RAMALLAH — Muhannas' tough-looking teenage face is just one among the many portraits of men, some young and others not so young, pasted on the walls of the Qalandiya refugee camp. Some of those portrayed are dead — around here, people call them "martyrs." The posters made in their memory represent them either weapon-in-hand or posing in front of the golden dome of the al-Aqsa mosque. Others are rotting away in an Israeli jail, some for a very long time.
Muhannas is one of them. He was seized by Israeli soldiers on Jan. 14, 2004 in the late days of the Second Intifada. Just 16 at the time, he was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment for having fired shots at several Israeli soldiers. For this feat of arms, he's celebrated here as a "freedom fighter."
Each month, his family, like those of dozens of other detainees from this refugee camp in southern Ramallah, receives money from the Palestine Liberation Organization. The sum varies, depending on the time spent behind bars and on the number of children supported by the prisoner. For Muhannas, his family has been given a total of 6,000 shekels (about $1,700). Part of that money is directly transferred to his detention center to cover his needs.
The rest, we're told, helps his parents make ends meet. Palestinians describe these allowances as social benefit aimed at compensating the absence of men of working age. Israeli leaders, meanwhile, have denounced it as "an unacceptable reward granted to perpetrators of acts of terrorism."
Palestinians commemorate mourning a martyr — Photo: Mustafa Bader/ZUMA Wire/ZUMA
It's an old controversy, reignited a few months ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. "How can you speak about peace with Israel and at the same time pay murderers who spill the blood of innocent Israelis?" Netanyahu told Palestinian officials in May, demanding that they stop paying these allowances.
Since then, Washington, which is trying to reopen negotiations between both sides, has joined Israel in its demands. "President Trump raised his concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed terrorist acts, and to their families, and emphasized the need to resolve this issue," reads a White House statement issued May 3, just after Donald Trump's first meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A visit through the winding back alleys of the Qalandiya refugee camp is enough to assess just how sensitive the issue is. Close to 10,000 Palestinians, most of them from families who fled their homes in 1948, are crammed there in patent destitution. The people in charge say that some 270 prisoners and about 80 "martyrs" come from the camp. For a large number of families, the money paid by the Palestine Liberation Organization is the only source of income.
"Nobody has the right to cancel these allowances," Muhannas' father says. He predicts "a general outburst" if Palestinian officials give in to American pressure. "Our prisoners didn't act in their own interest but for the sake of their homeland," he says, his voice rising in anger.
"Yielding to U.S. demands would be political suicide for Mahmoud Abbas," admits Qadura Fares, head of the Prisoners' Club. Fares says that about 40,000 West Bank families receive this aid. "We're not asking the Israelis to stop paying the pensions of air force pilots whose strikes killed Palestinian civilians," he adds. Fares says the Netanyahu government is using the issue to divert attention away from Israel's continuing colonization.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a reserve general who is also a researcher associated with a think tank close to Israel's right-wing parties, disagrees. He says Palestinian leaders are showing duplicity by perpetuating a practice that, in his view, is an "incitement to violence."
Don't you think that I wouldn't prefer it a hundred times having him here next to me rather than getting this money every month?
"In 2016 alone, the Palestinian authorities spent $300 million, 7% of their budget, on the salaries of 'martyrs' and prisoners," he says. "This situation is all the more problematic given that a large share of these resources come from the international community. But most of these donors turn a blind eye, fearing that their calling it into question might eventually radicalize Palestinian society..."
In the modest living room inside Mahannas' family home, where a picture of the young man in a prison uniform takes center stage, his father tells a different story. "Do you really think our children are attacking the occupiers for a few thousand shekels? And don't you think that I wouldn't prefer it a hundred times having him here next to me rather than getting this money every month?"
Mahannas' brother, himself a former prisoner affiliated with the Fatah, adds to the conversation. "The Israelis know very well that President Abbas cannot do what they ask," he says. "The only thing they want is to make him look responsible for the impasse in negotations."
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