US Initiative Vital for Calming Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

The death of at least sixty Palestinians during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Gaza border on May 14 was just the latest reminder of a crisis that has gradually worsened in the absence of diplomacy and progress toward improved political and economic conditions in the Palestinian territories. A US-led initiative is needed to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

The events that brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the headlines could not have been starker in their contrast. On May 14, the United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following through on US President Donald J. Trump’s promise. The day also marked the 70th anniversary of the declaration of Israel’s statehood. A mere 1½-hour car ride away, Israeli security forces clashed with Palestinian protesters at the border fence in Gaza in what was to become the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza war.

Egypt announced that it would temporarily open the Rafah border crossing following the protests. However, Hamas’ politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh declared that the protests would continue until the blockade of Gaza is “completely lifted.”

No good options in Gaza

Living conditions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have steadily deteriorated. Residents have four hours of electricity a day, 94 percent of the water is undrinkable, and unemployment is close to 50 percent if not higher. Due to weak consumer spending and the depressed economy, the number of trucks entering Gaza has plummeted. Yahya Sinwar, who was elected Hamas’ political leader in Gaza in 2017, has admitted that Hamas has failed in governing the Strip.

For Hamas, the protests on the Gaza border have been a welcome opportunity to deflect Palestinian dissatisfaction away from its failure to govern. However, the international attention the protests have received has done little more than gloss over the difficult position in which Hamas finds itself.

Israel has mastered the ability to identify and destroy Hamas’ tunnels into Israel, one of Hamas’ most important strategic assets and avenues to impose costs on Israel. Sinwar’s efforts at Egyptian-mediated reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority have also fallen flat. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees the efforts as a trap through which Hamas would increase its political power in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) while ridding itself of the headache of running Gaza.

Abbas has tried to squeeze Hamas by imposing sweeping sanctions on the Islamist resistance movement. Additionally, Hamas has become increasingly isolated with Egypt imposing a blockade on Gaza and Hamas’ traditional backer Qatar limiting its freedom to operate in the Arab Gulf.

In light of its own failures and the untenable conditions in Gaza, Hamas sees the protests along the Gaza border as the best of its currently limited options short of an all-out war with Israel.  

Mahmoud Abbas cornered

Not only Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, too, finds itself in a difficult spot following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Abbas declared that the decision ended the United States’ historic role as a peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has since cut off political contact with the Trump administration. Neither US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his inaugural tour of the Middle East in April, nor US Vice President Mike Pence, on his visit to Israel in January, met any Palestinian representatives.

Abbas has little to show for this tactic of resistance.

The United States decided in January to withhold aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. The move was apparently linked to a UN vote rejecting the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Abbas has turned to the Europeans to play a bigger role in the peace process, but from them too he has received little more than lip service to the two-state solution. Meanwhile, he has earned himself international condemnation for an anti-Semitic speech.

Two fronts against Israel

One might assume that the Palestinians’ problems are Israel’s gains. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been riding a wave of diplomatic success, both with the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Still, over the past several months, Israeli security officials have warned that a combination of the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the absence of a way forward might push Hamas into choosing a war against Israel.

The Gaza protests are occurring in the larger context of Israel’s standoff with Iran in Syria. Iran might use its renewed ties with Hamas as a way to also threaten Israel from the south. Just last week, the Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet said that Iran was sponsoring the protests in Gaza. If the protests in Gaza keep escalating, Israel faces the risk of a drawn-out conflict on two fronts.

Where is the United States?

A new initiative is needed to relieve the economic hardship in Gaza and calm the tensions between Israel and Palestinians. The Trump administration could build on its recent international pledging conference to develop a plan to increase international aid for the residents of Gaza.

The more complex issue of the peace process offers the opportunity for renewed US-European cooperation. Reportedly, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner is unwilling to present his Middle East peace plan at this moment as he expects the Palestinians would reject it out of hand.

The United States should consider teaming up with the European Union, which currently has closer contact with and can likely better influence Abbas. Even if the Trump administration pursues a diplomatic initiative that falls short of a full-fledged peace agreement, the Americans could have the Europeans push Abbas to the negotiating table. This alone would provide impetus to the diplomatic process.

Moritz Luetgerath is the research assistant to the president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter at @MLuetgerath.

Image: A Palestinian protester used a slingshot during a protest at the Israel-Gaza Strip border on May 18. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)