The Trump administration remains committed to increasing U.S. taxpayer aid to the Palestinian government despite its ongoing policy of using a portion of these funds to provide monetary aid to terrorists who have carried out attacks on Israel, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, contradicting his earlier statements this week that the Palestinians had reversed its policy of paying terrorists.
Tillerson, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked to explain his remarks earlier this week claiming that the Palestinian government had stopped its longstanding policy of paying terrorists salaries using aid granted by the U.S. government, a claim that was almost immediately rebutted by Palestinian and Israeli officials.
The secretary of state claimed on Tuesday that the Palestinian government had given him assurances that it was no longer providing aid to terrorists and their families, a statement that raised confusion in the region and prompted pushback.
Palestinian officials stated on Wednesday that they have no intent to stop these terror payments. However, the Trump administration still endorses a budget proposal that would increase aid to the Palestinian government by nearly five percent, bringing the total amount of U.S. aid to around $215 million.
The increase in aid to the Palestinians, who continue to sponsor and incite terror attacks on Israel, drew opposition from Democrats and Republicans who criticized Tillerson for seeking to increase this aid while cutting the overall State Department budget by more than 30 percent. This includes a massive funding cut to overseas security for U.S. facilities, a move that has prompted security concerns.
The Palestinian Authority has "not complied with their commitments under U.S. law, yet all potential sanctions were waived," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) said during the hearing. "How can you justify and increase [the aid], when so many things in the budget were cut, but the PA has an increase in your budget request."
Tillerson mostly dodged the question, telling Ros-Lehtinen that the Trump administration remains focused on restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians
"We're in active discussion with the Palestinian Authority," Tillerson said. "These discussions are around issues of how they manage terrorism and how they manage violence in the West Bank and Gaza but it's also hopefully setting the stage for a reengagement in the peace process with the Israelis."
Tillerson was challenged by Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) to explain his Tuesday remarks claiming that the Palestinians had ceased their payments to terrorists.
Tillerson said he was given assurances by senior Palestinian during his recent trip to the Middle East.
"Those were assurances that were given to me in the most recent trip to Bethlehem," he said. "We've had conversations with them and told them they cannot continue these types of payments and expect the U.S. and American people to see any explanation for why they do that."
"They have indicated they would" stop these payments, Tillerson added. "They indicated to me they were in the process of changing that."
Asked to clarify Tillerson's remarks, a State Department official appeared to walk back his earlier statement, telling the Free Beacon that the Palestinian government is still "looking at ways to address the issue."
"We have repeatedly raised our concerns about payments to prisoners and martyrs with the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas, and we understand that they are looking at ways to address this issue," the official said. "We were pleased to see last month that some payments were stopped to Hamas-affiliated prisoners, and we will continue to have this dialogue with the Palestinians. We want to see further steps taken on this issue."
Palestinian officials told Tillerson "they have to support widows and orphans. I said, 'Widows and orphans is one thing. Attaching payments as recognition of violence or murder is something the American people could never accept or understand.'"
Palestinian officials were quick to contradict Tillerson on the issue, telling news outlets that the payments would never be fully halted.
"There have been talks about making the payments in a different way, but not ending them," one Palestinian official was quoted as telling Reuters. "They could perhaps be labeled differently," but they "are not going to be stopped."
One former Israeli official told the Free Beacon that, contrary to Tillerson's initial claim, there is no evidence the Palestinians have ceased these payments.
"Regarding the reported commitment of the Palestinians to change their policy and to stop the payments, there is no confirmation to this intention," said the source, who would only speak on background. "As a matter of fact, Palestinian officials [...] clarified yesterday that the policy is not going to change. I would advise everybody to be very suspicious of any such promise coming from thee Palestinians."
Congress is currently considering legislation, dubbed the Taylor Force Act, that would cease all U.S. aid to the Palestinian government until it can certify these payments have stopped.
Lawmakers further pressed Tillerson to address concerns that international inspectors affiliated with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, have been unable to certify that Iran has ceased all nuclear weapons work.
While the Trump administration has continued to fulfill U.S. commitments under the landmark nuclear deal, it remains unclear if Iran is upholding its end of the deal, despite recent certifications from the State Department that relied on third party reporting.
"We rely upon the process called for under the" nuclear agreement, Tillerson said. "We did question that vigorously and are in discussions with [the IAEA] to ensure that they [Iran] are meeting all those obligations to certify compliance to us."
Lawmakers have become increasingly concerned that Iran is hiding some of its nuclear work from international inspectors, particularly work on advanced nuclear centrifuges that may violate the deal.
Update 12:50 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect comment from the State Department.