September 12, 2017 | The Wall Street Journal
How Do Palestinians Define ‘Terrorism’?
The Taylor Force Act is gathering momentum in Congress. Named for a West Point graduate who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian during a 2016 trip to Israel, the bill would cut American aid to the Palestinian Authority until it takes “credible steps to end acts of violence” and stops paying stipends to convicted terrorists. The legislation recently passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with rare bipartisan support, and last week Sen. Lindsey Graham attached it to the 2018 Foreign Operations budget, all but guaranteeing it will go into effect next year.
That means the clock is now ticking for the Palestinian Authority, which receives around $350 million from the U.S. each year. The Taylor Force Act wouldn’t block humanitarian or security aid, meaning U.S. funds wouldn’t be zeroed out, but our sources say the total could fall as low as $120 million, depending on how far Congress and the Trump administration want to go. At the same time the PA’s support from other donors is dropping, putting further strain already on the government in Ramallah.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his coterie say they cannot roll back the practice of paying convicted terrorists, which dates to 1964. They say failing to pay the salaries—estimated at around $350 million a year—would create an opening for the terror group Hamas or even Iran. They further argue that pulling the funding would deprive thousands of families of their livelihoods, which could spark protests and threaten the Palestinian Authority’s rule.
Congress will rightly reject these arguments. The PA’s obstinacy is the reason the Taylor Force Act is so close to becoming law. Lawmakers and the White House signaled for months that a cutoff was coming, yet Mr. Abbas refused to take action.
There is one step Mr. Abbas could take to demonstrate that he is taking Congress seriously: He could issue a definition of terrorism to his own people. Remarkably, the Palestinian Authority’s “Basic Law” does not mention terrorism. The State Department says that although the PA has criminalized acts of terror, it lacks legislation “specifically tailored to counterterrorism.”
The PA’s security forces do regularly raid terror cells and detain operatives across the West Bank. In late July, for example, they nabbed Hamas members in four major cities. But the PA typically justifies such actions under presidential decrees, such as one that prohibits “harming public security.”
In the past, PA forces also had claimed jurisdiction under a combination of legal parameters, including the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Revolutionary Penal Code of 1979 and a set of Jordanian military codes. But since Mr. Abbas’s election in 2005, and especially after the 2006 elections and the devastating 2007 civil war with Hamas, he has governed almost exclusively by executive decree.
A law passed by the PA’s parliament that defines and criminalizes terrorism would carry greater weight and almost certainly garner more respect from the Palestinian people. But internecine conflict has rendered the parliament defunct, making a new law all but impossible to pass.
Mr. Abbas’s decrees provide the Palestinian security forces with a broad mandate for arresting terror operatives who plot attacks against Israel or the PA. Mr. Abbas issued an order in 2007 that states “all armed militias and military formations . . . are banned in all their forms.” At times, he has condemned acts of terror, such as last month after three Arab-Israelis killed two police officers in Jerusalem. The PA’s news agency reported that Mr. Abbas called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “expressed his strong rejection and condemnation of the incident.”
Yet the PA continues to pay stipends to people convicted of such attacks. The Palestinians could buy considerable goodwill merely by defining what the PA considers terrorism. Setting out such a definition would not change Congress’s demands or prevent the Taylor Force Act from passing. But it would signal the PA is taking steps to address the problem. From there, the PA’s next step would be to cut off money to convicted terrorists, pursuant to its new definition.
The Taylor Force Act’s current language demands that the State Department certify every 180 days that the Palestinian Authority is “taking credible and verifiable steps to end acts of violence against Israeli citizens and United States citizens.” Defining terrorism would be a credible and verifiable step, even if a limited one.
If Mr. Abbas were to do this, the world would closely watch his next move. If Palestinian leaders continued to condemn American lawmakers for considering cuts to aid, and if the PA kept paying prisoners convicted of terrorism, then the exercise would mean little. Congress would have every right to withhold funds, and the Taylor Force Act could be merely the beginning. But if Mr. Abbas truly wants to take an alternative path, defining terrorism would be a start.
Jonathan Schanzer is a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Grant Rumley is a research fellow. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer. Follow Grant on Twitter @GrantRumley.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.