Trump Administration Scrambling to Save U.S. Support for Palestinian Security Forces

A recently passed law that gives American courts jurisdiction over any entity that receives financial aid from the U.S. exposes the Palestinian Authority to lawsuits filed over acts of terrorism

Members of the Palestinian security forces patrol during an ongoing operation to arrest wanted Palestinian gunmen in the old town of the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, November 16, 2016.
Majdi Mohammed / AP

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is scrambling to save U.S. support for Palestinian security forces, which is threatened by legislation passed by Congress earlier this year and that President Donald Trump signed into law in October.

The Palestinian Authority’s security forces are coordinating with Israel in the West Bank to thwart terror attacks. This is the main reason why the Trump administration – despite cutting hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Palestinians this year – left in place one kind of financial support: the budget devoted to supporting the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

The PA's forces received tens of millions of dollars from the United States over the summer.

In recent weeks, however, the administration realized that, starting in 2019, American security assistance to the PA could end – not because of a deliberate decision, but as a result of recent legislation that grants American courts jurisdiction with regard to acts of terrorism committed abroad.

The administration is trying to convince members of Congress to amend the law, fearing that if remains unchanged, all U.S. assistance to the PA’s security forces will be terminated in early 2019.

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The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act was born out of a failed lawsuit by American citizens who tried to bankrupt the PA and lead to its collapse by seeking compensation for acts of terrorism that took place during the second intifada, in the first half of the last decade, when the PA was led by Yasser Arafat.

The lawsuit failed after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling stating that American courts do not have jurisdiction to place penalties on the PA. In response, Republican lawmakers pushed through a law that gives American courts jurisdiction over any entity that receives financial aid from the United States.

As Haaretz reported back in October, according to this law, if the PA will accept even a single dollar of U.S. aid starting from next year, it will open itself to the risk of going bankrupt by order of an American court.

The fact that the acts of terrorism mentioned in the lawsuit against the PA took place when it had a different leadership, and at a time when its security forces were not coordinating with Israel but rather fighting against it, is irrelevant under the current legislation.

Now, after signing the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act into law, the Trump administration is trying to amend it. The Associated Press reported on Friday that the administration has sent Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt, a senior army officer who is in charge of U.S. security coordination with Israel and the Palestinians, to brief members of Congress on the matter.

According to the report, the administration seeks to amend the legislation in order to avoid a situation in which the PA will have to reject any kind of U.S. financial assistance for security measures, in order to save itself from a disastrous lawsuit.

Two congressional sources aware of the administration’s efforts told Haaretz over the weekend that the administration failed to realize in real time the potential implications of the legislation.

“Many people were surprised that they didn’t ask for these changes before the legislation passed,” one of the sources explained. “Now it’s going to be hard to get this change in time.”

Congress will adjourn for a three-week break on December 13, giving the administration just under two weeks to try to persuade the lawmakers.

A State Department official told Haaretz: “We will assess future U.S. assistance in the West Bank and Gaza in a global context, with a focus on areas in which we can best advance U.S. national interests and ensure value to the U.S. taxpayer. At this time, no changes have been made to U.S. security assistance to the Palestinian Authority or other ongoing programming.”