A Palestinian Authority (PA) court in Ramallah has sentenced a U.S. citizen to life in prison with hard labor today for the crime of selling property to Jews, a capital offense in the PA.
Issam Akel, 53, a U.S. citizen and a holder of an Israeli national identity card, was abducted by PA intelligence on October 11 in Ramallah. According to Reuters, the PA court’s media office said Akel was convicted of “attempting to sever parts of Palestinian land and annex it to a foreign state,” namely Israel.
“In light of the conviction, the court handed down a life sentence with hard labor,” the court ruled.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Akel is accused of receiving a $25,000 commission for the sale of a Palestinian widow’s home to Ateret Cohanim, an Israeli group that has been purchasing properties in East Jerusalem and the Old City. Akel, who lives in Jerusalem, had previously worked for the PA.
U.S Ambassador David M. Friedman called for Akel’s release last month:
The Pal Authority has been holding US citizen Isaam Akel in prison for ~2 months. His suspected “crime”? Selling land to a Jew. Akel’s incarceration is antithetical to the values of the US & to all who advocate the cause of peaceful coexistence. We demand his immediate release.
— David M. Friedman (@USAmbIsrael) November 28, 2018
An official with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said the embassy was aware of the PA court’s verdict, and was providing consular services to Akel.
In response to Akel’s abduction, a number of PA officials were arrested last month by the Israeli government. Included in these arrests was Adnan Geith, the governor of the Jerusalem District of the Palestinian Authority, whom Israeli authorities believe was directly involved in Akel’s abduction.
The PA’s Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Adnan Husseini, who has advocated for Akel’s continued detention, has been banned from foreign travel. Husseini has been accused of targeting Palestinians for selling property to Israelis.
Following Akel’s abduction in October, the PA’s religious council issued a fatwa ruling that Palestinians selling property to non-Muslims would be considered an act of “high treason,” adding that such sales are “a great betrayal of religion, the homeland, and morals.”
PA laws prohibit any sales of property to any Israeli person or corporation.
Earlier this month, a Palestinian man who was accused of selling property to Jews was gunned down in his West Bank town. Ahmed Salama, a resident of Jaljulia who was wanted by the PA for alleged property sales, was murdered near his home on December 7:
אחמד סלאמה בשנות ה 50 לחייו הוא האיש שנורה למוות בכפר ג'לג'וליה במשולש הדרומי.مقتل أحمد سلامة في الخمسينات من عمره جراء تعرضه لاطلاق النار في قرية جلجولية بالمثلث الجنوبي pic.twitter.com/4HVsh8MAMe
— sami abed alhamed سامي عبد الحميد (@samiaah10) December 7, 2018
Israeli prosecutors filed charges against a far left-wing activist in July for working with PA security services, alleging he was helping them track property sales to Jewish organizations, thereby endangering the lives of the sellers.
President Donald Trump is reportedly looking into Akel’s abduction after a letter from his wife was delivered by New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind during the White House Hanukkah service earlier this month:
I've delivered an emotional letter to @realDonaldTrump from the wife of Issam Akel, a US citizen held & tortured by the Palestinian Authority. The President told me he's looking into the situation. The US defends its citizens.https://t.co/m1krJ2LYdE pic.twitter.com/tUHyIioBvc
— Dov Hikind (@HikindDov) December 9, 2018
This year, the Trump administration has substantially reduced U.S. financial support to the PA. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, support has been cut in the following areas:
- Reprogramming $231.532 million of FY2017 bilateral economic assistance that was originally intended for the West Bank and Gaza (including $25 million for East Jerusalem hospitals) for other purposes.
- Ending U.S. humanitarian contributions to UNRWA. U.S. funding in FY2018 totaled $65 million, contrasted with $359.3 million in FY2017.
- Deciding to prevent Palestinians from participating in a Conflict Management and Mitigation program (CMM) funded by USAID and the U.S. embassy in Israel. Programs involving Israelis and Palestinians generally receive $10 million annually.
- Nonlethal U.S. security assistance for the PA security forces has continued, as has PA security coordination with Israel, but a majority of Palestinians support recent PLO recommendations to end the coordination.
In March, President Trump signed into law the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits U.S. aid as long as the PA continues to pay stipends to Palestinian terrorists and their families. The law was named for Vanderbilt student and West Point graduate Taylor Force, who was murdered in Tel Aviv in March 2016 by a terrorist from the West Bank whose family then received a pension from the PA for the killing.
Another bill signed into law by President Trump in October, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, creates jurisdiction for U.S. courts to hear cases related to past acts of terrorism by the PLO, the PA, and other U.S. designated terrorist groups against American citizens.
Presumably, further economic restrictions could be imposed against the PA to create more pressure for Issam Akel’s release.