(August 7, 2019 / JNS) Amid the strained ties between the Trump administration and Palestinian leadership, some efforts on Capitol Hill have developed to help facilitate aid directly to the Palestinian people. However, concerns remain over whether or not aid money would go directly to the Palestinian Authority, which rewards convicted terrorists and their families, known as "pay to slay."
A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week includes a provision that would amend the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which provides protections for American victims of international terrorism, that caused the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to halt in February its projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that "there was significant cause for concern about a full and total cutoff" of assistance to the Palestinians, especially that which is humanitarian, in addition to not continuing Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation with Jordanian help.
"The real issue is ensuring that none of this trickles back to the Palestinian Authority," he said. "I suppose that the devil is in the details in terms of how the money is dispersed, and ultimately, what assurances are put in place that this does not serve to benefit the P.A., which was the reason for the initial legislation [ATCA] in the first place."
Section 108 of the United States-Israel Cooperation Enhancement and Regional Security Act, introduced by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), would reauthorize resuming the projects in the West Bank and Gaza, even though such a decision would ultimately be left to the Trump administration.
It states, "The Secretary of State, acting through the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, is authorized to seek to establish a program between the United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip to provide for cooperation in the Middle East region by financing and, where appropriate, cooperating in, projects related to innovation and high-tech."
In the past, USAID officials have been adamant that they work within guidelines to provide aid to the right Palestinians groups.
"We do have strict guidelines on who we work with, and that's simply not just what we do, but across the U.S. government," USAID administrator Mark Green told JNS in December.
Without elaborating, he said there "are guidelines that we follow. We follow administration policy."
The move also comes as the Trump administration has been pushing for greater economic investment in the Palestinian economy, jump-started at its economic conference in Bahrain at the end of June, where $50 billion in investment was discussed.
"The Trump administration has a clear interest in helping to bring about a brighter future for the Palestinian people," Security Studies Group senior fellow Matthew Brodsky told JNS. "That was, in large part, the point of the recent 'Peace to Prosperity' workshop in Bahrain," which was the first part of the White House's peace plan.
"Another point they're clear about is that Israel must be secure, so I'd imagine that any legislation related to providing aid to the Palestinian people must ensure that as a minimum," he continued. "That would mean the funds would need to be implemented by responsible parties, and most importantly, the aid must not fall into the wrong hands, which includes terrorists and murderers the P.A. tends to fund for heinous acts of violence, such as the 'pay-to-slay' program." That system led to the United States enacting the Taylor Force Act in March 2018, named after the 28-year-old former U.S. serviceman was stabbed to death in Israel by a Palestinian terrorist, whose family has been rewarded by the P.A.
Other USAID projects in the West Bank and Gaza had dealt with issues related to health, infrastructure and education.
The ATCA subjects foreign governments that receive U.S. funding to American counter-terrorism laws. The P.A. did not want to be held liable as such.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told AFP in January that "we don't want to receive any money if this will take us to court."
Sander Gerber, a New York-based hedge-fund manager who was instrumental in the passage of the Taylor Force Act, which defunded most U.S. assistance to the P.A. for rewarding terrorists and their families, told JNS that there must be a distinction between helping Palestinians as opposed to a corrupt leadership.
"Congress has made a distinction between support for the Palestinian people versus the P.A., which is a leading terror sponsor," he said. "I would hope that the final law includes restrictions so that the monies can't be touched by the P.A."
Separately, a Senate bill introduced by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to strengthen the ATCA—the Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act of 2019—would hold the P.A. accountable in the American judicial system, though it does not deal with the USAID projects.
The bill seeks to be stricter in recognizing Palestinian actions at the United Nations and would be implemented immediately if enacted, while Deutch's legislation would permit until 180 days for implementation before enactment.
Lankford told Jewish Insider that his concern with the House bill is "when it gets applied into real-life situations, I'm not sure it works in the way that's written."
Supporting the spread of Israeli innovation to its neighbors
Nevertheless, several American Jewish organizations do support Deutch's bill in order to spread Israeli technologies and innovation to its regional neighbors, as well as its provision to amend the ATCA.
"With regard to Section 108, Israel is at the cutting edge of many important fields, such as water desalinization, agriculture, disaster relief, high-tech research and development, and all areas of health sciences," said Israeli-American Council for Action executive director Joseph Sabag. "These programs will serve America's interests by providing the broader Middle East region with access to Israeli innovation, which will improve the quality of life for millions and promote cooperation, understanding and peaceful coexistence."
JDCA executive director Halie Soifer told JNS that the act's "passage by unanimous consent underscored the bipartisan nature of U.S. support of Israel in Congress. Regional innovation projects, such as those authorized by this bill in the area of high-tech, also enjoy bipartisan support. Such cooperation was encouraged by the 'Peace to Prosperity' vision outlined by the Trump administration in Bahrain and has the potential of normalizing economic ties between Arab states and Israel."
However, Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes told JNS, "H.R. 1837 includes various U.S. taxpayer subsidies to Israel, but also to Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. So long as those latter areas are ruled by leaders' intent on Israel's elimination, they should not receive American funding."
An AIPAC spokesperson told JNS that the pro-Israel lobby has yet to take a position on Lankford's bill.