When Benjamin Netanyahu sent troops into Gaza last month after Hamas launched a devastating assault on Israel, he pledged that the Jewish state would “eliminate” the Palestinian militant group once and for all.
In the weeks since, Israeli ground forces have encircled Hamas’s political and military stronghold in Gaza City. But even as Israeli troops close in on their first military objective of taking control of northern Gaza, Israel’s longer-term strategy for the enclave remains shrouded in mystery: to most Israelis, to Palestinians and even to its closest allies in the US.
“I think where we are is: a lot of questions and not a lot of answers,” John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, said this week in an interview with CNN. “We know what we don’t want to see in Gaza post-conflict . . . But what we are going to see, what we want to see, I think we’re still flushing that out.”
The question is becoming increasingly urgent. Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza has killed more than 11,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, and created a humanitarian catastrophe in the enclave. Even the US, which has staunchly backed Israel over the past month, is raising increasing alarm about the soaring death toll and the repercussions of a lengthy war.
“The faster you can get to a point where you stop the hostilities, you have less strife for the civilian population that turns into someone who now wants to be the next member of Hamas,” General Charles Brown, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters this week.
But Israel, its western allies and the Palestinians are in uncharted territory. Reacting to the deadliest attack inside the state since its foundation in 1948, which killed approximately 1,400 people according to Israeli officials, Israel has launched the most devastating and destructive assault on Gaza since it withdrew from the strip in 2005.
As Israeli troops move ever deeper into the besieged strip, a traumatised nation bent on revenge is being led by the most far-right government in its history, whose prime aim is the eradication of an Islamist group deeply embedded in Palestinian society.
The unparalleled ferocity of Israel’s response has exacerbated the lack of clarity about Gaza’s postwar future as no one knows when or how the war will end. It is also not clear what it means in practice to destroy an organisation that has a political as well as a military arm, and which has, for the past 16 years been integral to the bureaucracy and provision of public services in Gaza.
“We’re not going to be able to change the reality for the people who live in the south of Israel unless we eliminate Hamas,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, and a member of the country’s five-man war cabinet, said last week. “Now what does elimination mean? Does that mean going to the last bullet or not? That’s a separate question, we’ll have to decide.”
The picture is further clouded by the fact that the US, Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could all change during what is likely to be a protracted campaign — particularly if, as many fear, the war morphs into an open-ended guerrilla conflict inside Gaza.
Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, is 87 and surrounded by courtiers jostling for position; Netanyahu is beset by scandals and questions about his role in the failures that led to Hamas’s attack on October 7; and polls this week suggested that US president Joe Biden could be replaced by Donald Trump in next year’s election.
‘No status quo’
Nobody knows what will be left of Gaza — home to 2.3mn people and already devastated by a month-long bombardment and siege — when the fighting finally ends. Israeli officials have suggested it will be sealed off from Israel and potentially squeezed ever tighter by new buffer zones and security barriers inside the strip.
“At the moment, thinking about ‘the day after’ feels like an intentional, or unintentional, distraction from what will fundamentally shape the day after,” says Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “It’s what Israel does now that will determine what you can do the day after.”
While Israeli officials remain tight-lipped about their long-term plans, some western officials question whether they even exist.
“The Israelis, they haven’t really thought about it . . . that makes it very difficult for anyone else to plan,” says a western official. “It’s very messy.”
As international pressure mounts for a ceasefire, Netanyahu this week gave the clearest indication yet of his government’s thinking on the immediate postwar period, saying that Israel would “for an indefinite period . . . have the overall security responsibility” for the enclave.
Israeli officials concede this could include forces being stationed in Gaza after the war has ended. “We will have to have our forces in different areas to enable operational flexibility,” says one senior official. “We all woke up on October 7 to a new reality. This means for all of us not to think from the perspective of the past.”
Some in Israel’s security apparatus think a situation akin to that in parts of the occupied West Bank, such as the so-called Area B, where Israeli forces exercise security control alongside a Palestinian civilian authority, is the most likely outcome. “There are two operational things that you need to do to prevent a build-up of terror in Gaza,” says Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military. “You need to control the Egyptian border . . . And you need something like Area B in the West Bank, where you can go in and out and apprehend terror cells like we do there.”
But others on Israel’s right have demanded that the Jewish state exercise more open-ended control of Gaza — and even reintroduce Israeli settlements, considered illegal by most of the international community, into the strip. Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have submitted a bill that would overturn legislation passed after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal that prevents Israelis from entering Gaza. “There is no status quo, and nothing is sacred,” education minister Yoav Kisch said earlier this week.
Such talk, in combination with Israel’s displacement of hundreds of thousands of Gazans from the north of the territory, has fuelled fears among Palestinians that Israel could end up taking control of the enclave.
“Which Israeli politician would campaign on withdrawing from northern Gaza?” asks one Palestinian analyst. “It will be another West Bank, but even worse, because there will be no Palestinians.”
Israel’s leadership insists this is not the case. “I don’t think we want to control 2mn Palestinians,” says the senior official. “[On] future mechanisms for Gaza, whatever those might be, there are two conditions. The first is that it cannot be Hamas under any circumstances. And secondly, we must maintain operational superiority.”
The world watches
In a bid to ease concerns among the Palestinians and Washington’s Arab allies, US secretary of state Antony Blinken this week set out some of the Biden administration’s parameters for the postwar order in Gaza.
There could be no reoccupation, he said. Nor could there be any forcible displacement of Palestinians from the strip, or a reduction of Gaza’s territory, or any attempt to blockade it. Instead, he argued, Gaza and the West Bank should be reunified under the Palestinian Authority, the body created during the 1990s as a step towards an independent Palestinian state which exercises limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank — and which also administered Gaza until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007.
But how to achieve this, or even whether it would be a viable solution, is mired in doubt.
Blinken suggested last week that the UN or a coalition of Arab states could run Gaza for an interim period after the war before handing over to an “effective and revitalised” PA. But diplomats and regional officials are deeply sceptical.
Although the UN played a key role in running public services, such as schools, in Gaza before the war, few think it would be able to take on the whole civilian administration.
And as the war has progressed, Israeli officials have been increasingly hostile towards the UN, with several accusing it of siding with the Palestinians.
“An international force isn’t going to do it,” says Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of the research division of the IDF, arguing that the failure of the UN mission in Lebanon to prevent clashes along the Lebanese-Israel border between militant group Hizbollah and Israeli forces showed it would not work in Gaza. “Where is Unifil when [Hizbollah] launches attacks on us?”
Nor do Arab states have any appetite to take on what they see as the poisoned chalice of assuming any role in Gaza. “If you do it you are going to be crucified in the Arab world,” says one Arab diplomat. “No Arab country will come in after the destruction.”
The bigger question, however, is whether any attempt to reinstall the PA in Gaza would create more problems than it would solve, especially if the body returned as a result of Israeli conquest of the territory.
“No Palestinian agency, including the PA, can take over Gaza in the context of an alliance between us and Israel against Hamas,” says one senior Palestinian official. “That’s an impossibility. And no Palestinian agency can be part of an international alliance against Hamas . . . Any external agency [in Gaza] will empower Hamas.”
He and Arab officials insist the only viable option to neutering Hamas’s militant ideology is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
They blame Israel for fuelling the conflict by spending years systematically weakening the PA to the point where it can barely administer its ever-eroding chunk of the West Bank. And this, combined with years without elections or any meaningful progress towards a Palestinian state, have robbed the body of its legitimacy. For many Palestinians, the PA is now little more than a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation.
“It sets up this system where you have this false impression that the PA is in control, but in reality, it’s going to be Israel that’s in control,” says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and analyst who previously worked with the PA. “The Americans are looking through these old, tired formulas from the 1990s. And that shows you that they don’t have any vision.”
But as the war grinds into its sixth week, and the human toll hits catastrophic levels, it is those old formulas to which diplomats and officials in Washington and the Middle East are returning, even if few hold much hope that they will succeed.
“It’s hard to be optimistic,” says the western official. “The only positive thing is everybody recognises there’s got to be some sort of push towards a Palestinian state, otherwise none of this is going to get any better.”
Yet that prospect also appears to be a remote aspiration.
The official says that to reach a settlement to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires three key ingredients: an engaged US administration and Israeli and Palestinian leaders that are serious about peace.
“In the last 30 years we’ve had two, or maybe two and a half of those,” the official says. “Before this crisis we had zero which is one of the reasons we are in the place we are in.”
Cartography by Steven Bernard