A bank in the West Bank recently told Palestinians released from Israeli prisons and their families they would have to close the accounts where the Palestinian Authority deposits their monthly stipends.
The notices were sent due to a new Israeli regulation recently implemented that states that anyone “dealing in assets” for the purpose of abetting, promoting, funding or rewarding acts of terror can be sentenced to up to seven years in jail.
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Following the announcemet, the Cairo Amman Bank's branch in Jenin was shot at Thursday overnight, causing damage to the building. Molotov cocktails were also thrown at its branch in Jericho.
Under this new rule, liability for the funds the PA transfers to prisoners and their families falls not just on the recipients, but on the banks that receive them and their employees. It also allows Israel to confiscate the stipends deposited into these accounts.
To date, Israel has never taken action against a bank because Palestinians convicted in Israel of terror-related offences have accounts there. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett recently signed his first order confiscating money transferred by the PA to Israeli citizens in a similar situation, but that order targeted the account owners, not the banks.
Shortly before the regulation came into effect, the founder of Palestinian Media Watch, Itamar Marcus, and one of his employees, Maurice Hirsch, a former chief military prosecutor in the West Bank, sent letters to every bank operating in the West Bank warning of the possible consequences of continuing to handle these stipends.
Hirsch and Marcus contend that if banks continue holding the accounts of Palestinians convicted by Israel of terrorism, they and their employees would become partners in a crime, and the families of victims would be able to sue them for damages.
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Hirsch told Haaretz that Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli NGO which presents itself as a media watchdog, is also trying to persuade governments worldwide not to provide financial aid to the PA as long as it continues paying 'terrorists.'
A released prisoner from Bethlehem said he tried to withdraw money from his account at the Cairo Amman Bank after his stipend was paid on Tuesday, but was told that he couldn’t.
“I contacted the branch,” he said. “For some reason, they asked me to find another bank and transfer the account, and said that next month I wouldn’t be able to receive the stipend at this bank. I don’t know why.”
Other released prisoners received similar notices. Qadura Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, said he has received many such complaints.
Fares said closing the accounts is a far-reaching step that will hurt thousands of Palestinian families. “According to our records, there are 11,000 stipend recipients who get several thousand shekels a month,” he said. “This draconian step will be a death sentence for many families for which this stipend is the only economic lifeline.”
He also charged that closing the accounts smacked of vengeance. “A freed prisoner has already served his sentence, even according to Israel’s laws and justice system,” he said. “So why does it need to prevent him from receiving a stipend?”
Fares said he feared other banks would take similar steps under Israeli pressure, and the Palestinian Authority has a responsibility to prevent this. “Ostensibly, there is an independent banking and financial system, but suddenly, it turns out that a letter from an Israeli official or general can exert pressure on the banks. This necessitates an appropriate response.”
Of the PA’s 13 banks, seven are Palestinian-owned. Five, including the Cairo Amman Bank, are Jordanian, and one is Egyptian.
In its official response to the new policy, the Palestinian Authority announced it would establish a special committee chaired by the Palestinian Finance Authority director, and which would include representatives of the prisoners and of the banks, to study what he defined as Israeli threats to the banks and to prisoners’ families.
“The Palestinian government is firmly rejecting Israel’s pressures and will remain loyal to its prisoners and their families, and will maintain their rights despite Israeli pressures, emphasizing that the solution lies in a comprehensive solution for all banks,” said government spokesperson Ibrahim Melhem.