Husam Zomlot does not have an easy job. He is the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s representative in Donald Trump’s Washington. And despite Trump’s early promise to seek the ultimate deal to bring peace to the Holy Land, his administration is focused on more pressing matters.
Zomlot’s biggest problem these days is a piece of legislation named for Taylor Force, a former U.S. army officer who was stabbed to death in 2016 when he was in Tel Aviv on tour with his fellow Vanderbilt University graduate students.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, learned that the murderer’s family would be receiving a lifetime stipend as part of a Palestinian program to pay the families of so-called martyrs and inmates in Israeli prisons, he drafted legislation to end U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority until the payments ended.
The bill is now winding its way through the legislative process and, in some form, will likely end up on the president’s desk. While the Trump administration has yet to take a position on it, Zomlot has had the unlucky task of defending the martyr payments to Congress.
In an interview last week, he gave me his argument for why the Palestinian Authority has budgeted more than $300 million for its next fiscal year to pay the families of terrorists and other prisoners. “This is a program that is used for the victims of the occupation,” he said. “It’s a program to give the families a dignified life, they are provided for, so they and their kids can lead a different future.”
He said the money goes to pay for laptop computers and college tuition for children who otherwise would be facing a bleak future, and families who may have their homes razed by the Israelis as punishment for spawning a terrorist.
Zomlot says this gives no incentive for terrorism. Indeed, he assured me that some graduates of “the program” include high-ranking Palestinian security officials that have cooperated with the Israel Defense Forces. (The PLO has administered these martyr payments in some form since 1965.) What’s more, he said, if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t pay the families of prisoners, more radical groups likely will fill the void.
All of this raises an obvious question. If the Palestinian Authority wants to give laptops and college tuition to poor children, why not just do that? Why create a special allowance for only the children and families of Palestinians who kill Jews?
And here Zomlot gets to the heart of the matter. “Many of the U.S. officials and lawmakers judge us as if we are in a post-conflict scenario, as we have to behave like a social welfare state, we are not,” he told me. “This is a conflict situation.”
Indeed it is. One needs no further proof of this than the clashes in the last two weeks over Israeli security measures at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem after three Israeli Arabs launched a shooting spree from the compound that hosts the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Add to this the occupation itself. Palestinians living in the West Bank accused of crimes are given Israeli military trials and almost always convicted. Many of those prisoners have committed ghoulish acts, but many have not, Zomlot said. In this respect, he believes Congress should increase the aid it doles out to the Palestinian Authority, because despite all of this, the Palestinian security forces have helped keep order in the West Bank.
And that is true. But it’s also true that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has in recent years encouraged a resistance to the occupation that is measured in Jewish blood. His Palestinian Authority honors murderers by naming streets and parks after them. When Israel released violent prisoners in 2013 as an inducement to restart peace negotiations, there were official celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank.
Two of those released, the cousins Mohammed and Hosni Sawalha, were arrested as teenagers after they entered a bus and began stabbing commuters. Another releasee was Al-Haaj Othman Amar Mustafa, who along with two other assailants posed for a picture outside of the settlement of Ariel with Frederick Steven Rosenfeld, a U.S. Marine who had emigrated to Israel. They confessed to stabbing Rosenfeld and leaving him for dead.
When these prisoners were released in 2013, Abbas personally met them and kissed them on the cheek. “We congratulate ourselves and our families for our brothers who left the darkness of the prisons for the light of the sun of freedom,” Abbas said at the time.
Abbas probably has to say things like this in order to survive. Palestinians have been celebrating such “martyrs” for decades. To speak honestly about Mustafa and the Sawalhas would be seen as betrayal. But Graham and his supporters are under no such constraints. They see Mustafa and the Sawalhas for what they are: murderers.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.