The United States of Sanctions
The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion
At some point soon, the current military conflict between Israel and Hamas will end. But the ramifications of this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation—Israeli military strikes in Gaza, Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities, and rising intercommunal violence between Arabs and Jews—will be long-lasting and profound. Above all, it will reinforce the sense among Israelis, Palestinians, and most of the international community that the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict has come to an end for the foreseeable future.
The conflict that began in early May was not planned. It was the culmination of various small but important steps that, while linked, did not make violence inevitable. Yet a combination of domestic Israeli and Palestinian political dynamics, international failures, and worsening relations between the two sides created the right conditions for bloodshed.
Yet whatever its accidental quality, the latest round of violence will have enduring consequences. Hamas will emerge from the conflict stronger and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president weaker. Violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews will eventually abate, but Arab perceptions of systemic discrimination will grow—as will a belief that a search for equality within Israel is inherently futile. Jerusalem’s symbolic role will also expand, deepening the conflict’s religious dimensions. Among many Israelis and Palestinians, these developments mark the return to an older phase of the conflict. The last two weeks have reinforced a belief that their relationship is again existential and zero-sum, that diplomacy to resolve the conflict is futile and violence inevitable.
The current confrontation is unfolding across four theaters. The Gaza-Israeli military bombardment has destroyed civilian infrastructure and killed more than 200 Palestinians, 30 percent of them children, and ten Israelis. Ethnonational tensions within Israel have sparked unprecedented intercommunal riots and violence between Arabs and Jews. Palestinians and Israeli police, extreme Jewish nationalist-religious groups, and settlers are in a standoff in East Jerusalem over access to Muslim holy places and the planned evictions of Arab families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. And in the West Bank, tensions are high after Israeli forces killed four Palestinian demonstrators and injured dozens more on May 18, a day of protest that engulfed major Palestinian cities. Nonetheless, tensions there remain contained by joint PA and Israeli efforts.
These dynamics have been building since Israel invaded Gaza in 2014. That war marked the end of any real hope of striking a deal to end the conflict, as then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had been working to do. After 2014, relations between both sides worsened and the prospect of a two-state solution gradually diminished.
With the realization that a peaceful outcome was impossible in the short to medium term, the Israeli right began to assert itself—especially after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016. Trump’s policies emboldened many Israeli conservatives and cleared the way for extreme anti-Palestinian policies. Israeli settlers began expanding into new areas of the West Bank, and Israel began routinely confiscating Palestinian land and demolishing homes along the way. By 2019–20, many Israelis had begun to demand the annexation of wide swaths of new territory without granting equal rights to Palestinian citizens. Adding insult to injury, several Arab states also began to normalize relations with Israel, eventually concluding the so-called Abraham Accords in 2020. As Arab states’ solidarity with the Palestinian cause receded, Palestinians themselves felt increasingly abandoned.
The latest round of violence will have enduring consequences.
These pressures were particularly apparent in Jerusalem. After Washington’s 2017 recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, Israel increased the pace of illegal annexation and stepped up its efforts to change the status quo in the Old City’s holy places. Israeli police restricted Palestinian access to the al Aqsa compound, attempted to silence the call for prayer, and began granting access to larger numbers of Jewish Israelis. Authorities also moved to evict Arab East Jerusalemites from their homes and began to assert a more dominant Jewish nationalist-religious agenda throughout the city.
Inside Israel itself, the emboldened right wing also took steps to marginalize Israeli Arab citizens. Many among this latter group saw the 2018 so-called nation-state bill—which declares Israel the historic homeland of the Jewish people, establishes Hebrew as the only official language, and asserts that Jewish settlements are a “national value”—as yet another means of discriminating against Israeli Arabs to the benefit of Israeli Jews. Two years later, an amendment that would have added equality for minorities to the law, reducing the chance that it might be used to legitimize legal discrimination against Israeli Arabs, was voted down in the Knesset—Israel’s parliament. Right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also routinely incite hatred and fear against Israeli Arabs and their representatives in the Knesset. A dramatic rise in crime rates in Arab communities, moreover, compounds already existing socioeconomic problems.
Palestinian politics has been plagued by its own series of setbacks. Over the past several years, the PA has severely undermined the public’s faith in its ability to govern. Having held no general elections since 2006, the Palestinian Authority has damaged the rule of law, weakened the judiciary, curtailed media freedoms, and shrunk the space for civil society as organizations lost much of their independence from the government. The result is increasing public discontent and overwhelming demands for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. Hamas’s behavior in the Gaza Strip has been no better. Unbothered by constitutional principles, norms, and rule of law, it has grown increasingly ruthless.
Two weeks ago, these conflicting Israeli-Palestinian and intra-Palestinian dynamics finally collided. The earliest and most obvious trigger was Israel’s policies toward Muslim holy places in Jerusalem’s Old City and its demographic battle against Palestinians in the rest of occupied East Jerusalem. This set the stage for small confrontations during Ramadan between Palestinians, Israeli police, and right-wing extremists in the Old City over the changes at Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) and access to the Damascus Gate.
Another flash point was the Shaikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. In a pattern repeated throughout the occupied city, many Palestinian residents faced imminent eviction from their own homes by Jewish settlers. East Jerusalemites, other Palestinians, and many Israeli Arabs mobilized in response—launching a series of limited and essentially nonviolent protests.
A separate trigger was the Israeli decision to prevent Palestinian elections, planned for May 22, from taking place in East Jerusalem—despite its obligation to facilitate them under the terms of the Oslo accords struck in 1993. The Israeli decision was apparently unrelated to the elections themselves (Israel declared it had no intention of interfering in the process as a whole). Instead, the move was seen as an attempt to deny Palestinian claims to occupied East Jerusalem, even though Israel had already acknowledged such claims in three previous elections. It was this Israeli move that proved most relevant to the timing of the current confrontation.
The two-state solution might have received a mortal blow.
Ostensibly in response to Israel’s decision, Abbas decided to cancel the May PA elections entirely‚ promising to hold them only once Israel agreed to walk back its original plan. This only multiplied internal Palestinian tensions, however. Almost all other Palestinian electoral lists and candidates rejected the decision, including Hamas. Most parties suspected that the real motive was Abbas’s realization that he would lose the race and be forced to share control of parliament with three prominent Fatah defectors: Muhammad Dahlan, Marwan Barghouti, and Nasser al-Qudwa. Abbas’s opponents argued that Palestinians should not grant Israel veto power over their elections. They instead favored forcing Israel to accept a vote in East Jerusalem through nonviolent electoral campaigns and voting drives in al Aqsa and other mosques, churches, and UN and diplomatic missions.
The final trigger for the current round of violence was Hamas’s inability to forge a joint alliance against Abbas’s election cancellation, despite widespread opposition to it. Although the group reached out to other electoral lists seeking their support, none wanted to be seen as Hamas’s allies. This dealt a heavy blow to Hamas’s long-term strategy. By reintegrating itself into the PA political process through elections, the group had sought to restore its legitimacy and free itself from the burden of governing the Gaza Strip.
With that strategy in tatters, a more militant Hamas leadership took the lead. The Israeli police escalation at al Aqsa and imminent evictions in Shaikh Jarrah provided the opportunity to achieve two goals: The first was to punish Abbas and make him politically irrelevant. The second was to punish Israel for its anti-Palestinian policies in East Jerusalem and its decision to halt elections in the city. In achieving those two goals, Hamas sought to demonstrate to Palestinians and others that while Abbas ran away from a battle over Jerusalem, Hamas would stand with its residents. Indeed, the group was willing to risk war in Gaza to defend the city and the al Aqsa mosque. Eventually, on May 10, Hamas issued an ultimatum: if Israel did not withdraw its police and military personnel from the mosque and Shaikh Jarrah, the group would attack. Minutes after the deadline passed, Hamas began targeting Israeli towns with rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, triggering retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
Hamas did not unleash the current confrontation. It merely capitalized on rising tensions to make the case for replacing Abbas. Israel’s decision to cancel the election in East Jerusalem and Abbas’s subsequent move to cancel the entire process set off a chain reaction that neither side anticipated. If elections had gone ahead as planned, confrontations in East Jerusalem would have intensified but likely remained nonviolent. Hamas, Fatah, and other electoral lists would have been too busy mobilizing their electoral constituencies against the Israeli police and extremist settlers; Hamas would not have risked a war in Gaza that might have halted electoral preparations, thereby destroying its opportunity to reintegrate itself into the formal political process. Without elections, however, the stage was set for violence.
How will the current confrontation affect the prospects for a long-term peace? On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the two-state solution might have received a mortal blow. Given Israeli efforts to marginalize Abbas and the PA, it will not be easy to keep the West Bank out of the next conflict or even the current one. Security coordination between Israel and the PA will not be enough to contain the rising flames. And given the rhetoric around annexation, no right-wing Israeli government will be willing or able to renew a political process that would require negotiations with the PA leadership, even for small incremental steps.
Domestically, Abbas will manage to stay in office only as long as he can prevent elections from taking place. Yet with rising popular discontent, the PA security services’ ability to maintain control and quell discontent is diminishing. The PA might find itself the target of an angry public. Abbas, the PA, and the Palestinian national movement will lose what little public trust they still hold. Elections and political reforms are the only means of making the system legitimate and accountable again. Those who reject elections because Abbas will lose or because the process might legitimize Hamas should consider the consequences. Ignoring the problem and keeping Hamas cornered in the Gaza Strip is no solution.
There should be no illusion about the role of the international community here. At best, Arab states and others, including Washington, can help manage the conflict only by making the status quo sustainable. They do not, however, have the capacity or political will to force Israel to respect international law or Abbas and the PA to respect the norms of good governance. As hard as it may be, Israelis and Palestinians must do that themselves.
Washington Must Actively Manage a Dispute It Can’t End