Life in jail is no picnic. On the other hand, if you are a Palestinian held captive by Israel, there can be quite an upside.
Over 40% of Palestinians still live in poverty. So for some, having the Israeli taxpayer provide food, clothing and a roof over your head is no small matter. Aside from less desirable professions that one might pick up in a prison environment, incarceration in Israel now offers long-term career and financial breaks within the world of Palestinian kleptocracy. High school matriculation is one of the few palatable links in an extended chain of opportunities.
The mechanisms of the system are very simple. They were explained very succinctly and brazenly by former Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Sufiyan Abu Zayid, in a September 2005 interview with the newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida.
Specifically, each prisoner receives a salary of approximately £150 - £550 from the ministry. Another £30 is supplied for incidental expenses. These are topped up with legal and medical costs, as well as the possibility of university tuition fees. Finally, upon release, they receive a hero's welcome back into society, and are entitled to a salary for six months, until they receive a formal position in the PA.
The financing comes directly from the Palestinian Authority (PA). It allocates £2.3 million per month for these “Prisoner Affairs”; a total of over £50 million since January 2003.
Ironically, it emerges that international donors have been contributing to the support of such murderers and terrorists from Hamas, Fatah and other groups. What the average Western taxpayer is not told is that 25% of the PA budget is funded from abroad – with the European Union leading the way. When politicians like Hilary Benn say that “no UK aid money will be used to support Hamas”, he is either deluding himself or worse.
Ongoing criticism of the abuse of these contributions led to repeated inquiries and investigations by the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the EU fraud squad (OLAF). But committees of evidence were never really required. The figures are published in the monthly PA accounts, which are freely available on the website of the Palestinian Ministry of Finance.
And what have these very concerned European investigators and legislators had to say about their taxpayers' money being used this way? Nothing. In a decade when terrorism has reached the streets of London, New York and Madrid, it is shocking that this “terrorist insurance” has earned a wide stamp of silent diplomatic approval.
No wonder that Palestinian youth see a term in an Israeli prison as highly desirable; free food and board, get an education, save some money, and finally return as a hero with a promised job at the end. All this at the expense of the Israeli and Western taxpayer. And with the support of European politicos.
The poetic license of a partisan journalist? Even the Palestinian media admits it. The Ma'an News Agency reported on February 22, 2006 a new phenomenon among Palestinian youth. Adolescents, as young as 14, head for Israeli military posts, pretending to be terrorists. They want to be arrested and pursue a better future, starting in an Israeli prison.
As eyewitnesses described, the tactics are primitive and effective. Groups of boys carry knives or homemade explosives, which they then deliberately allow to be sighted by Israeli security personnel. When challenged, they throw down the weapons and turn themselves in. Sometimes the charade is repeated on successive days in the same place. In the Bethlehem area alone, as many as 40 minors were arrested in three weeks, all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.
Allowing kids to be caught and taught is innovative. However, given the huge sums Europe pours into the Palestinian Authority, there must be better ways to get teenagers with initiative off the streets and into society. Of more serious concern is the lesson to the highly impressionable Palestinian youth about the acceptability of terrorism taught by this policy.
The “social benefits” awarded to convicted terrorists are only one small element of a larger budgetary issue. The London based Funding for Peace Coalition has meticulously documented how internationally funded donations have been continually and consistently directed to paying terrorist salaries. Its reports show that when public pressure forced Europe to demand Al-Aksa terrorists be taken off the “cash payroll”, PA Prime Minister Qurei and President Abbas nevertheless promised to return them to the official books, as soon as feasible.
European silence allowed this to happen. The prisoner support payments together with the salaries given to thousands of Al-Aksa and other terrorists on the payroll have blown the PA budget out of control. In fact, the International Monetary Fund reported that the PA Ministry of Finance had identified eight to ten thousand non-performing security personnel on the September 2005 payroll.
Today, the international media is scrambling to blame Israel and the West's rejection of Hamas for the PA's current financial crisis. The real truth was stated by the World Bank, as far back as November 2005. “The PA has created a serious fiscal crisis for itself...”
Regional stability does not rely solely on Western democracies funding the PA expense budget. Neither are Israeli concessions an answer on their own. The Palestinians must provide responsible and accountable governance. Otherwise, as the World Bank says, the prognosis is simple: “Money won't fix things here.”
The author is a business consultant, corporate executive and writer who frequently comments on the Middle East.