In 1994, I had the good fortune of being present when the former president of South Africa, F. W. DeKlerk, claimed with a laugh that his country had successfully avoided the sanctions imposed on it by the United Nations. Seen from where he sat in Pretoria, he may well have spoken the truth.
Those hardest hit by the sanctions were most likely the poor blacks, not the well-to-do whites. In the end, it was not sanctions but demographics that brought Nelson Mandela out of prison, dismantled apartheid and led to the establishment of the present South African regime.
Still, anybody who flew South African Airways during those years could feel in his own back how effective the sanctions had been. The airline was able to maintain a good safety record, but even in business class, the seats had not been upholstered for years. And no sooner had sanctions been lifted than South African traders were again running around the world, trying to sell their wares. The result was that the Rand shot up by no less than 40%.
In the end, sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa worked quite well, though they were slow in making their effects felt. Much the same can be said for the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.
To be sure, they did not succeed in bringing down Saddam Hussein, as may have been their original intention. And even if one disregards the more extreme claims made by the Iraqis, there is no doubt that countless innocent people, including a whole generation of children, were also hurt. Yet there is no doubt that sanctions helped strangulate the country and prevent it from rebuilding its armed forces.
Unfortunately, the two most prominent recent examples of sanctions offer precious little guidance on how to deal with the Palestinian Authority now that Hamas has been elected.
The Palestinian situation is very different from those in apartheid-era South Africa and Saddam-ruled Iraq. On the one hand, so poor and lacking in resources are the West Bank and Gaza, and so tight are the Israeli controls, that sanctions can be easily and rapidly imposed, and if strictly enforced would lead to rapid results. On the other hand, it is not at all clear what those results would be.
In apartheid-era South Africa only the white minority voted, and in Saddam-ruled Iraq no meaningful elections took place at all. By contrast, Hamas was voted into office in elections that, by Middle Eastern standards, were remarkably fair and free from disturbances. This means that if donors such as the United States or the European Union impose sanctions on the Palestinians, they would be violating their own principles and undermining their own credibility. They would also be giving the Palestinian people, who have put their faith in democracy, a slap in the face.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear what sanctions against the P.A. could achieve. Life for the Palestinian people is already hard. Creating a situation in which people start dying of hunger in the streets would lead to further rifts between Israel and the international community, not to mention among Israelis. For that matter, it is far from certain that such conditions would either compel Hamas to change its tune or undermine the popular support it receives. Thus, one possibility that must be reckoned with is that sanctions against the P.A. will backfire.
True, examples of democratic governments being subjected to sanctions are hard to find — unless one includes Israel, which following the 1956 Suez War was briefly threatened with sanctions and had to ration fuel. Yet the experience of World War II, when democratic Britain was able to respond to the emergency and mobilize its resources more effectively than either Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, suggests that democratically elected governments may actually find it easier to cope with economic hardship than more authoritarian ones.
A second possibility is that instead of weakening the position of Hamas, sanctions may hurt the president of the P.A., Mahmoud Abbas. He is not a member of Hamas, has not been elected in its name, and is considered to be quite moderate in comparison with the Islamist movement — but it is he who, unlike DeKlerk, may ultimately suffer the consequences of sanctions.
Yet another possibility is that growing economic hardships will cause the West Bank to slide into chaos and become as ungovernable as Gaza already is. None of these scenarios is exactly in the interests of Israel, the United States, the E.U., Russia or even moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan. All actors involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict probably stand to lose much more from sanctions than they might be able to gain.
Under such circumstances, the best way ahead is probably to impose some sanctions, but only moderate ones. Contrary to the desires of some hard-line Israelis, the goals should not be to co-opt Hamas or to bring it down.
First, it is doubtful whether such objectives can be achieved by any sort of pressure, short of systematic starvation that would make Nablus look like the disastrously short-lived Nigerian breakaway republic of Biafra. Second, even if such objectives could be achieved, it is not at all clear that doing so is desirable.
Instead, the aim should be to make it clear to Hamas that Israel and the donor countries are unhappy with them, that they should consider modifying their ways to make some kind of progress possible, and that such behavior on their part could result in some real benefits. No less — but no more.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University, is author of “The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israel Defense Force” (Public Affairs, 2002) and “Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace” (Thomas Dunne, 2004).