A Hamas-affiliated news site reported Sunday that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was considering dissolving the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs, amid mounting pressure on the PA by Israel and the United States to suspend the controversial “martyrs” compensation program that provides financial allowances to Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and their families.
Al-Resalah, a Gaza-based news site affiliated to Hamas -- the Gaza Strip’s de facto ruling party and a rival of the Fatah-led PA -- cited "trustworthy" Palestinian sources as saying that the Palestinian president was officially considering dissolving the committee and "merging it with one of the main branches or offices of the occupied West Bank-based Interior Ministry.”
As of mid-morning on Monday, hours after the report was published, the website of al-Resalah could not be accessed at the agency offices in Bethlehem in the West Bank, though the site could be accessed through a VPN.
The PA recently blocked 11 Palestinian news websites -- all allegedly affiliated with either the Hamas movement or Muhammad Dahlan, a political rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- in the occupied West Bank. A staff member of al-Resalah in Gaza told the agency via telephone that they were looking into the matter to confirm if the website had in fact been blocked, or if it was dealing with an unrelated technical issue.
The report had said that “President Abbas did not oppose the plans of (Prime Minister Rami) Hamdallah’s government to dissolve the Prisoners' Affairs Committee," quoting anonymous sources that said they "expect the decision was made in agreement with the US administration as a goodwill gestures by the PA to American political interests in the region."
The sources also speculated that the decision to dissolve the committee was part of ongoing PA efforts to revive the decades old Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The Palestinian government will officially announce that the decision to dissolve the Committee of Prisoners' Affairs resulted from the financial crisis, but the reality is very different, given the pressures on the PA to agree to start a new round of (peace) negotiations without preconditions," the Palestinian sources told al-Resalah.
Head of the Prisoners’ Affairs Committee Issa Qaraqe reacted to the report and said he has not been notified about any such plans to dissolve the committee. "We have not been notified that the president or other members of the (Palestinian) leadership are considering freezing the Committee of Prisoners' Affairs," Qaraqe told the agency via telephone Sunday evening, without providing further details.
The report came days after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the PA had informed him that it had agreed to stop the “martyrs” compensation program, though he later backtracked on the statements after they were refuted by both Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Qaraqe, the committee chief, said Tillerson’s remarks were false and represented “an aggression against the Palestinian people. Qaraqe told Israeli news site Haaretz that no such decision could ever possibly be made, since it would spell the end of the PA with the Palestinian public.
"Almost every other household among the Palestinian people is the family of a prisoner or martyr," Qaraqe said. "Anybody who thinks he can execute a decision like that is badly wrong."
Meanwhile, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has advanced a bill that would see the Israeli government cease to transfer an estimated 1 billion shekels ($280 million) per year to the PA over the program, which provides financial allowances to Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and their families, those injured by Israeli forces, and families of Palestinian "martyrs" -- those killed by Israeli forces, whether during attacks against Israelis or in situations in which they were void of wrongdoing.
The social program, which began in 1966, has been the target of criticism in Israel for years. While the bulk of the program from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was shifted to the PA following the Oslo Peace Accords in 1998, following criticism by the US and the passing of legislation aimed at cutting funds to the PA, the payment distribution was then shifted completely back under PLO management in 2014.