(CNSNews.com) – A senior administration official on Tuesday played down the significance of the Palestinian Authority’s payments to thousands of Palestinians jailed in Israel for terrorist offenses, saying it was a “political issue” for the P.A. and voicing reluctance to tie the matter to U.S. funding.
“I frankly know that they’re going to try to phase that out, and we should give them the opportunity to do so,” Assistant Secretary for the Near East Anne Patterson told lawmakers pressing for the U.S. to use its financial leverage to stop the P.A. from paying stipends to terrorists and their families.
Patterson, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan, was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on the administration fiscal year 2015 budget request relating to the region, which includes $440 million for the P.A.
Two issues that came up repeatedly during a hearing were the prisoner stipend payments – which have been going on for years – and P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ latest attempt to form a unity government with the Hamas, the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that ruled the Gaza Strip.
Several members asked Patterson why the U.S. does not make funding to the P.A. contingent on an end to the prisoner payment practice.
“I would be hard pressed – hard pressed to say which of the programs for the Palestinian Authority we should cut,” she said in reply to a question from Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas).
Asked why the U.S. has not acted on this issue up until now, Patterson said, “Because I think, one, that it’s a political issue for the Palestinians – these people are in jail, they have to provide for the families. And again, I think that they plan to phase it out.”
According the Palestinian Media Watch, a non-governmental organization that monitors P.A. media and government publications, the P.A. put laws in place in 2011 providing for monthly salaries to anyone imprisoned in Israel “as a result of his participation in the struggle against the occupation.”
The stipends, which are payable from day of arrest until release, are indexed according to the length of sentence. There are reportedly around 5,000 prisoners benefitting, and more than $100 million was paid out last year.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) noted that “money is fungible, so the P.A. could very well be using our U.S. taxpayer dollars to support these convicted terrorists and their families.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) told Patterson he proposed that all aid to the P.A. be cut until it removes from its statute books the resolutions providing for payments to the prisoners.
“If we just said, you know, fine, we’re stopping all aid until you remove those resolutions that say we pay these people,” he said.
“I think, I think fundamentally the support for the Palestinian Authority is in our interests,” Patterson replied, and went on to talk about work being done by the P.A. security forces.
‘Throw out the baby with the bath water’
During the hearing, Patterson reaffirmed that U.S. funding to the P.A. would be cut if Hamas was brought into the government without abandoning its long-held refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
“Let me be utterly clear about our policy towards Hamas,” she said. “No U.S. governmental money will go into any government that includes Hamas until Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions – and that’s renouncing violence, recognizing previous agreements and most explicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist.”
But Patterson also expressed doubt the unity move would go anywhere, saying six previous reconciliation deals between Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas had not borne fruit.
“This is the seventh unity discussion and announcement and chit-chat since 2011, and we’ve got to see what evolves here.”
Ranking member Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) wanted to know why the administration was not responding with more “outrage” about Abbas’ willingness to “throw in with a terrorist group.”
“Why should any discussion of a unity government with a terrorist group be treated with any less alarm, and concern, and outrage frankly, just because these talks have taken place in the past and the governments have never formed?” he asked.
Patterson suggested that Abbas was only considering reconciling with Hamas in order to weaken it, saying that Abbas and Hamas leaders “hate each other.”
“I wouldn’t want to throw out the entire Palestinian Authority over a discussion with Hamas that historically has not gone anywhere.”
“The Palestinian Authority needs our support,” she added, pointing to the P.A. security forces, which she described as “an enormous success over the past several years.”
“So I take your point and I agree with you but I don’t think we should essentially throw out the baby with the bath water,” she said.