What Next in Gaza?
The cease-fire will end. What follows is not at all clear.
BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams (“When this truce ends, the decisive next phase of war begins“):
Israel’s military campaign in Gaza City is probably in its final stages.
The truce, brokered to allow for the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, will delay the IDF by anywhere from four to nine days, depending on how many hostages Hamas decides to release.
When that ends, Israeli experts expect the battle for control of Gaza City to resume and last another week to 10 days.
But what happens when the Israeli military turns its attention to the southern Gaza Strip, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly indicated?
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas wherever it exists. It assumes that the group’s most important leaders, Yayha Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, are somewhere in the south, along with thousands of fighters and, probably, a significant number of Israeli hostages.
If Israel decides to do to the south what it’s already done to the north, will Western – especially American – goodwill start to run out?
With the bulk of the Gaza Strip’s estimated 2.2 million people now crammed into the southern two thirds of the Strip, many of them homeless and traumatised, is a larger humanitarian disaster looming?
One of the last straws might be the sight of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, huddled in tents, amid the sandy fields of a place called al-Mawasi.
According to the UN relief agency for Palestinians (Unrwa), almost 1.7 million people have been displaced across the Gaza Strip since 7 October. Most of them are in the south, living in overcrowded shelters.
For several weeks, Israeli officials have been talking about a solution – a so-called “safe area” at al-Mawasi, a thin strip of mainly agricultural land along the Mediterranean coast, close to the Egyptian border.
Last week, leaflets dropped over the nearby city of Khan Yunis warned of impending airstrikes and told people to move west, towards the sea.
In a post on social media on Thursday, Avichay Adraee, the IDF’s spokesman for the Arabic media, told Gazans al-Mawasi would provide “the appropriate conditions to protect your loved ones.”
But how realistic is it to expect more than two million people to shelter there while the war rages nearby? And just how “appropriate” are conditions at al-Mawasi?
For Israel, it’s a matter of military necessity. Just as Hamas was embedded in Gaza City, it says, so the group’s fighters and infrastructure exist in Khan Yunis and Rafah. Removing the civilian population ahead of an assault, Israelis argue, is the humane way to approach the job of defeating Hamas.
“People in Israel don’t like the situation where people in Gaza are somewhere in al-Mawasi, under the rain of winter, which is coming,” says retired Maj Gen Yaacov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser. “But what is the alternative? If someone has an idea how to destroy Hamas without it, please tell us.”
The Economist (“What happens to Gaza after the war?”):
After two days of talking to officials about the plan for post-war Gaza, the inescapable conclusion is that there is no plan. The shattered enclave will need external help to provide security, reconstruction and basic services. But no one—not Israel, not America, not Arab states or Palestinian leaders—wants to take responsibility for it.
America hopes that Arab states will contribute troops to a post-war peacekeeping force, a proposal that is also backed by some Israeli officials. But the idea has not found much support among Arabs themselves. Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, seemed to rule it out altogether at the conference. “Let me be very clear,” he said. “There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza. None. We’re not going to be seen as the enemy.”
The reluctance is understandable. Arab officials do not want to clean up Israel’s mess and help it police their fellow Arabs. But they also do not wish to see Israel reoccupy the enclave, and they admit, at least in private conversations, that the Palestinian Authority (pa) is too weak at present to resume full control of Gaza. If none of those options is realistic or desirable, it is not clear what is.
In the longer term, Mr McGurk said that a “revitalised Palestinian Authority” should resume control (it governed Gaza until Hamas seized power in 2007). For that to happen, though, would require two unlikely developments. First would be a serious Israeli effort to reach a two-state solution: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says he will not return to Gaza without one. But Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has spent his career trying to sabotage that two-state solution (and he is not keen on the pa coming back to Gaza either).
Second is a serious effort to achieve the “revitalised” pa Mr McGurk spoke of. Mr Abbas, who is 88 years old, was elected in 2005 to a four-year term. Still in power, he has held office for longer than most Gazans have been alive. He is a sclerotic and uninterested leader; both he and his aides, some of whom are also his possible successors, are widely seen as corrupt. Nobody can explain how his government might be rejuvenated.
Even before the war, wealthy Gulf states were growing tired of chequebook diplomacy. They will probably be reluctant to fund reconstruction in Gaza, which will cost billions of dollars. “They’ve already rebuilt Gaza several times before,” says one Western diplomat in the region. “Unless it’s part of a serious peace process, they won’t pay.”
Then there is Hamas itself. Its leaders, and many of its fighters, seem to have fled to southern Gaza, a region where Israel has yet to send ground troops. For now, they appear to have enough food and fuel to remain in the web of tunnels beneath Gaza. Civilians are suffering under the Israeli siege. Their rulers are not. “They’re not under any pressure at all,” says an adviser to Israel’s national-security council. “On the contrary, it helps Hamas, because they use it to build international pressure for a ceasefire.”
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas official, said in a television interview last month that Hamas was not responsible for protecting civilians in Gaza. The tunnels under the strip, he said, exist only to protect Hamas; the un and Israel should protect civilians. Other Hamas leaders have berated the un for failing to send enough food and medicine. They brought misery upon Gaza by carrying out their massacre in Israel last month but want someone else to deal with the fallout.
For nearly two decades, Gaza has been a problem without a solution. Israel and Egypt were content to leave it under a blockade after the Hamas takeover. Despite his occasional paeans to Palestinian unity, Mr Abbas had no desire to go back to Gaza, and Hamas was happy to keep its grip over an immiserated enclave. Everyone sought to preserve the status quo.
That status quo was shattered on the morning of October 7th. The problem has become much bigger, and the solutions are far-fetched. Optimists hope the Gaza war will offer the chance to finally settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More likely, though, it will end with Gaza as yet another of the Middle East’s failed states, broken but never rebuilt.
Reuters (“Egypt president says future Palestinian state could be demilitarised“):
A future Palestinian state could be demilitarised and have a temporary international security presence to provide guarantees to both it and to Israel, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday.
“We said that we are ready for this state to be demilitarised, and there can also be guarantees of forces, whether NATO forces, United Nations forces, or Arab or American forces, until we achieve security for both states, the nascent Palestinian state and the Israeli state,” Sisi said during a joint news conference in Cairo with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
A political resolution which requires a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, has remained out of reach, Sisi added.
Arab nations have rejected suggestions that an Arab force provide security in the Gaza Strip after the end of Israel’s current military operation there against the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters in London this week that Arab states would not want to go into a Gaza Strip that could be turned into a “wasteland” by Israel’s military offensive.
“What are the circumstances under which any of us would want to go and be seen as the enemy and be seen as having come to clean up Israel’s mess?” he said.
Israel has been under enormous pressure from the international community to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. While they’re taking considerable measures to do so, there’s no safe place in a tiny strip of land where Hamas fighters intentionally integrate with the civilian population precisely to force massive casualties.
The destruction is likely to get even worse once the fight moves to the south. And, given a perfectly reasonable and just war aim of destroying Hamas, I believe the killing is proportionate to the military advantage, as required by international humanitarian law.
The problem, though, is tying the military strategy to the political one. Aside from “Hamas won’t be able to kill Israeli citizens any time soon”—a goal I certainly share—it’s not obvious what the ultimate war aim is. What is the better state of peace?
It continues to appear to me that the Netanyahu government has not figured that out. Not so much because they’ve given it no thought but that there are no acceptable answers.
The “two-state solution,” while logically the only end state that can possibly lead to long-term peace, is a fantasy. Israelis have maintained a Zionist state since 1948 and intend to keep it. Even if we could somehow persuade the Palestinians to abandon a goal of a state from the river to the sea,” it’s inconceivable that they’d settle for one that didn’t include Jerusalem. A single state where Arabs and Jews live together in perfect harmony, presumably while having a Coke and a smile, is even more absurd.
The leaders of the Arab states, it is clear, have no interest in taking responsibility for the situation. The Egyptian proposal of some sort of post-conflict peacekeeper force has some merit and might even get some takers. But it doesn’t change the longer term political reality.