WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted Wednesday that the Palestinians had agreed to stop payments to relatives of militants who attack Israeli civilians and soldiers, even after both Palestinians and Israelis disputed his claim and said there had been no change.
Israel has long pushed unsuccessfully for the Palestinians to halt the "martyrs' fund" payments that go to roughly 35,000 families of Palestinians killed and wounded in its long-running conflict with Israel, including suicide bombers and others. So Mideast followers were surprised and confused when Tillerson said Tuesday the Palestinians had changed the policy.
Tillerson, testifying in one of several budget hearings this week in Congress, had said that both he and President Donald Trump raised the issue during their visit to the West Bank last month. Tillerson said he'd been informed that the Palestinians had changed their policy and intended "to cease the payments to the family members of those who have committed murder or violence against others."
Not so, said Israeli and Palestinian officials alike.
Issa Karake, Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, said the payments must continue and called them "a national, social and humanitarian duty."
"Those people, (prisoners) have sacrificed their lives for their people and the minimum we can do to them is taking care of their families," Karake said.
And Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he'd seen no signs the Palestinian Authority had changed direction.
"We follow this closely," Lieberman told Israel's public radio on Wednesday. "As of this moment I have seen no cessation and no intention to stop paying the terrorists' families."
Yet Tillerson was undeterred when a U.S. lawmaker questioned him during another hearing Wednesday about his disputed claim. He said that during his visit to Bethlehem, the Palestinians had told him they have to support "widows and orphans." Tillerson said he'd replied by saying that's one thing, but that payments "as recognition of violence or murder" is unacceptable to Americans.
"They have indicated to me they were in the process of changing that," Tillerson said told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The "martyrs' fund" was set up in 1967 by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the group that formally represents all Palestinians. The fund for families of several thousand Palestinians held for alleged anti-Israeli activities, from stone-throwing to shooting attacks and bombings, had a 2016 budget of $125 million, according to the website of the Palestinian Authority's Finance Ministry.
Israel argues that such stipends promote violence. It stepped up a campaign against the fund after a wave of Palestinian attacks began in September 2015. The stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks were a near-daily occurrence for several months, but have subsided recently.
In the past, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to halt the payments, fearing a popular backlash. Support for prisoners is a Palestinian consensus issue, despite the political split between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the West Bank-based government of Abbas' Fatah movement.
Deitch reported from Jerusalem.