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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations

Jim Zanotti
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

This report provides an overview of current issues in U.S.-Palestinian relations. It also contains an overview of Palestinian society and politics and descriptions of key Palestinian individuals and groups—chiefly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA), Fatah, Hamas, and the Palestinian refugee population. For more information, see the following: CRS Report RS22967, U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians; CRS Report R41514, Hamas: Background and Issues for Congress; and CRS Report R40092, Israel and the Palestinians: Prospects for a Two-State Solution, all by Jim Zanotti.

The “Palestinian question” is important not only to Palestinians, Israelis, and their Arab state neighbors, but to many countries and non-state actors in the region and around the world— including the United States—for a variety of religious, cultural, and political reasons. U.S. policy toward the Palestinians since the advent of the Oslo process in the early 1990s has been marked by efforts to establish a Palestinian state through a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict; counter Palestinian terrorist groups; and establish norms of democracy, accountability, and good governance within the PA. Congressional views of the issue have reflected concern that U.S. bilateral assistance not detrimentally affect Israel’s security by falling into the hands of Palestinian rejectionists who advocate terrorism and violence against Israelis.

Among the current issues in U.S.-Palestinian relations is how to deal with the political leadership of Palestinian society, which is divided between the PA in parts of the West Bank and Hamas, a State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, in the Gaza Strip. Following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, the United States and the other members of the international Quartet (the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) have sought to bolster the West Bank-based PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

After attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stalled in 2010, however, Abbas in 2011 has actively worked to obtain more widespread international recognition of Palestinian statehood and is considering having the PLO/PA petition the United Nations for full membership or at least an upgraded status. The potential ramifications of these developments, including possible U.N. Security Council and/or General Assembly votes in the fall of 2011, have contributed to a climate of regional and international uncertainty, particularly amid ongoing and widespread political change and unrest in the Arab Middle East. The United States and Israel are concerned that Palestinian recourse to international forums and methods could circumvent—and thus undermine—the U.S.-mediated negotiating process and possibly stoke populist sentiment, leading to potentially destabilizing nonviolent or violent action in the West Bank and Gaza and throughout the region.

The Gaza situation also presents a dilemma. Humanitarian and economic problems persist, but the United States, Israel, and other international actors are reluctant to do more than provide basic humanitarian assistance because of legal barriers to dealing with Hamas and/or potentially negative political and strategic consequences that might follow from any such dealings. The May 2011 power-sharing arrangement among Palestinian factions that would allow for presidential and legislative elections and reunified PA rule over Gaza and parts of the West Bank remains unimplemented. Since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, Congress has committed more than $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, over half of it since mid-2007— including $800 million in direct budgetary assistance to the PA and approximately $550 million to strengthen and reform PA security forces and the criminal justice system in the West Bank.

Date of Report:
August 30, 2011
Number of Pages: 3
Order Number: RL34
Price: $29.95

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