People gather outside the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the West Bank city of Nablus last month to draw attention to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. (Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Palestinians Decry IDF Order to Block ‘Martyr Payments’

Israeli military threatens imprisonment, fines if banks allow PA stipends to reach families of those killed in clashes with Israelis

Palestinian officials have strongly condemned a decision by the Central Command of the Israel Defense Forces to prohibit banks from transferring stipends that the Palestinian Authority pays to prisoners in Israeli jails and to the families of those slain in clashes with Israelis.

The Central Command is responsible for overall security in the West Bank, and issues directives enforcing many policies. It sees these payments as a security threat.

As such, it warned Palestinian and non-Palestinian banks not to carry out transactions related to what it called “terrorism funds,” saying that doing so would expose them to lawsuits. Bank managers and employees would be considered “partners in the crime” and be subject to imprisonment and fines.

The Palestinian leadership pays the prisoners and families what it calls “salaries” – and what many in the Palestinian street call “martyr payments” – totaling an estimated NIS 1.5 billion ($425.5 million) annually.

Qadri Abu Baker, head of the PLO’s Commission of Detainee Affairs, told The Media Line that the decision constituted a second “act of piracy,” as the Israeli government has in the past withheld equivalent sums in taxes and import duties it collects on behalf of the PA.

“This time, the money of [both] Palestinian prisoners and martyrs [is threatened],” he said.

Palestinian and Arab banks have started to close accounts belonging to the recipients of stipends under pressure from the Israeli deadline, set for May 9. Abu Baker said any bank found to be doing so without coordinating this with the PA and the governor of the Palestinian Monetary Authority would be “held responsible” for the outcomes.

“We can’t really control [the sentiment on] the [Palestinian] street,” he said. “The prisoners and martyrs are one of the main bases of the Palestinian cause. These allocations help between 25,000 and 30,000 Palestinian families.”

For comment, The Media Line attempted to reach the Palestinian Monetary Authority − the emerging, Ramallah-based Palestinian central bank − but repeated calls went unanswered.

Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Society and a former PA minister without portfolio, told The Media Line that the new IDF policy imposed what amounted to Israeli sovereignty on Palestinian institutions that are meant to operate according to Palestinian law.

“It’s reoccupying the West Bank,” he said.

Fares stressed that the banks obtained their operating license from the Monetary Authority, which complies with Palestinian law.

“They [the banks] should take orders from the party that authorized them to operate and which protects them, and any bank that complies with the [IDF] decision will bear responsibility for that,” he warned.

He mentioned the Cairo Amman Bank, among others, as having told recipients of the stipends to come in and close their accounts, adding that such moves would be completely rejected both officially and in the court of popular opinion.

A Palestinian banker, who spoke to The Media Line under condition of anonymity, said the Cairo American Bank and other monetary institutions in the West Bank were facing legal complications in the United States after Israel settlers alleged the “funding of terrorism” and filed lawsuits.

“The PA isn’t capable of protecting the banks,” the banker said, noting that all the financial institutions use the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network for US transactions and are subject to American regulations, under which all their assets could be frozen.

Ahmad Haj Hassan, general manager of The National Bank (TNB), declined to comment on the issue, telling The Media Line only that it had not been officially informed of the Israeli decision. The management, he explained, was awaiting notification from the official authorities: the PA and the Monetary Authority.

On Thursday, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh affirmed his rejection of the Israeli pressure and ordered the formation of a committee to study ways to respond.

Ibrahim Melhem, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said the committee, headed by the governor of the Monetary Authority, included the prisoners affairs minister and representatives of the Finance Ministry and the Association of Banks in Palestine.

The panel, he said, would “study the Israeli threats against the banks that provide their services to the families of the prisoners and martyrs, and raise the necessary recommendations to address them.”

The Palestinian leadership would “remain loyal to the prisoners and martyrs, and preserve their rights, whatever the pressures,” Melhem added, stressing that the solution to the bank crisis would be “collective, and not individual.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office told The Media Line that on February 9, 2020, an amendment to an order was signed into force regarding the West Bank that was “intended to expand the criminal and administrative tools in the hands of the military commander in dealing with terror threats in the Judea and Samaria region.”

This amendment will come into force three months after being signed, on May 9, 2020.

The spokesperson explained that the amendment outlined, among other things, a number of new security offenses, and the harshening of sentencing for such offenses. “These security offenses include holding a position in a terror organization (heading a terror organization, or holding an administrative or command position therein), preparation for committing serious security offenses, and using property to deliberately support the activities of a terrorist organization.”

The spokesperson added, “Likewise, the amendment specifies the authority of the security forces to seize and confiscate private property valued at the amount of money received from a terrorist organization, or from committing a serious security offense.”

Prior to issuing the amendment, similar measures had been authorized and used regularly by Israeli security forces under the pre-existing law and in accordance with rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court.

“In addition, the amendment regulates and prevents the possibility of one lawyer representing more than one person arrested for a security offense, where it may undermine the investigation,” the spokesperson said.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the matter.

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