Palestinian Prisoner Payouts: Humane Or Pure Hypocrisy?

The PLO gives monthly allowances to the families of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails. The Israeli and U.S. governments want the practice to stop.

Protests in Ramallah
Protests in Ramallah
Cyrille Louis

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."

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.

"Political suicide"

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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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