By: Jeremy Havardi, director of B'nai B'rith
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, had numerous issues to discuss with his counterparts while visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week. As always, security would have been high on the agenda. Recent years have seen an alarming rise in the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis with a spate of stabbings, bombings, and shootings reminiscent of the dark years of the Second Intifada. Dozens have been killed, including three British citizens: Lucy, Maia, and Rina Dee. Particularly gallingly, it appears that these attacks may have been incentivised by the Palestinian Authority’s notorious “pay for slay” scheme, officially the Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fund, which begs the question of its seriousness as a partner for peace and suitability for receiving taxpayer-funded British aid money. This would have been a pertinent topic for the foreign secretary to raise.
Under "pay for slay", imprisoned Palestinians convicted of terror offences receive generous monthly stipends, with the families of those killed either carrying out or attempting to carry out attacks also being eligible. More violent attacks attract a higher reward, with payments rising up to $3000 a month, which is significantly higher than average local salaries. It’s effectively equal to the median UK salary. It could be argued that the Palestinian Authority is proactively setting conditions conducive to radicalisation through its financial policies and its violent antisemitic incitement, both of which ultimately lead to terrorist attacks.
The fact that the murder of three British citizens abroad may have been motivated and incentivised by a programme funded by taxpayers is why my organisation, B’nai B’rith UK, joined forces with We Believe in Israel to establish whether or not this was the case. In May 2023, we submitted a freedom of information request to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office where we asked for copies of documents which audited British aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as what the auditors’ terms of reference were. This request was initially unlawfully ignored, and the FCDO only replied to us to refuse it following an intervention by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The FCDO’s stated reasons for refusal included the presence of personal data, and how disclosure risked prejudicing the British national interest as it “could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Palestine”, and undermine trust and confidence between governments.
Although the FCDO eventually agreed that the presence of personal data was not a strong enough reason to prevent disclosure, it wrote to us on 4th August 2023 where they stated: “It remains the view of this department that disclosure of the information requested would damage the United Kingdom’s bilateral relationship with the Palestinian Authority…the damage that this would cause to the UK’s ability to conduct foreign relations outweighs any public interest in disclosure…it is the view of this department that the information requested would constitute a breach of confidence were it to be disclosed.” If the provision of aid was innocent and in no way implicated the UK government in the PA’s own nefarious activities, it is hard to see how bilateral relations would be affected. In short, the FCDO are acting awfully like they have something embarrassing to hide.
Most interestingly, there is strong direct precedent suggesting that the FCDO should have provided our organisations with the information we requested. In 2018, UK Lawyers for Israel submitted an FOI request to the Department for International Development which was functionally identical to the one we sent to the FCDO. DFID fought against providing this disclosure tooth and nail, arguing very similar reasons then to the ones the FCDO is now calling upon. Crucially, though, the Information Commissioner ruled that the PA “is not a territory within another state…[and that] the Commissioner also agrees that the PA is not a state in its own right”. Quite clearly, this negates the international relations exemptions the FCDO are relying on to avoid disclosing the information we have requested.
It is of vital importance that the British public are able to understand how their taxes are being spent, especially on foreign aid during the current cost of living crisis. The manner in which FCDO civil servants are fighting against being subjected to basic scrutiny is truly shocking, and a matter which should be of concern to all. Right now, it looks a lot like they are trying to hide something embarrassing. Only time and a possible ICO intervention will tell.