Policy Recommendations to Biden Administration in Support of U.S. Interests in Region
(November 21, 2023 – Washington, DC) – The Biden Administration should not only take all necessary measures to secure a ceasefire in Gaza but also take practical steps to advance a post-conflict Gaza scenario that respects the rights of Palestinians and ensures the reconstruction of Gaza without blockade, siege, or other punitive actions by the Israeli government, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) explained in a policy memo to the Biden Administration.
Specifically, DAWN recommended that the Administration should support a ceasefire resolution in the United Nations Security Council, support the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force, establish international inspections of goods to Gaza as a means to end the blockade of Gaza, support a Gaza reconstruction conference and support the construction of a Gaza seaport to open Gaza to the world.
"What we propose here are recommendations for a viable off-ramp for ending this war, advancing Palestinian human rights and independence, and sustainably ensuring Israeli security," said Adam Shapiro, Director of Advocacy on Israel/Palestine at DAWN. "Adopting these recommendations would signal to allies a shift in approach and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that marks a departure from the failed policies of the Oslo era."
Gaza Scenarios – Policy Options
The policy recommendations below are meant to prevent further escalation of the conflict in Gaza in the immediate term and advance proposals for interim governance and reconstruction in Gaza in the medium term. We are hopeful these recommendations if implemented, will create opportunities for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large in the long term.
Some of the recommendations have long-term implications for—and require commitments by—the United States,. Others are designed to ensure that armed conflict does not resume. The primary objective of these proposals is to ensure that conditions on the ground in Gaza create an opportunity for the U.S. to achieve its short- and long-term objectives for the region including: securing the release of U.S. and other civilian hostages and the safety of U.S. citizens in Gaza; preventing the recurrence of outbreaks of violence between Israeli forces and armed Palestinian groups; and protecting U.S. standing and credibility around the world.
Assumed US Administration Goals
In his remarks to the media at the G7 Summit in Tokyo on November 8, Secretary Blinken articulated some of the administration's positions for the end of the conflict and aftermath. This includes:
- No forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza – not now, not after the war
- No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks
- No reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends
- No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza
- No reduction in the territory of Gaza
- Ensure no terrorist threats can emanate from the West Bank
- Work toward a sustained peace
- Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority
- A sustained mechanism for reconstruction in Gaza
- A pathway to Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in states of their own, with equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity
For the purposes of this memo, DAWN assumes that the following also are some of the administration's goals:
- The return of hostages
- Delivery of sustained humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza
- Regional stability (including expanding Abraham Accords) and avoidance of expansion of Gaza conflict to region
- Halting settler violence, and settlement expansion in the West Bank
In presenting these recommendations, DAWN considers a number of risk factors, even if it is not entirely possible to precisely account for their impact. These include:
- Hamas' and other armed groups' in Gaza military capabilities
The military capabilities of Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza is nearly impossible to calculate in real time, given the complexity of the area and the steps they have taken to counter Israeli surveillance of Gaza. As U.S. experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. and Israeli experience in Lebanon and Gaza (previously) demonstrate, assumptions about capabilities have proven to be unreliable.
- Impact of waning domestic support in Israel, the U.S., and in other Western capitals for Israeli operations and deterioration of U.S. standing in the region
The mass mobilization of publics across the world demonstrates that the Israeli assault on Gaza with American support can become a major liability for broader U.S. foreign policy goals. Recent polls suggest that the U.S. public – both Democrats and Republicans – overwhelmingly support a ceasefire, while some polls indicate that President Biden could lose enough support among key populations in the next election in swing states on this issue to cost him the election.
Regarding the regional context, testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on November 7, 2023, Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf said, "I will say very candidly, this conflict has roiled up a huge amount of public anger towards Israel, towards us. This is something we're going to have to work through…Our partners are scrutinizing our response, as are our strategic competitors."
- Hostage/captive release or dramatic change in conditions
If negotiations are successful in releasing the civilian hostages from Gaza, that can dramatically change the landscape of existing political support in Israel and the West for ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza. Israeli families of hostages have formally called for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the protest movement against the Prime Minister is gaining momentum once again among the wider Israeli public.
- Catastrophic public health crisis in Gaza (disease, no potable water, hospitals can no longer function)
The devastation wrought by the siege, bombardment and other military operations in Gaza has been massive, with more than 12,000 Palestinians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced and left homeless. With water and electricity cut off by Israel, Gaza is facing a catastrophic health crisis beyond the acute emergency situation it is already experiencing. On November 8, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned, "As deaths and injuries in Gaza continue to rise due to intensified hostilities, intense overcrowding and disrupted health, water, and sanitation systems pose an added danger: the rapid spread of infectious diseases."
- Expansion of war to neighboring countries in the region
The military skirmishes on the Israel-Lebanon border have largely been limited, even though damage and loss of life (primarily in Lebanon) is increasing. There will be a threshold beyond which Hezbollah will not be able to politically tolerate such losses, and once crossed, it would likely mean full-scale war. In addition, there has been a serious escalation of armed group attacks against U.S. forces and Israel emanating from Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, increasing the risk that the conflagration can spread.
- Intercommunal violence and wide civil unrest in Israel
Since the fighting between Hamas and Israeli in May 2021, Israeli authorities have identified the possibility of recurring intercommunal violence in Israel as a significant risk to internal security and stability. The tens of thousands of assault rifles and other firearms Public Security Minister Ben Gvir is putting in the hands of state-backed civilian security squads are only making that risk more dire. Prior to this war, Israeli police were in the middle of a massive operation to combat the proliferation of illegal weapons among Palestinian citizens of Israel, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Since October 7, Israeli government forces and paramilitary settler forces have killed at least 205 Palestinians in the West Bank, after 2023 was already on track to be the deadliest year for Palestinians.
- Mass displacement of Palestinian communities in the West Bank
Israeli bombardment and siege has already caused the displacement of over 1 million Palestinians in Gaza, but Israeli actions are also causing displacement in the West Bank that has intensified since October 7. Palestinian communities in the West Bank have been suffering unprecedented violence from paramilitary Israeli settler forces in 2023,with settler violence supported by the government, including the distribution of thousands of M-16 rifles to settler "security squads" by Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir. While Biden Administration officials have warned about the use of these weapons, there seems to be no mechanism in place to monitor or stop their distribution, despite Israeli pledges. As with intercommunal violence inside Israel, attacks by Israeli settlers – including forced displacement of Palestinians can lead to organized retaliatory attacks by Palestinian armed groups and general intercommunal violence.
- Leadership change/vacuum in the West Bank
Already a deeply unpopular government in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is at risk of collapse. While some U.S. officials are now suggesting a revamped PA to address Gaza governance issues, Israel continues to take steps to undermine and handicap the PA. With Israel deploying tactics such as airstrikes against West Bank targets and failing to stop settler violence, the PA's ability to remain in power continues to weaken. In addition, proposals to install Mohammad Dahlan, a former PA security official in charge of Gaza, are wildly unrealistic and likely to face rejection.
- ICC prosecutions of U.S. officials
The International Criminal Court (ICC) commenced its investigation of violations of the Rome Statute in the occupied Palestinian territories since 2014. Prosecutor Khan recently reminded the international community that the investigation will implicate all those implicated in violations of the statute. Liability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, among other violations of the statute, includes those found to be aiding and abetting the violations themselves by providing weapons and materiel. The United States previously has taken the position that the knowledge that one's assistance would further the commission of a war crime would suffice in terms of establishing the intent to commit a crime under international law. Accordingly, there is a serious risk that administration officials will face criminal prosecution by the ICC for providing weapons to Israel despite evidence of its widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law.
These policy recommendations should be considered together for maximum effectiveness. While any one measure can address some element of the crisis, it is through the adoption of all of the recommendations that the full panoply of U.S. concerns and interests can be met while facilitating prospects for the realization of longer-term goals. Adopting these recommendations would signal to allies a shift in approach and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that marks a departure from the failed policies of the Oslo era. Much of the world perceives the United States to be contributing to the current catastrophe in Gaza; a change in policy would demonstrate the same global leadership and support for international laws and norms that the United States has demonstrated in Ukraine.
1- Implement end-use monitoring and weapons transfer policies for weapons to Israel: The assault on Gaza is of a different magnitude than any previous Israeli military operation against Palestinians. The U.S. can take steps to mitigate future mass casualty conflict in Gaza by implementing already established policies. To date, both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his spokesperson have indicated that they are not assessing Israel's law of war compliance. This includes implementing end-use monitoring and reporting requirements on transfers of weapons to Israel, including the Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance policy requiring the administration to investigate reports of civilian harm by Israel using U.S. weapons and to recommend actions that could include suspension of arms sales; and its Conventional Arms Transfer policy to assess whether its current arms transfers to Israel are "more likely than not" to facilitate future IHL or human rights violations. In addition, the administration should ensure the Defense Department implements its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, including addressing the risks of civilian harm in the U-S.-Israel security cooperation relationship.
2- Introduce a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council: This should include a demand that Israel open Gaza's borders to allow the entry of all needed fuel, water, and humanitarian aid via land and sea, under international inspection. This resolution should also require a freeze on any further military movement into Gaza by Israeli forces and set a timetable for the withdrawal of Israeli forces, connected to the introduction of a UN peacekeeping force (see below). Alternatively, the U.S. should refrain from vetoing such a ceasefire resolution put forward by another member state.
The continued presence of Israeli forces inside Gaza—or a situation whereby Israel is permitted to maintain the blockade of Gaza to any degree—poses a direct threat to the advancement of any post-conflict scenario that addresses the humanitarian, security and political situation of Gaza. All subsequent recommendations rely on the introduction of non-Israeli stakeholders and mechanisms to generate the political space needed to advance longer-term goals of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initial proposals to have Israel maintain a buffer zone in Gaza or for Cyprus to work with Israel to create an inspection system only sustain the siege and blockade of Gaza and will hasten the next round of armed conflict.
A ceasefire is the best approach to:
- Secure the return of the civilian hostages and advance negotiations over the release of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian detainees.
- Avoid an even more dire civilian death toll and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. The vast majority of Palestians killed by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank since October 7 are civilians—the majority are women and children. A ceasefire is the only way to halt the vastly disproportionate rate of civilian casualties, one of many factors that have led numerous legal experts to conclude that this war constitutes a genocide. Similarly, there is an urgent need to prioritize halting the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, including desperately needed food, water, hygiene, fuel, housing, and medical facilities. Civil society, including the humanitarian sector, has been devastated.
- Prevent an expansion of hostilities to the Lebanese border. This is another near-certain outcome of a cessation of hostilities in Gaza. Hezbollah has thus far limited its involvement to relatively minor attacks and largely prevented Palestinian armed groups in Lebanon from entering into conflict with Israel. A cessation of hostilities will also diminish Iran's role in the short-term and creates opportunities to dramatically reduce the role Iran plays in the future of the region.
- Create diplomatic bandwidth and leverage to press Israel to rein in settler violence and settlement expansion, which is imperative if there is to be any opportunity to address the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In support of the ceasefire, the U.S. should halt weapons sales and transfers to Israel if attacks against civilians continue: Section 502(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the transfer of weapons where there is a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Accordingly, the administration should consider suspending arms to Israel if Israeli forces continue deliberately and indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian objects in Gaza following a ceasefire resolution and continue to blockade items essential for the survival of the population in Gaza.
In addition, as long as Israeli forces remain in Gaza or continue to strike targets in Gaza, an effective ceasefire will not be realized and will jeopardize the other measures that follow below, which aim to address both Palestinian and Israeli security concerns.
3- Support the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in Gaza: Simultaneously, to avoid being stuck by paralysis in the UNSC, privately support the introduction of a UN General Assembly resolution (under "Uniting for Peace" resolution of November 1950 [resolution 377 (V)]) to establish a Chapter VI peacekeeping force in Gaza, mandated with civilian protection, law and order and overseeing reconstruction of Gaza under Palestinian and international oversight. The United for Peace resolution stipulates that "if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately…" Such a resolution can aim for deployment within three months, as was done with the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in 1999, when peacekeeping forces arrived on the ground in Kosovo within 90 days of the establishment of the peacekeeping operation.
Such peacekeeping forces can:
- Prevent Hamas's ability to threaten Israel. While "eradicating" the group is an impossible goal, it is likely that the group will no longer be able to operate as a government. In the short-term, it will not be possible to bring the Fatah-led PA to govern Gaza, given its existing weakness and lack of legitimacy for Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians also should have the ability to make political choices about their representation and governance, including in wider visions of democratic opportunity in Palestine. A UN peacekeeping force can generate space for Palestinian political actors to assert themselves and grant civil society the opportunity to reconstitute itself.
- Credibly provide security for Palestinian civilians in Gaza against Israeli attack; end the siege; open Gaza to the outside world; and enable the political space for the reestablishment of ties between Gaza and the West Bank.
- Enable badly needed reconstruction in Gaza by providing security and some element of governance, permit the return of massive numbers of displaced Palestinians, and start to build an economy in Gaza that isn't dependent on Israeli military policy.
4- Establish international inspections of goods to Gaza as a means to end the Israeli blockade: The administration should work with the European Union (EU) and Egypt to establish an inspection point of all humanitarian and reconstruction materials destined for Gaza, under Egyptian security protection on the Egypt side of the Rafah border. The U.S. can offer the U.S.-staffed Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) and the EU Border Assistance Mission to Rafah (EUBAM Rafah) to contribute to the effort. The U.S. can also work with European partners and EU Frontex to secure sea inspection protocols for Gaza-bound ships, following the model of the United Nations Verification & Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). This mechanism would also facilitate the ability of Palestinians to travel freely out and return to Gaza, via Egypt, until direct international transit options are available.
5- Support a Gaza reconstruction conference: The U.S. should establish funding and planning for post-war reconstruction, including by helping to organize a funding conference, potentially hosted by Qatar. The agenda for the conference should also include mechanisms to assess costs of and reparations and include a role for the PA/Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
6- Construct a seaport in Gaza: Work with other states and the World Bank to begin construction of a viable seaport in Gaza. Israel's blockade of Gaza since 2006 has been an unmitigated failure in political terms and has led to devastating health and humanitarian consequences for the Palestinian population of Gaza. To fulfill the administration's vision for a post-conflict Gaza, and to meet the massive reconstruction and humanitarian needs, direct access via the sea is imperative.
If these measures are implemented, the Biden Administration should find that there will be greater political space for addressing the longer-term issues at the heart of this conflict. Preparing for that stage should begin at the outset of the adoption of these policies and articulated as a political vision to all stakeholders. This should include initiating a new process for achieving a just and equitable resolution for Israelis and Palestinians based on principles of democracy, equality and human rights, which furthers regional peace, stability and demilitarization.
While the Oslo process is no longer relevant to the present political reality, the United States should use the capital its has built with Israeli leaders and people through its unconditional support during this war to demand that it commit to abiding by the principles of democracy and democratic decision-making to allow the people under its sovereignty to determine how they want to configure their state and governance.