Bashar Masalha lay subdued on a strip of grass along the beachfront promenade of Jaffa, Israel, the ancient Mediterranean port that was swallowed up by the development of Tel Aviv. The injured Masalha was under the gun of an Israeli volunteer police officer. Onlookers cheered the officer on, urging him to shoot Masalha in the head. Seconds later, shots rang out. Masalha was dead. Some bystanders congratulated the officer, but one yelled, “Stop it! He’s lying there neutralized, why shoot for no reason?”
Hailing from the village of Hijja in the northern West Bank, the 22-year-old Masalha would frequently cross into Israel without a permit in search of work opportunities. On March 8, 2016, he carried out a stabbing attack in Jaffa, injuring 10 and killing an American tourist, Taylor Force, before himself being killed by the police officer. The killing would change the course of relations between the United States and the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing body that was established in 1994, as a result of the Oslo Accords, to rule over the occupied Palestinian territories.
Force, 28, was a West Point graduate who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time of his death, he was a first-year student at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Force was visiting Israel as part of a Vanderbilt trip to meet with start-up companies and learn about global entrepreneurship.
Almost two years to the day after Force’s death, President Donald Trump signed the Taylor Force Act into law as part of an omnibus spending bill. The law cuts off all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority until the body stops making payments to political prisoners and the families of those killed by Israeli security forces. Since the bill was first introduced in 2016, the Palestinian compensation program, which ran uncontested for decades, has become a flashpoint in the relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority, as tensions grow between American politicians and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some observers of the Middle Eastern conflict, however, see the new law as another step taken by Israel and its backers to make sure that the Palestinian self-rule government cannot give support to those Palestinians who, in any way, resist occupation and end up in prison for it.
“This decision shows that the U.S. prioritizes its interests and its strategic pact with Israel over human rights,” said Hasan Safadi, the local media officer for Addameer, a rights organization based in the occupied West Bank that supports Palestinian prisoners. “All this law attempts to do is label Palestinians who protect themselves, their lands, and homes as terrorists or criminals.”
In other words, Safadi said, rather than assuming the role of an impartial mediator, the U.S. is stripping Palestinians of their right to resist occupation in any form.
The Palestinian compensation program was first addressed by an act of Congress with the 2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which required the U.S. to withhold aid proportional to an amount it believed the Palestinian Authority was funneling into the compensation scheme. That restriction would expire and would have to be renewed every year.
As a free-standing law, however, the Taylor Force Act applies to all relevant U.S. funding for the Palestinians, not only amounts approved in the current fiscal year. It also impacts funds in the pipeline that were appropriated in previous years. Unlike the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, it doesn’t have to be renewed annually and will remain the law of the land until it’s repealed.
The Taylor Force Act was originally introduced by the pro-Israel stalwart Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in 2016; Force’s parents, Robbi and Stuart Force, live on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and are Graham’s constituents. As a rider to this year’s appropriations act, it received strong bipartisan backing in both houses of Congress, passing 256-167 in the House and 65-32 in the Senate.
“Passage of the Taylor Force Act will serve as a shot across the bow to President Abbas, as he must be held accountable for the Palestinian Authority’s record of incitement and subsidizing of terror,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement shortly before the bill was signed. “It is my hope that by enacting this bill we can put an end to the Palestinian Authority’s disturbing practice all while honoring the memory and sacrifice of Taylor Force.”
“This is the sort of thing where either you get behind it, or you hemorrhage political capital over it.”
In the amendments process, some humanitarian exceptions were included, such as payments made to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network; assistance for wastewater projects, capped at $5 million per fiscal year; and programs that provide vaccinations to children, not exceeding a half-million dollars in any one fiscal year. Funds supporting the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel will also be unaffected.
“I don’t envy a responsible, thoughtful member of Congress who’s faced with this kind of legislation,” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told The Intercept. She said that tying it to the tragic murder of an American citizen was extremely effective tactic for the bill’s proponents to use: Members of Congress who might have challenged the principle of the bill would have been accused of defending terrorism. “This is the sort of thing where either you get behind it, or you hemorrhage political capital over it.”
According to Friedman, the law is not about money or fighting terror. It’s about rolling back the approach toward Palestinians to the 1980s, before the Madrid negotiations that began the peace process with Israel — “when the word ‘Palestinian,’” said Friedman, “was code for ‘terrorist.’”
The Palestinian payments to prisoners and families of the deceased are rooted in a cultural attachment to the Palestinian national struggle — and the history of the oppression of the occupation.
As of April 2018, there are 6,036 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli detention centers, mostly men, according to Addameer. Their imprisonment affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, said Safadi: “This law is a form of collective punishment on the children who seek to go to school and go on about their lives, as well as the wives of those prisoners who are definitely experiencing increased hardship, with the breadwinner of the family gone.”
“This law is a form of collective punishment on the children who seek to go to school and go on about their lives, as well as the wives of those prisoners.”
Monetary and institutional support for prisoners is anchored in Palestinian law. Over the past several years, subsidies to prisoners, those killed or injured by Israel, and their families have amounted to roughly 7 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s overall budget, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-wing Israeli think tank.
The Palestinian statute that calls for the payments, Law No. 14 on Aid for Prisoners in Israeli Prisons, dates back to 2004. Amended Palestinian Prisoners Law No. 19, also from 2004, guarantees prisoners and their families “a dignified life” by allocating a monthly salary to prisoners and exempting them from payments for services such as health insurance and university tuition. Decree Law No. 1, enacted in 2013, expands on the rights of prisoners and prioritizes them in annual job placements across all the authority’s institutions.
Around the time the two earlier laws were enacted, shortly after the uprising known as the Second Intifada, Israel stopped providing basic needs for Palestinian political prisoners and shifted to a canteen system. According to Safadi, prisoners have since spent their stipend on essentials such as food and clothing in prison. Families of prisoners can barely make ends meet, he said, and are more likely to end up with debt by the time a prisoner is released.
The very cooperation between Israeli authorities and the Palestinian payment system belies some of the objections, said Friedman, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “We have Congress legislating that this money is illegitimate and represents the ill-gotten gains for terrorism,” she said, “and yet you have the Israeli prison system with the canteen actively working with the Palestinian system.”
The funds, in a roundabout way, help Palestinians fund their own oppression by the Israeli state. Safadi said, “By accepting to pay prisoners stipends, the PA helped Israel deny its responsibilities for those prisoners.”
Legally, the Palestinian Authority defines prisoners as “anyone incarcerated in the occupation’s prisons for his participation in the struggle against the occupation.” It doesn’t distinguish between violent and nonviolent resistance, or clearly point out which acts were targeted at civilians.
According to Qaddoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Association, these distinctions are unnecessary, “because the families have no share in the blame. The way we see it, we’re spending money on the family, not the prisoner. What if someone with 10 children decided to kill Trump and was convicted? Will the U.S. government let his family end up in the street? Or are they not entitled to social welfare?”
What makes it difficult to distinguish Palestinian perpetrators who have committed serious offenses from others is not ambiguity in Palestinian law, but the oppressive court system in Israel, according to Mia Swart, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center and research director for the Human Sciences Research Council. Palestinians are often arrested and detained without trial. If they do get a trial, it’s in an Israeli military court under separate justice mechanisms “which are by no means fair,” Swart said. “It’s an incredible double standard.”
The Palestinian Authority has already stopped paying salaries for political prisoners associated with Hamas — the rival to Abbas’s ruling Fatah party — even though those prisoners often find themselves accused of similar acts, according to Swart.
The Taylor Force Act doesn’t discriminate between attackers who purposefully targeted civilians and other Palestinians who receive subsidies.
The high proportion of Palestinians held as political prisoners is an important aspect of the debate, Swart added, because many of them are being loosely associated with certain acts or are arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Taylor Force Act doesn’t discriminate between attackers who purposefully targeted civilians and other Palestinians who receive subsidies, and who might be victims of human rights abuses such as unjust detention. “To say that the Palestinian Authority should turn its back on many of those men who are arrested for not committing any crime whatsoever, I think would be seriously problematic from a human rights perspective,” said Swart.
According to Friedman, the new law is only the beginning. In a late-2017 summary of the proposed law, Friedman wrote, “It will open the door for calls for the U.S. to apply anti-terror laws to the PA – likely the real objective of many of those who pushed this issue from the start.”
Supporters of the Taylor Force Act argue that Palestinians carry out “acts of terror” because the Palestinian Authority promises material gains to attackers and their families. But the family of Bashar Masalha, the Palestinian who killed Taylor Force, seems to be experiencing more burden than benefit.
“I told my children, we were struck by fire and we must endure the heat,” said Mohammad Masalha, Bashar’s father. “What Bashar brought upon us is a scorching fire.”
“I told my children, we were struck by fire and we must endure the heat. What Bashar brought upon us is a scorching fire.”
After Masalha’s attack in 2016, Israel demolished the family’s home. According to Mohammad Masalha, the Palestinian Authority has subjected the family to humiliation and residents of the village started distancing themselves from the family.
In 2017, the Palestinian intelligence services accused Mohammad Masalha’s eldest son, Alaa, of joining and accepting payments from Hamas. “But we haven’t taken a single shekel, not from Hamas and not from Fatah,” said Mohammad Masalha.
In January, Palestinian security forces came knocking at Alaa’s door again, accusing him of wanting to sell land to Jewish settlers, which is a criminal offense under Palestinian Authority statutes. Alaa has been in administrative detention since, held without charge.
His detention has been particularly hard on the family, said Mohammad Masalha, because Alaa was the person looking out for them since Bashar Masalha’s attack. A lawyer by trade, Alaa put a roof over their heads after Israel demolished their house.
“Instead of standing by us and supporting us, the Authority is holding us accountable,” Mohammad Masalha said. “It’s using us to make a point and say, ‘Look at how things turned out for the martyr’s family.’”