The Palestinians: Overview and Key Issues for U.S. Policy

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Updated January 28, 2021
The Palestinians: Overview and Key Issues for U.S. Policy
The Palestinians and their ongoing disputes and interactions
Palestinian dispute. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for
with Israel raise significant issues for U.S. policy (see “Key
Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides
U.S. Policy Issues” below). After a serious rupture in U.S.-
health care, education, and housing assistance to Palestinian
Palestinian relations during the Trump Administration, the
Biden Administration has shared intentions to reengage
International attention to the Palestinians’ situation
with the Palestinian people and their leaders, resume
increased after Israel’s military gained control over the
economic development and humanitarian aid, and preserve
West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Direct
the viability of a negotiated two-state solution. However,
U.S. engagement with Palestinians in the West Bank and
near-term prospects for diplomatic progress toward Israeli-
Gaza dates from the establishment of the Palestinian
Palestinian peace reportedly remain dim. Palestinian leaders
Authority (PA) in 1994. For the past several years, other
have lamented some Arab states’ normalization of relations
regional political and security issues have taken some of the
with Israel because it could undermine past Arab efforts to
global attention from Palestinian issues.
link such improvements with addressing Palestinian
negotiating demands. Within a complicated legal and
Timeline of Key Events Since 1993
political context, U.S. aid to the Palestinians was reduced in
Israel and the PLO mutually recognize each
2018 and suspended in early 2019; its future is unclear.
other and establish the PA, which has limited
The Palestinians are an Arab people whose origins are in
self-rule (subject to overall Israeli control) in
present-day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Fatah, an
the Gaza Strip and specified areas of the
Arab nationalist faction, is the driving force within the
West Bank.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which represents
Second Palestinian intifada affects prospects
Palestinians internationally. The Sunni Islamist group
for Israeli-Palestinian peace, leads to
Hamas (a U.S.-designated terrorist organization) has not
tightened Israeli security in the West Bank,
accepted PLO recognition of Israel and constitutes the main
and complicates the U.S. third-party role.
opposition to Fatah.
PLO Chairman/PA President Yasser Arafat
dies; Mahmoud Abbas succeeds him.
Israel unilateral y disengages from Gaza, but
remains in control of airspace and
land/maritime access points.
Hamas wins majority in Palestinian Legislative
Council and leads new PA cabinet; Israel,
United States, and European Union confine
relations to PA President Abbas.
West Bank-Gaza split: Hamas seizes control
of Gaza Strip; Abbas reorganizes PA cabinet
to lead West Bank; this remains the status
quo to date.
Various rounds of U.S.-brokered Israeli-
Palestinian peace negotiations (the last in
2013-2014) end unsuccessful y; PLO/PA
increases efforts to gain membership in or

support from international organizations.
Source: Economist Intel igence Unit.
Note: West Bank and Gaza Strip borders remain subject to Israeli-
U.S.-Palestinian tensions rise during the
Palestinian negotiation.
Trump Administration.
Of the approximately 12.4 million Palestinians worldwide,
In moves opposed by Palestinian leaders, the
about 4.8 million (98% Sunni Muslim, 1% Christian) live in
United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan,
the West Bank and Gaza. About 1.5 million additional
and Morocco take steps toward normalizing
Palestinians are citizens of Israel, and 6.1 million more live
relations with Israel.
elsewhere. Of the total Palestinian population, around 5.4
The incoming Biden Administration
million (roughly 44%) are refugees (registered in the West
announces intentions to improve U.S.-
Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) whose claims to
Palestinian ties.
land in present-day Israel constitute a major issue of Israeli-

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The Palestinians: Overview and Key Issues for U.S. Policy
PLO/PA: Governance, Security, and Succession
could undermine prospects for West Bank-Gaza unity.
The PA held occasional elections for president and a
According to the World Bank, Gazans’ real per capita
legislative council until the Hamas victory in the 2006
incomes fell by one-third between 1994 and 2017, owing
legislative elections. Since then, it has ruled by presidential
partly to Israel and Egypt’s tight controls on goods and
decree, and some NGOs have criticized its actions on rule
people transiting Gaza’s borders.
of law and civil liberties. Given the West Bank-Gaza split
Violence flares regularly between Gazans and Israel’s
in 2007, it is unclear if elections will take place again, but
military, periodically escalating toward larger conflict.
Abbas has announced plans for legislative elections in May
However, since 2019, Hamas has engaged in fewer
2021 and presidential elections in July 2021.
exchanges of fire with Israel, which might reflect an interest
After 2007, the United States and some other countries
by Hamas in an extended calm with Israel.
sought to bolster the Abbas-led PA in the West Bank vis-à-
Key U.S. Policy Issues
vis Hamas, including through economic and nonlethal
Whether and how the Biden Administration might improve
security assistance. Since the U.S. suspension of aid in
U.S.-Palestinian relations remains unclear. These relations
2019, the European Union and Arab Gulf states have
significantly worsened in light of various developments
continued to provide external assistance for Palestinians,
during the Trump Administration, including the U.S.
though some Gulf states may have reduced funding. Given
recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; U.S. suspension
measures to control the Coronavirus Disease 2019
of all bilateral aid and UNRWA contributions; actions
pandemic, the Economist Intelligence Unit has estimated an
downgrading U.S.-Palestinian diplomatic ties and aiming to
8.5% economic contraction in 2020 and a relatively slow
legitimize Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank; a
2021 recovery (2.5%) for the West Bank and Gaza.
2020 U.S. peace proposal that fueled speculation regarding
Israeli annexation of West Bank areas; and the Arab-Israeli
Mahmoud Abbas’s age (b. 1935) and reports of health
normalization steps mentioned above. The Biden
problems have contributed to speculation about who might
Administration has stated support for continued Arab-
lead the PLO and PA upon the end of his tenure. There are
Israeli normalization, and has announced its opposition to
a number of possible successors. Top security adviser
unilateral Israeli or Palestinian actions, including
Majid Faraj (arguably the figure most trusted by Abbas) has
annexation, settlements, or incitement to violence.
a major profile internationally, but limited domestic popular
support. Mohammed Shtayyeh (PA prime minister since
Bilateral aid appropriated by Congress for the Palestinians
March 2019) is an internationally visible Fatah insider.
for FY2020 and FY2021 (see Figure 1) remains available
Other key Fatah figures include Mahmoud al Aloul and
for obligation. Additionally, the Nita M. Lowey Middle
Jibril Rajoub. Marwan Barghouti attracts significant
East Partnership for Peace Act of 2020 (Div. K, Title VIII
popular support, but has been imprisoned by Israel since
of P.L. 116-260) has authorized future Israeli-Palestinian
2002. Mohammed Dahlan enjoys support from some Arab
people-to-people and economic cooperation initiatives.
states, but was expelled from Fatah in 2011.
Figure 1. U.S. Bilateral Assistance to the Palestinians
Hamas and Gaza
Hamas controls Gaza through its security forces and obtains
resources from smuggling, informal “taxes,” and reported
external assistance from some Arab sources and Iran.
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader for Gaza, came from
Hamas’s military wing. Hamas also maintains a presence in
the West Bank. Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh is the leader of
the political bureau that conducts Hamas’s worldwide
dealings. Fatah and Hamas have reached a number of
Egypt-brokered agreements aimed at ending the West

Sources: U.S. State Department and USAID, adapted by CRS.
Bank-Gaza split. However, problems with implementation
have left Hamas in control of Gaza despite PA
Notes: Al amounts are approximate. Amounts for FY2020 and
responsibility for some civil services.
FY2021 have been appropriated but not obligated. NADR =
Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs,
From 2008 to 2014, Hamas and other Gaza-based militants
INCLE = International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, ESF
engaged in three significant conflicts with Israel. In each
= Economic Support Fund, OCO = Overseas Contingency
conflict, the militants launched rockets indiscriminately
toward Israel, and Israeli military strikes largely decimated
Gaza’s infrastructure. The actions on both sides worsened a
While the Biden Administration appears legally authorized
conundrum for international actors seeking to rebuild
to resume some types of bilateral aid and UNRWA
Gaza’s infrastructure without bolstering Hamas.
contributions, some complications remain. The Taylor
Force Act (Div. S, Title X of P.L. 115-141) prohibits most
Difficult living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza persist
economic aid directly benefitting the PA unless the
and are exacerbated by uncertainties regarding external
PLO/PA significantly changes domestically popular welfare
funding. Israeli-approved cash transfers from Qatar since
payments that arguably incentivize acts of terror.
late 2018 have provided some relief for Gazans. To the
extent that outside contributions replace funding from the
West Bank-based PA—whose actions suggest some
Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
ambivalence over taking responsibility for Gaza—they

The Palestinians: Overview and Key Issues for U.S. Policy

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