The Palestinian Authority’s policy of financially supporting Palestinians who land in Israeli prisons, as well as their families, is a perennial concern for Israeli and American policymakers and a source of disagreement with their counterparts in Ramallah.
Critics of this policy, particularly in the U.S. and Israel, often point to these prisoner payments as an unambiguous case of terror incitement—a government openly rewarding people for committing acts of violence against Israelis. The PA, on the other hand, views the system as a legitimate means of supporting people it considers to be prisoners of war or political prisoners and their families in the struggle against a military occupation. If the Palestinian Authority desires a productive, mutually beneficial relationship with the Biden administration and hopes to bring U.S-Palestinian ties back from the nadir they reached under President Trump, it is in the Palestinians’ interest to reevaluate this policy.


The Palestinian Authority Martyrs’ Fund

The Palestinian Authority Martyrs’ Fund, the PA’s prisoner payment program, provides monthly stipends to both Palestinians imprisoned or injured by Israel (primarily the Israeli military, but by civilians as well) and to families of those who have been killed. The Palestinian Authority officially introduced this policy in 2004 through the passage of the Law of Prisoners No.19. This policy aimed to support Arab Israelis and Palestinians who were participating in the Second Intifiada, a period of violent uprisings against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which often took the form of terror attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets. A 2013 amendment, Government Decision No.15, expanded this welfare system by guaranteeing prisoners civil service employment upon their release. Through these laws, the PA established a tiered system in which prisoners receive more funding the longer they sit in prison, with more money waiting for them on the outside in the form of a monthly salary. In addition, an ex-prisoner who sat in captivity for one-to-three years is eligible for a one-time bonus of $1,500 USD upon release; that number jumps to $6,000 at over a decade in prison, and to $25,000 for thirty years or more. Ex-prisoners also receive additional benefits from the government, including partially or fully-waived health insurance payments and tuition at Palestinian universities.

As its name suggests, the Martyrs’ Fund also provides financial support for families of Palestinians who are killed or injured by Israel. Like prisoners, the families of “martyrs” receive a lump sum and a monthly allowance from the government. According to Government Decision No. 15 of 2013, a martyr’s family receives at least $133 a month, with generous add-ons if the martyr is married, has children, or is a member of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF). The family of a married martyr who is also a private in the PASF would receive $400 a month; a deceased first lieutenant would earn his family $633.3 a month; a major general, $1227. In total, these payments cost the Palestinian Authority over $300 million annually, accounting for 8% of its budget. 

Critics of this policy have dubbed it “pay-for-slay,” claiming that it amounts to incentivizing terror. Since the Palestinian Authority’s law enforcement and legal system handle standard crime in the areas it governs, the majority of Palestinians who land in Israeli prison do so because they are terror suspects or were involved in altercations with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The Palestinian Authority itself openly acknolwedges that terrorists who commit acts of violence against Israelis—innocent civilians—are beneficiaries of the Martyrs’ Fund. Moreover, the amount of money the PA pays prisoners is proportional to the length of their sentence, which is naturally also proportional to the severity of the crime. Someone who commits a large attack with many casualties will spend a long time in prison, and in turn will receive more generous payments from the Palestinian Authority. 

The Palestinian Authority views the Martyrs’ Fund as a means of supporting its citizens who are standing up in the face of injustice. They characterize the policy as a form of social welfare intended to help households whose earners are sitting in prison and restore dignity to a people living under military occupation. While the Martyrs’ Fund as it exists today arose in the early 2000s, the tradition of supporting Palestinian prisoners dates back to the early days of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s. It has long been a fixture of Palestinian society and the culture of Palestinian nationalism. Moreover, Palestinian officials often argue that martyr and prisoner payments prevent its citizens from becoming further radicalized by Hamas, which openly embraces violence against Israel. 

Regardless of its true purpose, it is not accurate to characterize the Martyrs’ Fund solely as a means of encouraging terror against Israel. Contrary to what Prime Minister Netanyahu may claim, not every recipient of aid from the Martyrs’ Fund is a terrorist. As Glenn Kessler points out in the Washington Post, Israel arrests many Palestinians for nonviolent offenses and “security threats” that may qualify more accurately as civil disobedience than terrorism. It is difficult to determine what portion of these detainees actually committed violent offenses that could be considered “terror”. Moreover, Palestinians in the territories are subject to Israeli military law and do not enjoy the legal rights guaranteed by Israeli civil law. The IDF regularly carries out arbitrary arrests of Palestinians, detains them without charges, and tries them in military courts that have a nearly 100 percent conviction rate. Palestinian children are also subject to this process, many of whom end up facing long prison sentences for relatively minor offenses.

Thus, it is unfair to claim that all who benefit from the PA Martyrs’ Fund are terrorists. Not all Palestinians in Israeli prisons have or intend to have Israeli blood on their hands.  However, the Palestinian Authority Martyrs’ Fund’s tiered system does still incentivize heinous acts of terror against Israelis. It behooves the Palestinian Authority to reform this policy not just because it undermines cooperation with Israel, rewards violence, and damages trust, but also because it poses a barrier to productive engagement with the United States.


The Taylor Force Act, ATCA, and U.S.-Palestinian Relations

As a major international donor of the Palestinian Authority, the United States government has often taken issue with the Palestinian Authority’s prisoner and martyr payments. In the past, due to concerns that U.S. money would end up in the hands of terrorists, the State Department deducted the amount it estimates the PA pays to terrorists (a classified number, not to be confused with the total amount the PA pays to prisoners and martyrs in total) from the aid the U.S. gives to the PA. 

Despite these concerns, U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority has historically been robust—over $5 billion in total since the governmental body arose in 1994 through the Oslo Accords. The Taylor Force Act, passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Trump in March 2018, halted U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians that “directly benefits” Palestinian Authority, until the U.S. secretary of state testifies to Congress that the PA has ceased its support for terrorists and condemned the use of violence according to criteria to be established by the executive branch. This legislation was named for Taylor Force, a 29-year-old American veteran murdered in Jaffa by a Palestinian terrorist in 2016. In July of 2018, Israel followed suit by passing its own legislation to withhold one-twelfth of its funding for the PA in order to pressure the Palestinians to end the Martyrs’ Fund. 

It is important to note that while the Taylor Force Act only impacted U.S. economic aid to the PA, it left intact American security assistance. This economic aid consisted of PA bugetary support and funding for USAID projects, whereas security assistance (the smaller of the two sums) goes towards training and strengthening the Palestinian Authority Security Forces—a crucial security and intelligence partner to Israel, the U.S., and regional allies like Jordan and Egypt. Ultimately, however, Palestinians began refusing security assistance as well due to the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018 (ATCA), which would expose the PA to terrorism lawsuits in the U.S. if it accepts any aid at all. Congress later amended the act in February 2020 in order to allow security assistance to resume without the threat of lawsuits.

Three years later, the Taylor Force Act has not had its desired effect. The PA has neither halted nor reformed its policy of paying prisoners and families of “martyrs.” As Israel Policy Forum Policy Director Michael Koplow pointed out in 2017 before the Act’s passage, cutting off aid entirely is actually counterproductive to Israeli and American interests. The USAID programs halted following passage of the Taylor Force Act were crucial humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza that improved quality of life for Palestinians; such efforts strengthen the Palestinian economy and foster an environment more conducive to peace. Cutting off this aid hurt nonviolent Palestinians as well—who now have one more reason to resent the U.S. and Israel. The end of security assistance undermines security and counterterrorism cooperation with the PASF, which ultimately puts Israelis in greater danger and weakens the Palestinian Authority, to the benefit of more nefarious actors like Hamas. 

Moreover, ending all U.S. aid to the Palestinians amounted to forsaking any leverage the U.S. still had over the PA. All official contacts between the U.S. and the Palestinians ceased after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Trump administration’s strategy of carrots for Israel and sticks for the Palestinians was ineffective in that it removed any pressure for Israel to take steps towards a two-state solution, while pressuring the Palestinians as much as possible to the point of damaging U.S. credibility entirely. This one-sided approach was also apparent in the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity Plan, which greenlit unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank territory while denying the Palestinians an actual state with workable borders. Within the context of Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is no surprise that the Taylor Force Act failed to bring about the desired outcome of ending the PA’s prisoner and martyr payments. 


Where To Go From Here

There is no question that the Biden administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian affairs will differ significantly from that of its immediate predecessor and align more closely with traditional U.S. policy. In February 2021, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price announced that the United States intended to restore humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. This announcement echoed an earlier statement from Vice President Kamala Harris (then vice president-elect) during an interview in November 2020, in which she also vowed that the U.S. would take “immediate steps” to reopen the U.S. Consulate-General in East Jerusalem (which previously served as a de facto diplomatic mission to the Palestinians) and the PLO mission in Washington, DC, both of which were shuttered by the Trump administration. The Biden administration recently approved $15 million for the West Bank and Gaza in international disaster assistance, a category exempted from the Taylor Force Act, in order to help residents of the territories amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite these moves, undoing Trump’s legacy on U.S.-Palestinian relations and returning to the status quo ante will not prove to be an easy endeavor. As Shira Efron and Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha outlined, reopening the East Jerusalem Consulate-General could face an Israeli veto. The Taylor Force Act still blocks economic aid to the PA and under ATCA, opening the PLO office in DC would expose the Palestinians to $655.5 million in terrorism lawsuits in American courts.

Although it is possible in theory that the administration could find ways to work around these pieces of legislation or that Congress could modify them, the best outcome would be, of course, for the Palestinian Authority to revise the Martyrs’ Fund. This move would be neither easy nor popular among the Palestinian population. The most workable way forward, outlined by Michael Koplow, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Ilan Goldenberg in their recent report for the Center for a New American Security, would be for the U.S. to help the PA transition to a general welfare system that does not correlate the amount of money one receives to the length of a prison sentence, thereby removing the incentive for violence. This reform would undo a genuinely harmful policy while leaving the U.S.-Palestinian relationship less vulnerable to the backlash arising from it.

Following President Biden’s election last November, senior Palestinian officials were reportedly willing to reexamine the martyr payment issue. This goal may not be achievable in the short term and will have to wait, at least, until after the Palestinian elections this year (should they actually happen). If the future PA and PLO leadership feel that that Biden, unlike Trump, had a genuine interest in improving the situation on the ground for Palestinians rather than merely fullfilling the wishlist of the Israeli right-wing, they may come to see reforming the Martyrs’ Fund as a reasonable price to pay for a more balanced American foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.