What the United States Needs to Do Now for Calm in Israel and Palestine

For decades, one of Israel’s goals was to cut off the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. It was not just the usual colonial tactic of divide and rule but a strategic goal that also included separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the Israeli occupied territories. Since the 1967 war, Israel has done its best to ring Jerusalem with Jewish settlements both to maintain the city as its unified capital under Jewish control and to diminish the Palestinians’ presence there by limiting their access and making their residency harder to sustain.

Separating the Gaza Strip from the rest of the Palestinian territories was meant to ensure that there would never be a continuous and independent Palestinian state. Gaza’s isolation meant that the symbolic State of Palestine (as declared by the United Nations in 2012) had no access to the Mediterranean Sea nor to the airport in the strip (even if it was destroyed by Israel in 2002). It also meant that the market and workforce of Gaza were out of reach.

A Past and Costly Mistake

Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections provided the perfect opportunity to carry out this sinister campaign. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union (EU), one with which no party could negotiate. Israel and the international community set strict conditions on any Palestinian government that included Hamas, an act that led to the delegitimization of a properly elected parliament. Events since that election proved that this was a bad mistake.

Israel and the international community set strict conditions on any Palestinian government that included Hamas, an act that led to the delegitimization of a properly elected parliament.

If the Biden Administration is serious about pursuing an effective peace process that will be based on the two-state solution, it must revisit the decisions to isolate Hamas, which was democratically elected in 2006 and still represents a sizeable Palestinian constituency. The segregation of Hamas from the rest of the Palestinian state eventually led to Hamas’s control of this highly populated area and the subsequent illegal Israeli blockade on it.

The conditions that the United States and its Middle East Quartet partners (the EU, Russia, and the United Nations) put on Palestinians constituted an undemocratic decision while being couched in diplomatic terms. The Quartet had declared that members of any Palestinian government must recognize Israel and accept all previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization as well as renounce what these four entities consider terrorism.

The Quartet’s conditions were undemocratic because they negated the results of a fair election. In addition, Hamas had publicly stated that it had no intention of accepting such dictates. To make things worse, Israel stopped transferring tax and customs duties it collects for the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the United States and the EU suspended all financial assistance to the Palestinians. The United States even prohibited banks from dealing with the authority when Hamas’s Ismail Haniyya became prime minister following the election. These extraordinary sanctions eventually exacerbated a schism between Hamas and the PA that resulted in the former taking sole control of the Gaza Strip, a reality that continues to this day.

Biden Is Repeating the Same Mistake

While the Biden Administration is certainly different from the Trump Administration in its handling of Palestinian affairs, it appears to be planning to repeat the same mistake. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and vowed to support Gaza but without dealing with or recognizing the local power in the strip, i.e., Hamas. From his statements and remarks following his visit with President Abbas, it was clear that Blinken and the Biden Administration prefer a Palestinian government that does not include the organization. This would only be a continuation of a failed policy that only brought disaster to all parties involved.

From his statements and remarks following his visit with President Abbas, it was clear that Blinken and the Biden Administration prefer a Palestinian government that does not include the organization.

This Israeli-inspired US position is unfortunate. It makes arriving at a real solution or breakthrough more difficult because it tries to avoid talking to a representative of a wide segment of Palestinian society. It also contradicts the American position in similar circumstances. For example, the United States engaged in talks in Doha, Qatar with the Afghan Taliban despite long years of war against the group. Decades earlier, the United States talked to the Vietcong despite the enmity and spilled blood on the latter’s hands. Even in the Middle East, the international community has tolerated the presence of Hezbollah members in the Lebanese government and has engaged with them.

The idea of a litmus test for every member of a Palestinian government is a formula for the continuation of the unacceptable status quo. To break out of this cycle of violence, diplomatic creativity must replace political and ideological rigidity. Israel’s two most renowned defense ministers, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, always mentioned the need to talk to one’s enemies, and many Israelis are coming around to believe that such an idea is not anathema. The former head of Mossad and many Israeli security leaders have said so as well.

The United States and the international community should insist on the unity of Gaza and the West Bank under one rule and one law. To do that, a national unity government must be created with a strong representation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two organizations operating in Gaza that are most at odds with Israel and the United States. Only by giving these organizations a serious buy-in can we expect results in terms of unification of rule and a return to the civilian process of resolving the conflict. It is important to remind those who say that the use of rockets is not a proper way of resistance that Israel killed and maimed hundreds of unarmed Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border with Israel during the 2018-2019 March of Return. Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas’s nonviolent approach has been unsuccessful in ending Israel’s killings while the Israelis, and the rest of the world, moved quickly once rockets started flying from Gaza.

A Completely New Approach Is Needed

What is needed now more than ever is the very opposite. A reassessment of US and international policies regarding the Middle East will require the end of the blockade on Gaza and the reintegration of Hamas into the Palestinian political mainstream. Therefore, every effort must be exerted to ensure that Hamas’s top leaders are part of the new national unity government that President Abbas is now trying to form after the failure of elections, which was due to Israel’s intransigence regarding the participation of Palestinians in Jerusalem in the long-overdue poll.

Every effort must be exerted to ensure that Hamas’s top leaders are part of the new national unity government that President Abbas is now trying to form after the failure of elections.

In addition to accepting the possible presence of Hamas leaders in a new national unity Palestinian government, the Israelis must immediately lift the cruel—and futile in the long term—15-year-old blockade and allow the reestablishment of the Gaza-West Bank safe passage corridor that was agreed to in the 1993 Declaration of Principles. Encouraging the movement of people and goods between the two Palestinian areas will reinforce and fulfill the public appeals by international leaders, including calls by President Joe Biden that Palestinians should have the chance to lead normal lives. Thousands of Palestinians from Gaza have not been able to see their loved ones or to pray in their mosque or church due to this illegal blockade on Gaza.

The post-cease-fire, May 26th press conference by Hamas’s local Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, was forward-looking. Sinwar gave hints that despite what Hamas considers a great victory, the movement governing Gaza offered an olive branch to the Palestinian leadership, even publicly praising the late Yasser Arafat. Sinwar reassured the international community that Hamas will neither interfere in nor touch a single penny from the funds earmarked for reconstruction. It is clear that Hamas is eyeing both the merger into the overall Palestinian political structure and legitimization by the international community. Sinwar even addressed some of his statements to Israelis when he said that Hamas is still committed to the popular struggle and was forced to use its rocket arsenal only when Israel crossed the red line of attacking and defiling Islam’s third holiest mosque, Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa.

The sensitivity of Jerusalem had been addressed during the Obama Administration when Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an understanding in Amman between Jordan, which holds the custodianship of the holy sites in the city, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The understanding stipulated that Israel will not attack worshipers in Al-Aqsa, will ensure that the mosque is dedicated as a site for Muslim prayer, and that permission for all others to visit does not include radical Jewish extremists. But Israel did not waste time to repeatedly allow the violation of this understanding, and that behavior continues. With Netanyahu also threatening the annexation of the Jordan Valley, it is no wonder that Jordan’s King Abdullah told Secretary Blinken that he does not see any possibility of a peace process while Netanyahu is in power.

The violations of the understanding guaranteed by the former US secretary of state, John Kerry, were the trigger that caused the situation to blow up and Hamas to come to the rescue of fellow Palestinian Muslims in Jerusalem. A revisit by Washington of that understanding, to ensure that there are ironclad guarantees, is necessary to allow a peace process to restart. It might be difficult to do that, considering King Abdullah’s lack of trust in Netanyahu, but it could be carried out once a new government is formed in Israel.

Finding a quick solution to the larger Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not a part of President Biden’s priorities when he was sworn in. It has now been pushed to the top of these priorities and Biden and Blinken have a responsibility to reassess their policies in at least two areas: the issue of the inclusion of Hamas members in a new Palestinian unity government, and the need to revisit the pre-1967 status quo understanding between Jordan and Israel. Addressing these issues will provide for calm in Israel and Palestine and will lay the groundwork necessary for a relaunch of any peace talks.

If the Biden Administration is serious about assuring security and helping Palestinians and Israelis live normal lives, the United States must end its conditions on the membership of any new Palestinian national unity government.

If the Biden Administration is serious about assuring security and helping Palestinians and Israelis live normal lives, the United States must end its conditions on the membership of any new Palestinian national unity government. It needs to insist on the basic right of movement of people and goods between Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Further, the United States must condemn and reject radical Jewish attempts to monopolize Jerusalem, the city that is holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Recent events clearly confirm that such attempts, which are buttressed by Israeli policies, are not a formula for peace and tranquility.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab.

The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.