Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Is the Gaza Blockade Backfiring?

• June 21, 2010 • 12:56 PM

The flotilla debacle aside, Israel’s effort to strangle Hamas is fighting some tough historical headwinds.

In the weeks since Israel’s lethally bungled raid on a boatload of protesters trying to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state has come under tremendous pressure to lift its punishing blockade of the Palestinian enclave. Though they’ve recently announced a partial easing of restrictions on imports, Israel argues it must continue to isolate Gaza to keep Hamas from smuggling in weapons and ultimately drive them out of power. In other words, Palestinian civilians must suffer economic hardship so that Israeli civilians are no longer menaced by rockets.

That’s a hard-hearted, but plausible- sounding, argument. The trouble is, research show that historically, using economic sanctions to force a rogue regime to change its ways rarely works.

Researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently released the third edition of their highly regarded book-length study on economic sanctions, examining more than 170 cases over the last century. Their main conclusion: Sanctions have accomplished their proclaimed objective in only about a third of all cases — and most of those involved goals far more modest than regime change. “I’d say Israel’s chances of success are very low,” says Gary Hufbauer, one of the study’s authors.

The authors of a 2000 study on sanctions imposed in the 1990s found a similar 1-in-3 success rate.

What’s more, this kind of collective punishment often strengthens the targeted regime, rather than weakening it.

“Politically, [the] goal is to reduce the support for sanctioned leaders of their own peoples. This may indeed happen in exceptional cases. But in fact the more general reaction is one of ‘rallying around the flag,’ whereby resisting outside pressure is seen as a patriotic duty”, writes Ramesh Thakur, vice-rector of Tokyo’s United Nations University.

Many economic sanctions stop short of a full-scale trade embargo. But Israel’s ability — with Egypt’s support — to cut off virtually all foreign trade with Gaza makes its blockade most comparable to thoroughgoing international efforts to isolate Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither case offers an encouraging precedent.

The sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, aimed at getting Belgrade to stop supporting the war effort of their Serbian confreres in neighboring Bosnia, drove the Yugoslav economy into freefall. Industrial output was halved, wages plummeted and unemployment skyrocketed. Basic foods and even medical supplies became scarce and expensive. But according to an American University study, “Milosevic used the economic sanctions both as a glue for defiant nationalist sentiment and to strengthen his hold on power.” Writing in George Mason University’s International Journal of Peace Studies, researcher Milica Delevic noted: “Firmly in control of the media, the Yugoslav officials managed to blame the sanctions on the world’s hatred for the Serbs. …the sanctions provided a convenient excuse for whatever was wrong in the country.”

Eventually, Milosevic did bring some pressure to bear on his Bosnian allies, but not enough to make them stop fighting. “Sanctions, helped to a great extent by pre-existing economic difficulties and macroeconomic mismanagement … [helped] make Serbian President Milosevic more cooperative, but were of no decisive importance for stopping the war in Bosnia,” Delevic concluded. That required NATO bombers.

The story of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1991 invasion of Kuwait is similar. The embargo dealt a heavy blow to ordinary Iraqis, crippling the economy and spawning shortages of food and medicines. The sanctions were a major contributing factor to the doubling of Iraq’s infant mortality rate, according to UNICEF. But Saddam made sure his supporters, and especially the military, got everything they needed. As a result, another American University study found, “sanctions have strengthened his resolve, while weakening his opposition. Under the sanctions, Saddam has rebuilt his army from the shattered wreck left in 1991.” Once again, it took a full-scale military invasion to drive him from power.

There are success stories. The Peterson Institute researchers credit sanctions with helping coax Libya into handing over suspects in the Lockerbie airplane bombing. Perhaps most famously, economic pressure on South Africa helped end apartheid. But Cuba’s Communist Party is still in charge after weathering nearly 50 years of an American economic embargo. North Korea’s leadership seems similarly unfazed by years of international economic sanctions.

In Gaza, the blockade hasn’t forced Hamas to hand over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, one of Israel’s demands. Nor does it seem to be weakening Hamas’ grip on power. In the past year, Hamas militants have jailed and killed its critics on the left and right. “A thriving political culture has been culled to a one-faction state,” reported The Economist recently.

One of the main reasons sanctions fail is that they are almost impossible to make airtight. From Africa to Eastern Europe, neighboring countries always have an incentive to keep doing business with the targeted country. In Gaza, despite Egypt and Israel’s efforts, Palestinians have dug an extensive network of smuggling tunnels through which huge amounts of goods are brought in. Hamas profitably taxes that traffic.

As Thakur points out, as a result of sanctions “leaders are often enriched and strengthened on the backs of their impoverished and oppressed peoples.”

Those tunnels also serve as a conduit for weapons. Hamas had no shortage of rockets to fire at Israel in their 2009 war, and there’s no reason to think they have any fewer on hand now.

This week, the Israeli government declared it would ease the blockade somewhat, allowing more goods in overland while still banning incoming ships. They seem to have realized that while history shows there’s a chance a full-scale economic embargo will help them tame Hamas, the odds are badly against it.

With reporting by Nicole Pasulka

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 9:00 AM

For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.


October 2 • 8:00 AM

Can Prisons Predict Which Inmates Will Try to Escape?

And what can they do to prevent it?


October 2 • 6:00 AM

How Do We Know Our Environmental Laws Are Working?

Ask a great white shark.


October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


Follow us


For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.