on the hill

Congress examines paths for ending Palestinian Authority’s ‘pay for slay’

A panel of expert witnesses testified on ways to address the PA’s support for terrorists, with a Palestinian social safety net proposal appearing to be a consensus approach

Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the general debate of the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 21, 2023 in New York City.

A House subcommittee considered proposals on Wednesday to address and end the Palestinian Authority’s payments to the families of terrorists, known as the “pay for slay” program.

In response to these “martyr payments,” the U.S. implemented the Taylor Force Act, which bars direct U.S. assistance to the PA as long as the payments continue. Among a panel of three expert witnesses before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia subcommittee, a proposal to implement a more broad needs-based social welfare program to replace the terror payments appeared to have consensus support.

“Israelis and others who are very familiar with this dynamic, they suggest the implementation of a social security program that would begin to provide a safety net for all destitute Palestinian people who are in need, and cut [pay for slay] entirely,” Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “You could have people who are in jail, or the families of those who are in jail, receiving the same amounts as any other family in the West Bank. That would, I think, be an equalizer, if you will.”

Schanzer said that Israel supports such a proposal, and that the administration could press Saudi Arabia to help fund it, regardless of the outcome of the current normalization talks.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security advisor under President George W. Bush who earlier this year was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, argued that pay for slay sends the message to the Palestinian people that “terrorists should be honored and rewarded.”

“It would be reasonable, I think, for the PA to say, for example, that, ‘Whatever the crime was committed, the criminal’s family, children should not suffer,’” Abrams said. “They could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children — one example. And they have steadfastly refused to do that, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.”

Michael Koplow, the chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, said that “the burden must be on Palestinian leadership to demonstrate compliance” with the Taylor Force Act, including potentially “moving to a needs-based system.”

In addition to the safety net proposal, Schanzer laid out a multipart plan for addressing West Bank terrorism, including amending the Taylor Force Act to ban payments indirectly benefiting the Palestinian Authority; ending support to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency; increasing support for the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinians; strengthening military cooperation between Israel and Jordan; enforcing bounty payments for top Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri; passing legislation cracking down on international support for Hamas; and ending sanctions relief to Iran.

Koplow seconded Schanzer’s call for increased support for the security coordinator and said the U.S. should also urge Israel to limit settlement growth and dismantle West Bank outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. 

He added that the U.S. should leverage the Abraham Accords to “incentivize the PA to institute necessary reforms” and “includ[e] Palestinians in the normalization process,” both to protect the agreements from the region’s chronic instability and “incentivize Palestinians to embrace a diplomatic process.”

Abrams said that the U.S. must place more pressure on other international partners to stop payments to the Palestinian Authority — something that is required under the Taylor Force Act but Abrams believes the administration has not been doing.

Lawmakers and some members of the panel accused the administration of looking for ways to circumvent the Taylor Force Act, including in ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia. The administration has reportedly pushed Saudi Arabia to resume payments to the PA as part of those talks.

“They’ve actually been encouraging other countries to raise payments to the PA. It’s absurd,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) said. “This is just another example of the Biden administration neglecting the Taylor Force Act, and instead choosing to bolster the credibility of the antisemitic, anti-Israel and pro-terror PA.”

But Lawler and the witnesses said that Saudi Arabia could be a productive partner in other ways, whether through using Saudi leverage over the Palestinian Authority to pressure it to enact reforms or by directly funding an assistance mechanism for the Palestinian people separate from the PA.

Schanzer also said the State Department’s Palestinian affairs office and coordinator appear to be “day to day… looking for creative workarounds to the Taylor Force Act and its enforcement,” and said that the office should potentially be terminated.

Abrams, responding to new reporting that the administration had provided funding to a group linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, argued that the government needs stricter procedures for vetting aid recipients, claiming that they are not subjected to basic internet searches.

Schanzer added that existing procedures are generally effective for rooting out Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah affiliates, but that the PFLP and its affiliates are often “overlooked.” He said that an investigation into PFLP and other smaller terror groups would “help tighten the noose a little bit on the way that this funding flows.”

The hearing also addressed looming questions about the political future of the West Bank and the PA. The 87-year-old PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has not articulated any clear succession plan. The panelists agreed that maintaining PA control would be preferable for both the U.S. and Israel.

“We are on the precipice of full collapse in not a lot of time,” Schanzer said. “The way to head this off is to force Abbas to clarify the succession process or potentially even have him stand aside.”

He warned that the longer these questions remain active, the more difficult it will be to restabilize the situation and the less likely potential successors to Abbas will be to want to step in.

“If the PA collapses, the two most likely scenarios, in my estimation, are a full Hamas takeover of the West Bank… [or] Israel goes in and reestablishes its presence in large Palestinian cities as was the case before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority,” Koplow said, “which is an outcome that I know the Israelis would like to avoid at nearly any cost.”

Koplow added that the “leadership and institutional vacuum” in the West Bank is fueling terrorism, violence and instability, highlighting the need to “hold them to account” through methods like the Taylor Force Act as well as use other tools to “support the Palestinian institutions and the Palestinian people working for positive change.”

Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), a longtime critic of the two-state solution, pressed the witnesses on the rising popularity of Hamas within the West Bank, declaring that he believes a two-state solution “is dead” and “never made sense.”

“We should be working to optimize the status quo,” Mast said. “Because sometimes things just aren’t going to get better.”

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) argued that assistance to the Palestinians should be tied to the levels of violence in the West Bank, and decreased when levels of violence spike.

The brother of Elan Ganeles, an American citizen killed by a terrorist in the West Bank earlier this year, attended the hearing.

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