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Senate Republicans looking to slash aid to Palestinians

A Senate panel will consider a provision to cut US assistance to the Palestinian Authority by the amount the PA pays to prisoners in Israeli jails and their families.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (L) speaks near U.S. Republican Senator John McCain during a news conference at the David Citadel hotel in Jerusalem January 3, 2014.   REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool  (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX170Z3

Republicans in the Senate are preparing to push new restrictions on Palestinian aid that have already cleared the House with bipartisan support.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are seeking to cut US assistance by the amount paid to prisoners in Israeli custody and their families, according to an amendment to the Senate spending bill for State and Foreign Operations obtained by Al-Monitor.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the State and Foreign Operations spending bill on June 19.

The amendment calls for the Department of State to reduce funding to the "West Bank and Gaza by an amount the Secretary determines is equivalent to that expended by the Palestinian Authority in payments to individuals and the families of such individuals that are imprisoned for acts of terrorism or who died committing such acts during the previous calendar year."

The language mirrors language adopted as part of the House Appropriations bill that unanimously cleared the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee on June 17.

That bill also tightens restrictions on funding for a unity government with Hamas by blocking funding for any power-sharing agreement that "results from an agreement with Hamas," unless all the new government's members recognize Israel and reject violence.

"Not only does this bill defer funding for a Palestinian unity government, it reduces any prospective funding for the Palestinian Authority by an amount equivalent to any PA payments provided to Palestinians in prison for acts of terror against Israel and their families," Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said at the June 17 subcommittee mark up. She said Palestinian aid was in "jeopardy" as long as Hamas rejects Israel.

The issue of funding for Palestinian prisoners has been bubbling up for several months, with some pro-Israel groups saying the United States is in effect bankrolling terrorism. A source close to the issue said estimates suggest the new restrictions, if adopted, could shave about $70 million off the $400 million in annual US aid — if the assistance survives at all.

Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told members of the Knesset that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was using US aid to pay stipends to terrorists who murdered American citizens, according to the Jerusalem Post.

“[Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, who whines about the PA’s finances, pays large stipends to prisoners convicted of murder and those who tried to become suicide bombers,” Liberman reportedly said. “The prisoners are given three times as much as Palestinian policemen.”

The PA views the prisoners as political prisoners fighting what they consider Israel's occupation of their land.

The issue came up the month before at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

"If the PA is paying for terrorists in prison, we ought to also be willing to hit them with some economic sanctions of that sort, don't you agree?" Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson, according to a committee transcript.

Patterson did not.

"I think this obviously is a difficult problem, and when they pay the families of people that are in prison and they pay stipends, I would say that is a political prison, and I frankly know that they're going to try and phase that out and we should give them an opportunity to do so," Patterson said. "It is a political issue for the Palestinians, that these people are in jail, they have to provide for the families."

"We can help them phase that out," Weber insisted. "We could give them some encouragement."

"I would be hard-pressed to say which of the programs for the PA we should cut," Patterson answered. "I would be very hard-pressed to say that."

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