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By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Scores of former Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel and living in the Gaza Strip said on Sunday their stipends from the Western-backed Palestinian Authority have been suspended in an apparent bid to appease Israel and the United States.
A spokesman for Palestinian prisoners said that 277 freed prisoners in the Gaza Strip, most of whom are aligned with the Islamist Hamas group that runs the coastal enclave, were surprised to find their May stipends had not been paid.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians, who view prisoners as national heroes, stop paying stipends to them and their families, and U.S. lawmakers have warned that Palestinian funding could be cut off unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas halts the practice.
Israel says the payments are a reward and encouragement for the prisoners' actions against it but the Palestinians say they are welfare payments to support them and their families.
Some 6,500 Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli jails, many of whom were convicted of attacks or planning attacks against Israelis.
Zaid Al-Kilani, a former prisoner from Hamas who was serving a life sentence before he was freed in a prisoner swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 said:
"Abu Mazen (Abbas) is punishing freed prisoners by suspending the salaries they and their families rely on...We believe the Palestinian Authority has succumbed to American and Israeli pressure," he said.
Palestinian Authority officials were not available for comment but the move may also be an attempt by Abbas to force reconciliation between the Fatah movement, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Hamas, which controls Gaza.
Several attempts at reconciliation, most recently in 2014, have failed to produce a power-sharing government for the West Bank and Gaza.
In April, the Palestinian Authority said it would no longer fund electricity that Israel supplies to the Gaza Strip and it has slashed the salaries of its 60,000 civil servants in Gaza - but not the West Bank - by 30 percent, offering no explanation other than a lack of foreign aid money.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Writing by Ori Lewis)