The events of the past two months have catapulted the Palestinian question back onto to front pages. It took a level of mass violence—over 17,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis killed at the time of this writing—to bring the world’s attention to a deteriorating and already violent status quo, although activists and peace advocates have been sounding the alarm for years.
The United States government in particular has found itself reacting to a state of affairs it has been actively trying to ignore. Now, Washington is allocating time and resources at the expense of other American interests such as Ukraine. The Biden administration’s embrace of Israel’s war has not only left allies like Ukraine stranded and deeply damaged America’s position across the entire global south, but also proven a boon for authoritarian actors such as Iran who have been able to burnish their image without much cost. This dynamic has revealed the level to which American policymakers have not formulated any new ideas or even absorbed lessons from the past when it comes to Israel-Palestine. As a result, American foreign policy and indeed the entire discourse around “what should happen next” for the Palestinians has remained out of touch, unwilling to reckon with the issues at the crux of this violence. This will have a profoundly negative impact that will reverberate beyond Palestine.
For many years, articulating the idea that the Palestinian question matters fell on deaf ears. The reality is, however, that the Palestinian question and its lack of resolution are connected to a wide range of worrying dynamics. This includes not only the escalation of conflict and the use of new methods of violence, as well as the bolstering of authoritarian actors, but the erosion of even the idea of a liberal international order altogether. The Palestinian cause plays a key role in a number of political trends like anti-authoritarian protests, violence and irregular warfare in the Middle East, and the erosion of the liberal international order.
Simply put, US policymakers ignore the Palestine factor at their peril.
Palestine and Dissent
The Palestinian cause has long galvanized in the Middle East and North Africa and around the world. In the Middle East and North Africa region in particular, pro-Palestinian activism has been uniquely tied to anti-authoritarian and anti-regime action. As my previous research has demonstrated, pro-Palestine activism is a “gateway to dissent.” Involvement in pro-Palestinian activism trains activists not only to think about their political agency, and see themselves as citizens rather than as subjects, but also impacts civil society more broadly as activists use the ideas and skills they acquire to demand accountability on other issues.
Historically, pro-Palestinian activism has generated political activism and, importantly, dissent against authoritarian regimes. Indeed, Egyptian revolutionaries involved in the January 25th (2011) uprising cite their engagement on the Palestinian cause, with the second intifada, as laying the groundwork for their subsequent activism against Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
In the latest escalation of violence, we have seen this play out again. Protests erupted across the region with the start of the war on Gaza, and regimes have had to play a very delicate balancing game to placate public anger while avoiding tensions with the United States. For the first time since the coup that ended the Egyptian uprising, protestors descended on Tahrir Square. The Egyptian authorities had difficulty reigning in the situation, even resorting to organizing pro-regime protests in response.
Moreover, the overwhelming American support for Israel’s war has meant both the US-backed regimes, and the United States itself, are the target of protestors. Polling in the Arab world has long shown that America is seen as a major source of insecurity in the region (second only to the state of Israel). Recent events can only have exacerbated this perception. This bodes poorly for American foreign policy and influence in the region moving forward, as embassy officials have already ascertained.
Palestine and Violence
The possibility of a regional escalation during this latest war has grabbed media headlines, particularly as rockets fly from south Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen target vessels near the Red Sea. But the focus on these immediate tensions misses the long-term concern of what Israel’s war, and widespread devastation of Gaza, will mean for regional violence.
Before October 7, Iran had called for “unifying the fields,” meaning fighting Israel by mobilizing Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East. And although Iran and Hezbollah in particular have not entered into the fray fully yet, they have been able to capitalize on this violence with very little commitment of resources or engagement. For Palestinians as well as Arabs watching the images and videos coming out of Gaza, the “resistance axis” and their narrative is increasingly gaining traction. Recent polling from the Arab Barometer corroborates this. This is especially the case because advocates and organizations that demand accountability for Israel’s actions, but are not supported by the Iranian orbit, have been repressed in Israel-Palestine and the broader region. At the same time, the United States has done little, if anything, to contain Israeli extremists.
Thus, the fact that actors such as Iran and Hezbollah have become the keepers of the Palestinian cause should be alarming to American policymakers. What will it mean for regional conflict in the future if the only parties perceived to be acting in defense of Palestinians are extremist, sectarian militias with an anti-modernist, authoritarian vision for the region? The dynamics have become increasingly zero-sum, and this bodes poorly for the likelihood of anything but mass violence in the future. It may be true that Iran and its affiliated militias are not interested in direct warfare with Israel, but the potential to fuel or escalate lower levels of conflict, by dragging larger actors into retaliation or seizing upon public anger, should not be underestimated.
Furthermore, this war in Gaza—and the ineffectiveness of the international community to stop it—signals incredibly worrying trends in not only the scope of war that will be tolerated in the future, but also the methods that will be used. As a report by +972 Magazine and Local Call shows, the Israeli military has utilized AI technology to “generate targets” at a massive scale. This has accelerated the level of destruction in Gaza, and allowed the Israeli military to disregard previous limitations on the acceptable level of civilian death in their own operating procedures. The result is that, as Spencer Ackerman put it, Israeli conduct in Gaza shows AI warfare will enable wars of massive scale, rather than precision.
Palestine and the World Order
Regional actors have turned to countries like Russia and China more readily as a result of the latest violence. Hamas officials visited Moscow in the first days of the war, while Arab officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority traveled to China to discuss how Beijing could help end the war, and play a larger role in mediation in the future. Given America’s role in the war, and the extent of its support for Israeli actions, the turn to non-American and non-Western actors is seen as quite reasonable from the Arab perspective.
This should also concern the United States and its current leadership, especially given that President Joe Biden has spent the better part of his term making a case for reviving America’s role globally, promoting democracy, and supporting allies such as Ukraine. The rationalization of American support for Ukraine has been articulated as a stand against Russian aggression, and more broadly the normalization of violence. American support for Ukraine was supposed to send a message to the world that invasion, occupation, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes would not be tolerated.
From the Arab perspective, and has been expressed repeatedly in Arab media, it is hard to accept that the same conditions do not apply to American allies. Not only has American support for the latest war led to outrage across the region, but American sidelining of the Palestinian question for the last decade has essentially de-legitimized the idea of a world order that is actually relevant outside the global north.
Scholars have argued that the liberal international order post-1945, and its component institutions, depends on its own legitimacy—in particular, on the “perceived justice” it can allegedly guarantee. The scholars conclude that injustice, then, is “corrosive to order in the long run.”
There are several types of justice claims that challenge the international order, such as recognitional justice and historical injustice claims. When actors feel unrecognized in their sovereignty—either because they challenge the notion of state sovereignty or believe they have not been accepted as fully part of the state system—this can erode the international order and its legitimacy. Similarly, when groups feel there has been historic harm done to their ancestors that has not been fully rectified, this can be corrosive to the international order.
The Palestinian national cause is an injustice claim that fits both in certain ways: a case where injustice occurred in the past and is ongoing, thus making it both a historical and contemporary harm. Moreover, Palestinians have a national identity and desire statehood. Their recognitional justice claim is not on the basis of rejecting the concept of state sovereignty, but rather that state sovereignty has not yet been extended to them. Famously, and with a good deal of criticism, Yaser Arafat declared that the Palestinians were “not Red Indians,” in an effort to demonstrate that the Palestinians were a unified people with a national sovereignty claim. Despite this emphasis over the years, the United States and its allies have never taken Palestinian sovereignty claims seriously, instead trying to resolve the issue with diminished versions of recognition: at the most, self-governance and at the least a marginally improved subsistence.
Now the US, actively espousing a liberal international order, has ignored the Palestine issue, and has eroded its legitimacy across the global south as a result. This has sparked a great deal of backlash against the liberal international order on the part of Palestinians and their Arab/regional allies, as well as a bandwagoning with illiberal forces in active pursuit of the erosion of an American-dominated world system. The result is an empowerment of authoritarian actors as well as the increased likelihood of conflict, as described above. Thus ongoing injustice against Palestinians should be seen as corrosive to the international order, and should be addressed rather than dismissed.
The compounding tragedy of the United States refusing to apply the same principles across the globe is the fact that Americais uniquely positioned to exert pressure, deescalate, and intervene in a political negotiation—given not only the scope of American power but also its ties to the parties involved. As Sarah Parkinson reminded readers in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, this is not outside the norm of American foreign policy: President Ronald Reagan, during Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon, demanded the Israeli leadership stop shelling Beirut. This was later credited for the “moderation” of Israeli behavior by both Israeli and American media.
But by forfeiting that role and that leverage in their insistence on “bear hugging” Netanyahu, the Biden administration not only condemns thousands of Palestinians—and people in the broader region—to avoidable death, but also condemns the rest of the world as the guardrails for international conflict, however problematic and selectively applied, are completely removed. The actors empowered in this vacuum have no alternative vision for the world except an order where might makes right.
Israeli government officials argue that the presence of Hamas in Gaza as a security concern cannot be tolerated. This is especially the case in the wake of the October 7th attack. Thus, they have repeatedly articulated that their objective is to eradicate Hamas entirely. But as analysts point out, a war of this scale and scope – and worse, the reoccupation of Gaza, which seems to be in progress – cannot accomplish the task of securing Israeli safety, or the goal of eradication.
Instead of continuing to ignore the Palestine factor, policymakers should address root causes of the ongoing violence, which includes the continued lack of a political future or sovereignty for Palestinians. It is important to note here that sovereignty does not mean simply limited self-governance such as exists in pockets of the West Bank (as easily overturned as that self-governance might be). Sovereignty means people having actual control of their lives and their environment, and shaping a governance structure that reflects the people and is accountable to them.
Policymakers must address, head-on, Palestinian national claims for sovereignty and let go of the assumption that the status quo can persist, either through marginal improvements to Palestinian living conditions or extreme coercion. Such an assumption will not achieve security for anyone, including Israelis. Thus, nothing less than foregoing this assumption, and changing course, will begin to resolve this long-festering conflict – a conflict that has upended the dreams and lives of too many in this region for far too long.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.