Israel’s goal is to eradicate Hamas and secure the enclave.
As Israel has waged its war in the Gaza Strip, officials across the world are united in trying to figure out how to restore order when all the fighting stops. There’s little agreement, however, and even less optimism.
Israel’s goal is to eradicate Hamas and secure the enclave. But like so much about the events of the Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state and its aftermath, what advocates seek for the future of Gaza reflects how they interpret the past — and on that, they can’t agree.
That raises questions over whether Israel can ever achieve its stated aims: to deradicalize and demilitarize the Palestinian territory of 2.2 million people on its southwestern border. Israel and Hamas agreed a hostage deal announced early Wednesday and a pause in fighting, but it’s uncertain whether any sustainable peace will endure.
US President Joe Biden wants to bring the more moderate Palestinian Authority from the West Bank, led by Mahmoud Abbas, back into Gaza more than 16 years after it was ejected and restart the building of a Palestinian state, as he laid out in a recent essay and public statements.
Interviews with two dozen officials, diplomats and analysts in Israel, the Arab world, Europe and the US — most of which were granted on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations — show the range of options along with the mistrust and confusion dominating the discussions.
Unlike the US, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes a Palestinian state and wants to keep the West Bank and Gaza separate. It seeks to foster a young technocratic leadership inside Gaza with Arab money, US guidance and Israeli security that will build something like Dubai on the Mediterranean, according to senior Israeli officials and others with whom they’ve spoken. It’s an approach most outsiders consider pie in the sky.
The Palestinian Authority says it won’t discuss the future without a ceasefire, but privately officials say they’re ready to return, just not on the back of Israeli tanks. The European Union supports its return, one senior official said, and could beef up its border control mission in Gaza that was withdrawn after Oct. 7. Top officials from the EU have been holding discussions with officials from the authority and key Arab states.
Some other European and US officials say the only way forward is a multinational or United Nations force, with an emphasis on Arab troops. Governments in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia say they won’t put boots on the ground and that the US is too supportive of Israel’s war.
“Let me be very clear: I know I am speaking on behalf of Jordan but I have discussed this issue with almost all of our Arab brethren,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain on Nov. 18. “There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza.”
That leaves an option of a force like the one in Haiti or Lebanon, but these are considered to be highly ineffective, and Israel either won’t accept it or will mostly ignore it once in place.
Many Arabs see the Hamas attack last month as evidence that Israel has been ignoring the Palestinian question to its detriment, pursuing peace with countries further afield such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The assault was significant less for its savagery than for the underlying factors that, they argue, drove desperate people to do desperate things.
An Israeli flag amongst vehicles destroyed in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants, collected in an area near the Gaza border, outside Netivot, southern Israel, on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.
This is an opportunity, they say, to restart stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and return to the two-state model that has animated policy and analysis for some three decades. Some also argue that Hamas can’t be eliminated because the group, designated a terrorist organization by the US, UK and EU, is inherent to Palestinian society and now must be incorporated into peace talks.
Israelis mostly draw a different conclusion. They say they pulled their forces and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. Palestinians could have constructed factories, farms and hotels. Instead, Hamas — which won legislative elections a year later and then took control by force — mostly built rockets and underground tunnels, training thousands of militants to kill and maim, while leaving the population impoverished, the Israelis say.
The lesson is that Israel must never again leave neighboring territory in the hands of Palestinian security forces because militants will take over and try another Oct. 7 attack. For them, the model is Japan and Germany after World War II — destroy fully the existing authority and create a new entity backed by an aid package.
“The only way to uproot Hamas entails a massive devastation to homes and infrastructure, leaving parts of Gaza today looking like the European cities in rubble at the end of the Second World War,” said Uri Dromi, an Israeli government spokesman in the 1990s. “The situation calls for a similar remedy: A new Marshall Plan for Gaza.”
Palestinians search for casualties in the crater of a building destroyed by an Israeli strike in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. While
A scenario of total devastation in Gaza risks radicalizing an entire generation of youth against the Jewish state, Arab leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah have warned. Plus, it would involve billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars. The question is from whom and who would decide how to spend it. Qatar, for one, has financed Gaza for years, with money going toward infrastructure.
Some Arab leaders, though, say they’ve paid to rebuild Gaza three times already due to conflicts with Israel and aren’t much interested in a fourth without rock-solid guarantees.
In Israel, many say it’s time to abandon the — clearly failed — two-state formula and find a new approach. “It’s as if nothing happened and people are coming up with the old stuff,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “I would vie for something which is out-of-the-box thinking. There is an opportunity to do something different.”
Biden says that ground rules for what should happen next include no forcible displacement of Palestinians, no siege or blockade of Gaza and no reduction in its territory.
But Israel has been pressing to move Gazans temporarily into Egypt or other Arab countries to complete its military operation and limit civilian casualties. Egypt refuses — as do the others — on the grounds that, in the past, Israel drove Palestinians from their homes and may not let them back. Israel denies that, but says it plans to create a buffer zone inside Gaza so that militants are kept far from its communities. That, too, contradicts Biden.
Palestinians with dual citizenship while seeking permission to leave Gaza at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt in Rafah, Gaza, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.
In trying to plan what’s next, many look at recent history. The Palestinian Authority was in charge of Gaza from 1994 until 2007. In 2006 legislative elections, Hamas squeaked past Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority. It then began pressuring Fatah officials, leading to a violent civil war. Hundreds were killed and the Palestinian Authority was exiled from the strip.
Walid Ibrahim al-Walid, a general in the Palestinian Authority’s preventive security service, counts himself lucky to be alive. He says Hamas made two attempts on his life in Gaza. “They came to my house, where I was with my family, and began shooting and throwing grenades,” he recounted.
Now living in the West Bank, Al-Walid would like to go back to Gaza, where he’s from, as part of a new leadership. There are some 25,000 Palestinian Authority officials still in Gaza, some of whom work within Hamas ministries, and others who’ve collected salaries for 16 years while staying home. Such civil servants could, in theory, form a new governing structure.
Two names come up as possibilities to run Gaza, at least in the short term. One is Mohammed Dahlan, the top Palestinian Authority figure in Gaza before Hamas took over. Dahlan challenged President Abbas and has been living in exile in Abu Dhabi since 2011. The other is Marwan Barghouti. He’s been in Israeli prison for two decades, is highly influential in the West Bank and considered a possible successor to Abbas. Israel would have to be willing to release him.
The Palestinian Authority, though, is widely considered to have grown sclerotic after almost two decades under Abbas, with corruption and inefficiency endemic. Israeli officials say the authority’s return would be a recipe for disaster and they won’t permit it. US officials don’t deny that there are significant problems with that possibility, but say they’re less severe than Israel contends.
In truth, there are so many variables — when the war will end, how much will be left standing, how many civilians are killed, whether the fighting spreads more deeply into Lebanon — that detailed planning seems almost fantasy-like. It isn’t even clear who the decision makers in key places will be.
Many expect that when the war ends, Netanyahu will be forced to resign for having overseen the security lapse that permitted the Oct. 7 attack. Since his government is especially nationalist, a change could mean a new approach.
It’s far from clear, however, whether a new administration would be more moderate on Gaza’s future or a Palestinian state because the events of recent weeks have driven many Israelis further to the right. In a poll by Channel 12 last week, only 10% of Israelis said they favored bringing the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, with 30% favoring an international force.
It’s also not clear how much longer Abbas, 88, will be in office or who might replace him. The same could be said of Biden at 81, facing a tight reelection race in one year, possibly against Donald Trump, who’s campaigning partly on a platform of isolationism, suggesting that US military engagement abroad would decrease markedly.
Biden has taken a central role in supporting Israel, sending two carrier-led combat fleets to the Eastern Mediterranean to warn Hezbollah and Iran not to jump into the war with Israel.
Among many other issues is what will be left of Gaza. Much of Gaza City is in ruins. Gaza’s inhabitants are mostly the descendants of refugees and many have lived without productive work, although thanks to UN agencies, their core needs — health and education — have been met.
Displaced Palestinians carry bedding materials at a camp, operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.
The reputation of the strip is more dire than the reality. According to the World Bank, Gaza has near universal literacy, much higher than in neighboring Egypt, let alone poorer countries like Sudan and Chad. Rates of infant mortality and life expectancy were also better.
But the impact of the war will be devastating. The UN Development Program has already forecast that with some 390,000 jobs lost so far, the economy could shrink by up to 12% in 2023, poverty could rise by a third and the area could be set back by some 15 years. More than two thirds of Gazans have been displaced. Gaza could look like Syria with huge internal refugee tent camps amid rubble.
“It’s extremely difficult to think of the endgame,” said Khaled Al-Hroub, professor in residence of the faculty of liberal arts at Northwestern University in Qatar. “Much depends on the final outcome of the war and the degree to which Hamas is weakened.”
He said Hamas can’t be eliminated and must be included in negotiations on a future Palestinian state, or as former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa put it: “Hamas will most certainly have a role in what emerges after the guns are silenced.”
Displaced Palestinians build a structure for a temporary shelter at a camp, operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.
Meanwhile, said Al-Hroub, Israel is turning Gaza into a “reconstruction site that will consume whoever is in power for years to come in healing it.” And, for now, it’s hard to see who would wield that power beyond Israel.
The country says it trusts no one else to make sure Hamas isn’t rebuilding its forces. It plans on having its troops moving freely in and out, which will protect the border communities it plans to rebuild, but create friction in Gaza.
If a local governing body does emerge, the situation might most resemble parts of the West Bank where Palestinian officials handle civil matters and Israeli troops are responsible for security. It’s an arrangement that Palestinians have complained about for years, saying Israeli troops humiliate their officials who are dismissed by the population as toadies and agents of occupation.
Meanwhile, the most striking gap remains over the meaning of Oct. 7. Israelis focus on the killing, maiming and kidnapping of women, children and elderly, by militants. To them, it’s evidence of a deeply violent streak and proof that Hamas needs to be uprooted the way the Islamic State was from Iraq and Syria in 2016-17.
Posters of Israeli hostages during a demonstration calling for their release outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Nov. 7.
Palestinians view it differently. They tend to see the attack as a triumph over Israel, according to a recent poll by Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development. Support for a two-state solution has plummeted, it showed, while belief has soared in the installation of a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
To the question of whether the events since Oct. 7 have made them more or less in favor of coexistence, nine in 10 Palestinians said less.
That’s the kind of sentiment Israelis cite as a reason to focus purely on their own security calculations, without expecting cooperation from anyone else. “As long as there is no stability in Gaza, Israel can rely on nobody,” said Rabi, the Dayan Center director. “Whatever the solution, it has to have something to do with the security needs of Israel.”
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