Palestinians, such payments are a key source of income for families who have in many cases lost their main breadwinner.

They are also symbolically important after decades of yearning for elusive statehood and struggle against Israel's occupation.

A recent poll showed that 91 per cent of Palestinians oppose suspending stipends to those in Israeli jails for security-related offences.

"To lay a finger on the prisoners' rights is to attack the Palestinian struggle," said Helmi al-Aaraj, director general of the Centre for Defense of Liberties and Civil Rights.

Since 2004, Palestinian law has stipulated that the government pay allowances to families of those jailed for attacks and activities against Israel and Israelis.

The legislation obliges the Palestinian authorities to ensure "a dignified life" to inmates and ex-prisoners by "guaranteeing their economic rights and those of their families".

"If their rights are eroded we are heading for a real crisis in Palestinian society and in due course toward an explosion," Shawan Jabarin of Palestinian rights group Al Haq told AFP.

The Palestinian Authority has until now made regular payments to prisoners' families based on the length of their sentence.

They range from US$400 (Dh1,470) per month for relatives of prisoners incarcerated for up to three years, rising to $2,200 for family members of those sentenced to 18-20 years.

Palestinian sources involved with prisoner affairs told AFP on condition of anonymity that the PA had suspended payments to families of 277 prisoners and ex-prisoners at the beginning of June.

No Palestinian official has so far commented and the PA's silence is encouraging speculation.

"There is US and Israeli pressure to stop paying stipends to prisoners and their families," Mr Aaraj said.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in June told US lawmakers that Abbas had agreed to stop payments to attackers.

"They have changed their policy, at least I have been informed they've changed that policy," Mr Tillerson said.

Israel however said it saw no evidence of such a decision and Palestinian officials would not confirm it.

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