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After Hamas, what might come next for Gaza?
With Israel determined to destroy Hamas and with widespread destruction in Gaza, no single individual or authority can reconstruct the Palestinian enclave, analysts conclude
On Sunday, the third day of a temporary cease-fire between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an unexpected visit to troops stationed in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.
After receiving a security briefing from commanders and visiting one of Hamas’ terror tunnels, Netanyahu told the soldiers: “We have three goals in this war: Eliminate Hamas, return all of our hostages and ensure that Gaza will not go back to being a threat to the State of Israel.”
Despite anxieties in Israel that there will be outside international pressure to constrain its military operation against Hamas, Israeli political and military leaders appear determined to continue the fight until Hamas, which carried out the worst terror attack on Israel in its 75-year history, is completely removed from the Palestinian enclave.
Though no one is willing to publicly estimate how long such a task might take – the terror group is deeply embedded inside the civilian population, making the mission complex – there has already been growing speculation as to what might come next for Gaza.
President Joe Biden has hinted at bringing in a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA), the body headed by Mahmoud Abbas that governs the West Bank from Ramallah. Netanyahu has repeatedly dismissed such an idea, accusing Abbas of inciting terror and being every bit as bad as Hamas, yet has offered no alternative end goal.
Meanwhile, far-right members of Israel’s coalition have spoken out loudly about their desire to reoccupy Gaza (Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Strip in 2005), while more moderate voices suggest bringing in a temporary multinational force – potentially led by Abraham Accords signatories – to help the Palestinians transition the enclave into a place that could realistically coexist alongside Israel.
In every scenario, aid to rebuild what is now being described as an uninhabitable territory would need to come from either regional or international sources – or both.
“I think there is a greater understanding than it appears between Washington and Jerusalem that it is unrealistic to assume the Palestinian Authority will take control of Gaza if Israel achieves its goal of toppling Hamas from power,” David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Jewish Insider.
Makovsky noted that a recent opinion piece published by the president in the Washington Post made clear that PA control of Gaza was not an immediate goal, but “an objective to work towards as part of a wider peace effort.”
“Note Biden’s use of words ‘ultimately’ and ‘under a revitalized Palestinian Authority,’” he said.
“So, why not the PA now?” Makovsky continued. “There are multiple reasons. First, it would not exactly be a great optic for the PA to arrive in Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank, and one must agree that the PA already has its hands full with territorial challenges in the West Bank.”
In addition, he explained, “Given the extent of the destruction in Gaza, one does not want to set up the PA for failure given the massive scope of the challenges.”
“Yet, the war cannot end with Gaza being an ungoverned space that could both ensure Israel is forced to directly control Gaza or breed the return of other terror groups,” Makovsky noted, adding that in a policy paper he co-authored with Dennis Ross and Robert Satloff they advocate for “an interim administration that could enlist the international system including the U.S. and a consortium of Abraham Accords countries in helping with the transition.”
Asher Fredman, a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security, told JI that the Abraham Accords countries could definitely play a role in post-war Gaza, particularly on the issue of humanitarian aid.
“I do think there is a role for them in the rebuilding and physical reconstruction of Gaza,” he said, pointing out that financial assistance to the PA and to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that works with Palestinian refugees in the region, has diminished in the past few years because of concerns about corruption.
“If the PA remains more or less what it is today, then I do not see those countries helping extensively,” said Fredman, who is also the Israel director of the Washington-based Abraham Accords Peace Institute.
However, he noted, pulling in the Abraham Accords countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, to help with reconstructing and reimagining Gaza, would fit well into Biden’s India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC) plan.
“The IMEC plan is built on regional connectivity and there is a lot of potential for a reconstructed Gaza to be part of this economic prosperity,” Fredman said.
Earlier this month, during a visit to the region, Biden’s coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, Amos Hochstein, reportedly discussed the opportunity to develop offshore gas fields on behalf of the Palestinians as part of a plan for post-war Gaza. Israel already approved such a development last June, with Haaretz reporting that a gas field off Gaza’s coast contains as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
While such a plan still appears a long way off, there has also been talk of who might lead Palestinians in Gaza – and even in the West Bank – if the war gives way to a new configuration in the region.
One name that has long been touted as a future Palestinian leader is Mohammed Dahlan. Born in the Gaza Strip in 1961, Dahlan fled to the UAE after Hamas seized control of the enclave in 2007. At that time, he had been serving as the Palestinian national security advisor to the PA; he has since maintained powerful support inside Palestinian society.
Despite having some bitter enemies — particularly Abbas — Dahlan, a fluent Hebrew speaker who spent years in an Israeli prison for security offenses, has deep connections with Israel and is said to have close ties with the powerful UAE leader Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In an interview last month with The Economist, Dahlan dismissed the suggestion that he or any single individual could run Gaza post-war. He also rejected the idea of a multinational force being stationed in the Strip. Instead, he called for a transitional period with an administration run by technocrats in Gaza and the West Bank.
Such a step, he told the magazine, could reunify the Palestinian territories – Gaza and the West Bank – after more than a decade of infighting between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas’ political faction that runs the PA. However, he was clear that any future plan would need to include all Palestinian political factions, even representatives of Hamas.
“Hamas will not disappear,” Dahlan said in the interview, adding that even after the war it would be impossible to govern Gaza without Hamas’ consent.