The phrase “when we win” is often heard these days in Israel. It’s a way of postponing a move or imagining a better life after Israel completes its mission of destroying Hamas, which was responsible for the deadliest day in Israel’s 75-year history. Nearly 9,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have already been killed in the offensive against Gaza, and the Israeli army is closing in on Gaza City. But what happens after Israel completes its mission? Who will govern the territory that has been ruled by Hamas since 2007? And who will stop the hatred among the ruins from creating a new post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? These are the questions Washington — which has its withdrawal from Afghanistan still fresh in its mind — and Arab and European foreign ministries — which are concerned about the potential repercussions, such as a refugee crisis — have been privately asking Israel.
Last week, Israel’s national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi responded defensively when asked about the future of Gaza, arguing that Israel’s current concern is freeing the more than 200 hostages and putting an end to Hamas. The United States, however, is urging Israel, which it helps economically and militarily, to think about the medium-long term.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the issue at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Friday, on his third visit to Israel since the war began on October 7: “Here’s what we know and I think is agreed among everyone: There cannot and must not be a return to the pre-October 7 status quo” in which Hamas continues to have security and governance responsibilities.
But, he added: “We also know that Israel cannot reassume control and responsibility for Gaza. And it’s important to note that Israel has made clear it has no intention or desire to do that.” Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but has technically continued to occupy the territory.
Blinken said that within these paramters, the United States has been talking to regional and international partners about different “possibilities, permutations” but that it was “premature” to go into detail.
The debate, however, is already dominating discussion in academic and security circles. “It is not too early for the Biden administration to start talking about the issue,” Gerald M. Feierstein, former diplomat and expert at the U.S.-based Middle East Institute, said in a video conference on Thursday. Feierstein criticized that the entire debate “is only ever about Gaza,” on issues such as “who is going to govern it or what the reconstruction is going to be like.” “We must recognize that this is an Israeli-Palestinian issue, not Israel and Gaza, and that the solution is political, not military, and neither party is going to achieve victory through violence,” he said.
Once the Israeli military destroys Hamas’ executive and military capabilities, Israel said it would establish a two-mile security buffer zone inside Gaza’s borders. “Gaza must be smaller at the end of the war,” said Gideon Saar, a minister newly appointed to the country’s emergency cabinet, just before Israel launched its ground offensive. “Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.” Israel would remain for a few months with far fewer troops on the ground, opting for frequent raids to quell the foreseeable pockets of insurgency. In other words, the situation will be similar to Israel’s approach in the West Bank, only in Gaza it will not have Israeli settlers to protect.
In parallel, a multinational force would be created, with the part of the Arab-Muslim world that recognizes Israel, such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco, foreseeably playing an important role. The day-to-day management of Gaza would return to the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA), just as in the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, and the Hamas coup in 2007. The Palestinian Authority also governs the West Bank cities under Israeli military occupation.
All of this would be accompanied by seals of approval from the United Nations and the Arab League, millions in aid for reconstruction and a new push to definitively resolve the conflict, with the creation of a Palestinian state. But Israel will demand many guarantees before leaving its security in the hands of others.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that the Palestinaian Authority will not return to governing Gaza “aborad an F-16 or an Israeli tank” if there is not a “comprehensive, peaceful vision” for the territory. “The West Bank needs a solution, and then link Gaza to it within the framework of a two-state solution,” he told The Guardian.
Meanwhile, Arab countries “have never wished to be made responsible for Gaza,” Nathan J. Brown, professor of Political Science and International Relations at George Washington University and author of several essays on politics in the Arab world, wrote in a recent article. “Nor are they likely to band together to manage a problem they feel was caused by the recklessness of others.”
Ghassan Jatib, a former Palestinian minister and professor of contemporary Arab studies and international studies at the West Bank university of Birzeit, adds that it’s not clear that anyone wants the responsibility. “Israel did not withdraw from Gaza to return, and I believe that Arab countries have no interest in playing a role in managing Gaza, after what Israel is doing. I don’t think the Palestinian Authority is willing to do it either,” he said.
Salam Fayyad, who was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority between 2007 and 2013, also warned of the complexity of the situation. “One idea that must be excluded from consideration is imposing any particular arrangement on the Palestinians after forcing them into submission,” he said in an article in Foreign Affairs, adding that the weak and discredited Palestinian Authority should not be expected to govern Gaza under its current structure.
Fayyad, who previously worked with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, said that the Palestinian Authority should be reformed, along with the Palestine Liberation Organization — the legal representative of the Palestinian people which does not include Hamas or Islamic Jihad — so that they “reflects the full spectrum of Palestinian views on what would constitute an acceptable settlement.”
Divisions between Gaza and the West Bank
These days Israel is treating the Palestinian Authority as an old friend that it has ignored for years and has suddenly called to ask a favor. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu — which argues that the “Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right” to both Israel and Palestine — has been fueling the divisions between Gaza and the West Bank for years in a bid to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
But Israel has also weakened the Palestinian Authority by refusing to offer it possible dialogue, and this has strengthened the legitimacy of Hamas. For Israel’s far right, the PNA is also the enemy. “The Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset,” Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a 2015 interview. “It’s a terrorist organization, no one will recognize it, no one will give it status at the [International Criminal Court], no one will let it put forth a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.”
A few days before the Hamas attack on October 7, Israeli’s ultranationalists were furious because PNA’s security forces — which Israel is now considering deploying in Gaza — had received 18 vehicles financed by the United States.
Daniel Wajner is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations and European Forum at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in international legitimation and conflict resolution. He believes neither Israel, the Palestinaian Authority nor an international group will be in charge of Gaza after the war with Hamas. He proposes a fourth solution, involving “central countries of the Arab-Islamic world,” such as Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which had been negotiating to recognize Israel. “I don’t know if it is the best plan or the safest, but it is the most legitimate,” he said.
Another problem lies in the vagueness of the concept of “eliminating Hamas,” a movement that governs Gaza and employs tens of thousands of officials. The question is to what extent will Israel arrest and eliminate Hamas officials: just the upper echelons or the entire structure?
Eyal Hulata, Israel’s former national security advisor, advocated last week for keeping a portion of civilian officials during the transition. A French proposal, reported in the newspaper Haaretz, involves replacing all officials appointed by Hamas with Palestinian Authority employees.
Israel is also not clear on this topic. Some are in favor of strengthening the Palestinian Authority, while others want Israel to stay in Gaza and rebuild the settlement of Gush Katif, which was evacuated in 2005. This is the case of Simcha Rothman, the president of the parliamentary justice commission and lead pundit of Israel’s controversial judicial reform, who said that Hamas must be defeated to the point where “a Jewish child can walk down the main street of Gaza.” A leaked working document from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence even proposes permanently expelling the population of Gaza, by force to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“The question ‘How should Gaza be governed when the war is over?’ will likely reveal itself to have no good answers and not even to be the right starting point,” said Brown, in article published Friday. “Instead, better questions ask: What does it mean to oust a party like Hamas from governance when it dominates all levels of Gaza’s government? What does it mean for Israel to attempt to end the military capability of Hamas, a social movement with a military wing that also oversees public security, administration, and other governmental functions — especially when it operates both above and below ground? What does victory mean? And whatever its goals, what will Israel actually achieve? How will anyone know that the war is over?”
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