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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations

Jim Zanotti
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

This report covers 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.

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 is marked by efforts to establish a Palestinian state through a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; to counter Palestinian terrorist groups; and to establish norms of democracy, accountability, and good governance within the Palestinian Authority (PA). Congress has appropriated assistance to support Palestinian governance and development amid concern for preventing the funds from benefitting Palestinian rejectionists who advocate violence against Israelis.

Among the issues in U.S. policy toward the Palestinians is how to deal with the political leadership of Palestinian society, which is divided between the Fatah-led PA in parts of the West Bank and Hamas (a U.S.-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.

With attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations having stalled, however, Abbas has actively worked to obtain more widespread international recognition of Palestinian statehood. After a failed attempt to gain Palestinian membership in the United Nations in 2011, Abbas is reportedly considering an initiative for the fall of 2012 to have the U.N. General Assembly upgrade the Palestinians’ status to something short of membership. Such an upgrade could make it easier for the Palestinians to bring claims in the International Criminal Court and other forums against what many Palestinians perceive to be Israeli violations of various international laws and norms regarding the treatment of people and property in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the possibility of financial and diplomatic reprisals by the United States and Israel could affect Palestinian decisions on whether to seek a General Assembly resolution. The United States and Israel are concerned that Palestinian recourse to international forums and methods could circumvent—and thus undermine—U.S.-mediated negotiations and stoke popular unrest.

The Gaza situation also presents a dilemma. Humanitarian and economic problems persist, but the United States, Israel, and other international actors are reluctant to take direct action toward opening Gaza’s borders because of legal barriers to dealing with Hamas and/or potentially negative political and strategic consequences. A 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. The future of these programs remains a subject of intense congressional interest and debate.

Date of Report: August 17, 2012
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: RL34074
Price: $29.95

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