US pressure on the Palestinians must not come at the cost of security

Palestinians, among them Adnan Husseini (3-rd R), the Palestinian Authority-appointed mayor of Jerusalem, participate in protest against the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem May 14, 2018. Banner reads in Arabic "Jerusalem Arab, Palestinian, Islamic and Christian" and "No to the Moving of the American Embassy". (REUTERS/Ammar Awad)

In a December 26, 2018, letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah wrote that his government “no longer wishes to accept any form of assistance” from the United States as a consequence of new legislation—the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA)—that places entities receiving US financial assistance under the jurisdiction of US courts.

Hamdallah’s decision, which will go into effect on January 31, shuts down one of the few remaining avenues of interaction between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

Aid to the Palestinians is a perennial hot potato in Washington. The US government—both directly and indirectly, through agencies like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—has provided many billions of dollars in assistance to the PA since its establishment in 1994. But lawmakers regularly debate the wisdom of the investment, taking legislative action to make payments contingent on various standards of performance. 2018 was a watershed year.

In March 2018, the US Congress passed the Taylor Force Act—named for a West Point graduate who was murdered by a Palestinian assailant while visiting Israel in 2016—which blocks US funds for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (with three exceptions relating to medical services and wastewater projects) unless the PA and its affiliates take “credible steps to end acts of violence” against Israelis and Americans. It also stipulates that the practice of granting compensation for convicted terrorists and their families must be discontinued.

ATCA delivered the coup de grâce. Signed into law in October 2018, it conditions US economic support on the submission of its recipients to the jurisdiction of US courts. Hamdallah’s forfeiture of US aid comes because ATCA now exposes the PA to direct liability in US courts for acts of Palestinian terrorism. It negates the specific argument  through which major terrorism-related judgments against the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have been rejected in the past—i.e., that the due process clause of the US Constitution restricts the purview of federal courts to hear cases against them vis-à-vis terrorist attacks involving US citizens on foreign soil.

These developments are not occurring in a vacuum. Despite plans to release its long-awaited blueprint for Middle East peace, the White House has had almost no contact with the PA since December 2017, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instituted a boycott of US envoys in response to US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In August 2018, the Trump administration froze all US contributions to UNRWA and “redirect[ed] more than $200 million” away from the PA to “high-priority projects elsewhere.”

The conundrum for policymakers is clear. Congress allocates foreign aid to foster prosperity and freedom abroad and aspires to cultivate an environment that is favorable to US objectives. The United States also attends to legitimate humanitarian needs around the world as a matter of principle. In return, the United States demands accountability. It’s one thing to feed the hungry and heal the sick, but US taxpayers—justifiably—do not want their hard-earned income channeled to sponsor acts of terrorism.

In the case of the Palestinians, the United States best be wary of winning a pyrrhic victory. The impulse to defeat terrorism and secure justice for its victims is supremely worthy. (I know this personally, having lost relatives to violence perpetrated by Hamas.) But if choking off US assistance does not enhance security, but rather increases the likelihood of additional casualties, the disadvantages of legislation like ATCA could end up outweighing the benefits.

Since 2005, the US Security Coordinator (USSC), a three-star general, has been on the ground in Jerusalem,  charged to “assist the PA to transform and professionalize its security sector; enable security cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians; and support US and international efforts that set the security conditions for a lasting comprehensive peace agreement.” Israeli defense professionals are first to admit that collaboration with their Palestinian colleagues is vitally important. “The Palestinians also understand that the security coordination is a mutual interest,” then Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said last year, “which is why we work to preserve it.”

With most sources of US aid to the Palestinians already dried up, Hamdallah’s recent renunciation of US support will affect primarily the security partnership that all sides consider a success.

This seems like an instance of unintended consequences where all stakeholders stand to lose. If the PA refuses to collect this cash infusion for its security agencies, its efforts to maintain public order could soon collapse. Whatever hopes the Palestinians may harbor for genuine statehood in the future will become ever more distant once law enforcement grinds to a halt.

A chain reaction will also make Israel’s security predicament more precarious. Without Palestinian counterparts to assist them in fighting terrorist cells—or rescuing Israelis who encounter trouble inside Palestinian territories—Israel’s security services will find that their task to keep Israeli citizens safe has become exceedingly difficult.

This reality doesn’t serve US interests either. Instead of promoting the goal of a functioning Palestinian society, circumstances are now more conducive to chaos. Initiators of ATCA who hoped that their efforts would make Israel (and the United States) more secure might, paradoxically, have facilitated the exact opposite result. And any dreams of regional peace will drift further off toward the horizon.

Congress should take heed of the Hippocratic Oath which commands physicians to “do no harm.” The present situation calls for a more nuanced intervention that wages war on terrorism, but keeps security coordination between Palestinians and Israelis intact.

The Trump administration, which appears to have reached a similar conclusion, dispatched current USSC LTG Eric Wendt to Capitol Hill in December to make this case. Israeli officials, too, are reportedly making the rounds in Washington in search of a solution that will keep US aid flowing to Palestinian security forces. Those holding the purse strings would be wise to hear them out.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Program. Follow him on Twitter: @ShalomLipner