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US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf on Wednesday confirmed that the Palestinian Authority continues to make so-called ‘pay-to-slay’ stipend payments to terrorists and the families of terrorists who have killed Americans and Israelis.

Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Biden Administration’s budget requests for the Middle East, Leaf was asked by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) about a report sent to Congress on Friday about Palestinian non-compliance with the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits US funding to the Palestinian Authority so long as it maintains its pay-to-slay program.

“We are working to bring pay-to-slay to an end. Period,” Leaf said. Asked if the administration had succeeded, Leaf replied, “not yet.”

The Palestinian Authority makes official payments to Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, the families of ‘martyrs’ killed in attacks on Israelis, and to injured Palestinian militants. The exact size of the program is disputed, but is estimated to be around $300 million annually, or nearly 10% of the entire Palestinian Authority budget, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think-tank. The payments are higher than the average Palestinian wage, further incentivizing terrorist attacks.

Because the payments scale with the length of incarceration, a terrorist like Hakim Awad, who murdered five Israeli civilians, including three children, can expect to receive nearly $2 million while he serves his 130-year sentence as a reward for his actions from the Palestinian Authority.

The Taylor Force Act was named for a US army veteran, Taylor Force, who was killed in a Palestinian stabbing attack in Tel Aviv in 2016 in which 11 others were also injured. The attacker, 21-year-old Bashar Masalha, was killed by Israeli police, but his family receives a monthly payment from the PA’s Martyr’s Fund. The act prohibits all US aid to the Palestinian Authority so long as the stipend payments continue.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly rejected calls to halt the payments, which are enshrined in Palestinian law.

Cruz in his question said that even as the Biden administration agrees that the Palestinian Liberation Organization is a terrorist group, the administration continues to engage with their leadership.

“You sent a report to Congress that officially certified that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO…have not met the legal requirements for ‘terminating payments for acts of terrorism against Israeli and US citizens,’” Cruz said. “Now publicly, the administration defends engaging with terrorists, you claim things are going well, but when you file a statutorily mandated report with Congress, you admit the PLO is continuing what are called ‘pay-to-slay’ payments. They are paying for terrorists to murder Americans and to murder Israelis. And nonetheless, this administration is bringing those terrorist leaders to Washington, is bringing them to cocktail parties to wine and dine political leaders.”

While Leaf confirmed the failure of the administration to end the pay-to-slay program, she denied that the $150 million in US aid given to the Palestinians in the past year benefitted the Palestinian Authority or the PLO.

“We abhor prisoner payments and we have raised these concerns repeatedly to the Palestinian leadership,” Leaf said. “We are fully compliant with the Taylor Force Act. No money goes to the Palestinian authority.”

Leaf said that the beneficiaries of US aid include “civil society organizations to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable” and that vetting procedures are used to prevent US money from going to terrorist organizations.

Republicans in both the House and Senate have previously questioned whether the Biden administration was violating “the spirit, if not the letter” of the Taylor Force Act by providing aid to organizations like the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is not covered by the act but that provide health and education funding that would otherwise have to be footed by the Palestinian Authority.

Leaf said that engagement with the PLO, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Congress, remained important for national security and therefore waived sanctions prohibiting travel by PLO leaders to the US in October.

“We have the authority to waive [those sanctions] in the national interest, so we brought the delegation here to the United States to have discussions,” Leaf said. “That would go to a number of interests that we have, that go to Israel’s security, frankly.”

Leaf was also asked about the prospects of expanding the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states in 2020 and said that diplomatic efforts were underway to bring more countries on board.

“We’re at the starting point in these structures,” Leaf said. “We will identify such opportunities along the way. We have a lot going on in the diplomatic space that isn’t yet visible.”

Asked about expanding the Accords specifically to include Saudi Arabia, Leaf cautioned against believing exaggerated media reports but said that peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia remained a goal of the Biden administration.

“There’s a lot of misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press, a lot of excitable RUMINT, especially in the Israeli press – they’re just electric with the idea that Saudi Arabia might take that step,” she said. “It’s no question that is an end goal for us, that we bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together. We would love to bring the entire region in that direction.”

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