Bomb, rebuild, repeat—this has been the pattern for Gaza for more than a decade. What will it take to break it? After the May 21 Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended eleven days of high-intensity violence, the U.S. administration promised to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza and support for reconstruction. As a first step, the U.S. Agency for International Development has dispatched a humanitarian adviser to Jerusalem to work with the Palestinian Authority (PA). But the PA’s administration stops at the fringes of the West Bank enclaves where Israel has permitted it some limited autonomy, and Hamas remains a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. That means the United Nations and others will have to lend a strong hand in delivering the aid.
Even if this effort is successful, however, Palestinians in Gaza will need much more than humanitarian assistance to achieve long-term stability. They require a sustainable development plan, the ability to trade, job opportunities, and remediation for the environmental damage and degradation caused by successive Israeli military bombardments, as well as more access to water and sanitation.
Most important, Palestinians need “equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” as U.S. President Joe Biden stated, suggesting that perhaps his administration might pursue a rights-based approach to conflict resolution. Yet centering rights now after decades of U.S. policy that deprioritized Palestinian rights and security will require reimagining U.S. engagement on Gaza and the United States’ bilateral relationship with Palestinians.
Ending Israel’s Gaza Separation Policy
Since 2007, when Hamas took authority over Gaza from the PA, Israel has applied a stricter policy toward Gaza to cut it off from the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Israeli officials have not offered a clear rationale publicly but justify the policy on vague political-security grounds. In any case, it is part of a larger context of separating Palestinians. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the policy has been to prevent refugee return—approximately 70 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees from 1948—and to fragment Palestinian communities within Israel’s recognized borders and in the occupied territories. The net effect has been to suppress Palestinian national identity and to cripple organized political structures able to represent them.
The separation policy has effectively built a blockade that prevents freedom of movement of people and goods and triggers public health catastrophes that have made the Strip virtually uninhabitable. Inhumane conditions are the underlying reason for the regular medium- to high-intensity violence between Hamas and Israel. Often, Hamas uses violence as a negotiating tool to force Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza (to allow for more access in or out of the Strip, to increase the entry of fuel or supplies, or to lift restrictions on fishing zones Palestinians may safely have access to). For Israel, the violence offers an opportunity to either diminish Hamas military capabilities or to sow popular discontent with the Islamist movement through a strategy of deploying disproportionate force against civilian targets—but without any clearly articulated or realistic post-Hamas plan. For the Palestinians in Gaza, the policy restrictions put even basic economic activities out of reach.
To break the vicious cycle, the United States should work with Israel to end the blockade. This means restoring the connectivity between Gaza and the West Bank, as agreed to by Israel in Oslo II, and removing movement and access restrictions to allow Palestinians in Gaza to travel freely in and out of the Strip and carry out normal economic activity. These steps have become even more urgent with the coronavirus still ravaging Gaza and the loss of both the chief doctor in charge of managing the epidemic and Gaza’s only COVID-19 test center during the recent Israeli bombardment.
Supporting Palestinian Reconciliation and Elections
The Fatah-Hamas political divide has left Palestinians without a unified leadership at a time when they face immense challenges to the national movement. The division of authority between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-ruled PA in the West Bank is particularly devastating for those living in Gaza who struggle with both the challenges of life under blockade and frequent violence and bombardment from Israel. The lack of leadership also undermines the prospects for a durable political solution between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), giving Israel an excuse to maintain its blockade over Gaza and its military occupation. Making a difficult situation even harder, the United States continues to bar support for a PA government that includes or is unduly influenced by Hamas. This creates a disincentive for the PA to work toward national reconciliation.
The administrative dysfunction created by the Fatah/PA-ruled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza creates additional misery for Palestinians living in the Strip. To press Hamas, at times the PA has suspended payments to Israel for electricity it supplies to Gaza, provoking cuts in already limited available power. The PA has also either stopped paying civil servants in Gaza or reduced their salaries. Given the high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment in Gaza, such actions are particularly painful for the residents.
Without Palestinian national reconciliation, Israeli attacks against Gaza will reoccur. Because Hamas stands outside of the political umbrella of representative Palestinian national bodies and institutions, it is forced to distinguish itself from the PA and establish its legitimacy and credibility in other ways. Hamas’s rejection of the Oslo framework and security cooperation with Israel—the PA’s raison d’etre—is supported by many Palestinians, though it is ignored by the Palestinian leadership. Regular, high-intensity episodes of violence between Israel and Hamas thus give the Islamist movement an opportunity to challenge both the PA and Israel and to assert popular legitimacy. This dynamic was apparent during the latest bout of violence triggered by Israel’s threats to displace Palestinian families in occupied East Jerusalem for a second time and Israeli police attacks on Muslim worshipers at the Haram Al Sharif and even inside Al Aqsa Mosque. Despite the casualties and destruction, Hamas bolstered its popularity in the occupied West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem where the PA has no jurisdiction and had remained largely on the sidelines or, at times, acted to prevent demonstrations against the Israeli occupation.
The Biden administration should support a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the creation of a national unity government. Working with the UN, EU, European allies, the Munich Group (including Egypt, France, Germany, and Jordan), and Qatar, the United States should leverage its reconstruction assistance to boost a Palestinian political renewal that includes Palestinian elections and Hamas’s inclusion under the PLO umbrella. The United States also should work with Israel to ensure that it does not obstruct elections and that Palestinians may campaign and vote in East Jerusalem.
Since 2007, the United States and EU have upheld a no-contact policy with Hamas to isolate and financially starve the movement and bring the PA back to Gaza. This policy has not only failed but has also contributed to the inhumane conditions afflicting Gaza’s residents—over 80 percent of whom now rely on donor assistance. Led by the United States, the Middle East Quartet (also including the EU, UN, and Russia), insists that Hamas meet three requirements before political and financial support can be offered to a PA government that includes Hamas: its recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of signed agreements with Israel. These requirements have not moved Hamas, are an obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation, and are not reciprocally applied to Israel. Moreover, the policy has tended to perpetuate Hamas’s legitimacy rather than undermine it. And its continuation will be increasingly hard to justify given that the only Palestinian authority Israel is in regular negotiations with (albeit indirectly) is Hamas.
Instead, the Biden administration should call on Hamas to formally accept international law and PLO principles as the basis for future dialogue and engagement with the United States. The Quartet principles should then become a yardstick—rather than a redline—used to also measure Israel’s compliance with signed agreements with the PLO and its obligations as an occupying power (particularly with respect to lifting the blockade and halting violence against civilians and civilian infrastructure). This approach holds more promise for moderating Hamas and ending the extreme violence that is crippling Gaza’s development; and it would also give Palestinians some sense of security and the ability to recover from layers of trauma.
Enabling Private Sector Development and Investment
Years of economic obstructions and repeated major military operations have “gutted” Gaza’s economy. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, between 1994 and 2018, the GDP of Gaza’s productive sectors fell from 28 to 13 percent; manufacturing halved to 8 percent and agriculture fell from 9 to 5 percent. Gaza’s share in the Palestinian economy has declined from over one-third in the 1990s to less than a quarter in recent years, and its per capita real GDP is now less than half of that in the West Bank. Had Gaza had the same access to production inputs as the West Bank, growth rates could have been three times higher than the actual rates. “Enforced isolation from global markets” is what “compels . . . overwhelming dependence on Israel for trade”—and that benefits the Israeli economy.
There is no shortage of ideas on how to turn things around in Gaza. In 2015, important players in the Palestinian private sector (in consultation with the relevant authorities) developed a spatial vision and development plan for Gaza. Under the plan, Gaza could accommodate 3.5 million people, create over 1 million jobs, and increase GDP by twenty-five times the current numbers by 2050. Capital is available for investment, but restrictions on economic development prevent the Palestinian private sector, including the diaspora, from putting money into productive sectors in Gaza and the West Bank. The best laid development plans for Gaza will continue to fail so long as Palestinians are denied access to land and natural resources; are limited to 2G broadband access because of Israeli control over the electromagnetic sphere, which prevents a tech hub from being built in Gaza where there is great potential; and are prevented from establishing ports for some semblance of trade and economic activity.
Simple actions, such as increasing access to cultivable land, fisheries, and gas reserves, could immediately raise the well-being of Palestinians in Gaza. Though half of Gaza’s population is food insecure and two-thirds receive assistance, the Israel Defense Forces have designated 35 percent of the scarce cultivable land in Gaza as a no-grow zone for farmers, and 85 percent of fishing waters along Gaza’s territory are off limits to producers. And though Palestinian gas reserves off the shores of Gaza would more than meet Palestinian demand, the energy-starved Strip is dependent on Israel for 60 percent of its electricity needs. A lack of reliable energy has sapped Gaza’s manufacturing capacity and productivity.
Rather than addressing the blockade head on, the United States and international donors have been consumed with dealing with the aftermath of recurring Israeli-Hamas violence. And because the United States refuses to deal with Hamas, reconstruction efforts in Gaza have been slow and costly—hamstrung by the work-around created to avoid Hamas involvement that would give Israel veto power over what materials and equipment enter Gaza. Unless the United States makes some new accommodation with Hamas as it has been willing to do with other disfavored groups and governing authorities, any current U.S. support for reconstruction efforts will again have to go through the so-called Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). Agreed to by Israel and the PA after Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza, the UN-brokered temporary mechanism was supposed to permit large-scale projects and lead to the lifting of all closures on Gaza. Instead, it has held Gaza’s development captive to whatever security concerns the Israeli government might assert, regardless of the effects on the health and well-being of the people in Gaza.
The GRM should be replaced with a new mechanism that brings together stakeholders (the UN, EU, United States, Egypt, and Qatar) who can work around Israeli restrictions on the entry of goods and equipment to Gaza. These actors could create a corridor from the Egyptian port in the city of Al Arish directly to the Rafah border crossing to help speed up reconstruction-related shipments and cut transaction costs. However, coordination among the stakeholders on reconstruction should be separated from the ceasefire stabilization negotiations between Hamas, Israel, Egypt, and the United States. This is to ensure that Israeli obligations as an occupying power—with respect to lifting the blockade and facilitating the movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip—are not passed on to Egypt.
The Bottom Line
Talk of rebuilding Gaza may seem too early; the violence is still fresh and the task ahead too complex to allow for quick assessment. However, a review of U.S. policy and how it could be better used to prevent future violence and promote rights and human security is long overdue. Securing the rights of Palestinians in Gaza is required now.
The United States should prioritize ending the Israeli blockade and restrictions on Gaza. Israel’s isolation of the Strip and its approximately 2 million inhabitants prevents Palestinian national reconciliation, guarantees recurring episodes of high-intensity violence, and condemns Palestinians to inhumane conditions. It also indefinitely thwarts a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the PLO—a U.S. policy objective—buying Israel the time and political space to cement its sovereignty over the West Bank. By any measure, that will not bring freedom, democracy, or prosperity for Palestinians.