Israel says it will destroy Hamas. But who will govern Gaza?
By Steven Erlanger
As Israeli soldiers have massed to enter the Gaza Strip in force, the defense minister has promised them, “You see Gaza now from a distance; you will soon see it from inside.”
Yet despite this vow from the minister, Yoav Gallant, it is not clear when Israel will mount a ground invasion. And if the government appears hesitant to enter Gaza — more than two weeks since the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis — there are good reasons to be.
What lies ahead is a kind of sustained urban warfare that the country’s military forces have not encountered for nearly a decade, and in pursuit of a political end that remains unclear aside from vanquishing Hamas, which controls Gaza, so that it can never again threaten Israeli citizens.
By itself, that is a tall order that will require the Israelis to establish control over Gaza for themselves, and one which will cost significant amounts of blood, treasure and international outrage over civilian deaths.
And hovering over everything is the political conundrum of what happens to Gaza after the war ends. Once in, how does Israel get out? Once it has dismantled Hamas, if it can, to whom will it hand the keys? If Hamas no longer governs Gaza, who will?
For the moment, Israeli officials say, those questions are not their immediate concern. But they will be unavoidable, even if Gaza becomes the responsibility of a new Israeli government.
“In truth, there are no good options for an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza,” Tom Beckett, a retired lieutenant general of the British army and executive director of the Middle East for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in a brief analysis.
“No matter how successful the operation proves in defeating Hamas as a military organization, Hamas’ political imperative and the population’s support for the resistance will continue,” he wrote. “Israel either reoccupies Gaza to control it or, by withdrawing after an offensive, cedes ground to people for whom the resistance is existence.”
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli army spokesperson, has said that the military “is focused on the objectives of the war as defined by the political echelon: the rout of Hamas and the elimination of its leaders after the slaughter they perpetrated on Shabbat.
“This organization will not rule Gaza military and politically.”
But somebody must. That is one weakness of the Israeli strategy, because Hamas represents a political and religious idea that cannot be dismantled, and it is an organization that has thrived on its reputation among Palestinians for embracing armed struggle and “martyrdom” against Israel.
“Even if militarily defeated, Hamas cannot be neutralized,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS University of London. “That the existence or legitimacy of Hamas is linked to its military success is false. It can be militarily defeated and remain politically relevant,” she said. “It can present any defense as heroic martyrdom for the sake of the liberation of the Palestinian people.”
For Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, Israel’s challenge is “to align its military means with its political ends.” However competent a military, he said in an interview, a political goal that is too ambitious will result in frustration or failure.
Examples abound, including U.S. military victories in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of broad and ambitious political goals, like democratization and gender equality, that have resulted in failure. Easy conquests ended in long, vicious counterinsurgency campaigns against local militias and radical Islamist fighters who knew the territory, who lived among the population and who did not obey the Geneva Conventions or the rules of war.
And the governments established by the Americans required huge and continued amounts of Western cash and military support to survive.
Freedman wrote about some of his concerns in The Financial Times. The Israelis, he said in a subsequent interview, risk a similar fate. “They have set themselves an ambition that is extremely hard to meet, because even if they deliver Hamas a heavy blow, they can’t stop its regeneration,” he said. Israel cannot occupy Gaza indefinitely and doesn’t want to, he said, adding, “And it can’t push the population into Egypt, which wants nothing to do with Gaza either.”
So without a clear political strategy, Freedman said, “it’s hard to see if this goes anywhere.”
In August 2014, after a serious Israeli-Hamas conflict, ideas were floated about what to do with Gaza, in a confidential options paper provided to the Times. It stated, presciently, that “a return to the status quo ante will produce a new war” and that the Palestinian Authority is “too weak and divided to govern.”
The best solution, the paper suggested, was authorizing United Nations forces to control Gaza’s borders while Palestinian militias are disbanded and disarmed and the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza is gradually lifted. In 2014, the paper presumed that Hamas would still control Gaza but might agree to moderate its behavior in return.
The paper also pointed out that the existing U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, founded in 1948, retains a legal mandate to patrol Gaza, even though it left in 1996 after the Oslo Accords. Under a reconfigured mandate, UNTSO could both patrol Gaza’s borders and help disarm militias, while another existing international committee would coordinate donor aid.
Nine years later, the paper may serve as a starting point. If Hamas and similar groups are destroyed in Gaza, as Israel vows, perhaps UNTSO could help keep the peace inside Gaza, too, as a kind of supplementary police force while the status and credibility of the Palestinian Authority are somehow resurrected there.
The 2014 discussion was real, said Robert Serry, a Dutch diplomat who served as the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. “We had hoped that the Palestinian Authority could be brought back,” he said.
While that may be as unrealistic now as then, each time “we allowed the situation to go back to the status quo,” with a fragile cease-fire and “minimum arrangements to keep Gaza afloat,” Serry said.
Now, he said: “I hope Israel learns a lesson. If they keep ignoring the Palestinian question, it will from time to time explode, it’s just a question of when.”
In the current conflict, Israel will need to control what’s left of Gaza and garrison Israeli forces there until a political solution of some kind allows them to leave, which will stretch the army, especially if Hezbollah opens a second front from southern Lebanon or if there is a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
Of course, if Gaza’s urban centers are smashed and the ground operations lead to the displacement of large parts of the population, it will be easier for the Israeli military to control Gaza without fully occupying it, said Khatib of SOAS. “It’s a tactic of war used by other regimes in the Mideast,” she said, citing President Bashar Assad of Syria and his scorched-earth tactics against his opponents there.
Beckett agreed. “Brutality can reduce the numbers required for a counterinsurgency,” he wrote, citing the crushing of resistance in 1982 at Hama by the former Syrian president, Hafez Assad. His son, “Bashar Assad, supported by Russia, has applied indiscriminate brutality throughout the Syrian civil war,” he added.
While the world is appalled by the Hamas killings and will likely give Israel more time than in the past to defeat Hamas, there are already calls for Israel to obey the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war, including from President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The inevitable deaths and wounding of civilians will, as it has always done, eventually bring significant pressure on Israel to negotiate a cease-fire, pressure, especially from Washington, that could become too much to bear before Israel has accomplished its stated military goal.
Israel is already trying to prepare its supporters around the world, and especially in the United States, to resist that kind of pressure to stop its operation before Hamas is dismantled.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, recently urged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group based in Washington, to stick with Israel regardless of criticism.
“Even when the going gets ugly and the scenes out of Gaza will be hard to stomach — not as hard as the things that were coming out of Kibbutz Be’eri and Kfar Aza, but they will be hard to stomach — then we will need the support of anybody who loves freedom and wants to stand up for what’s right,” Conricus said in a webcast, referring to two of the Israeli villages where Hamas killed civilians.
In the past, he said, after “a small window of international legitimacy and support,” public opinion shifts “and Israel is forced by powerful countries around the world to limit its movement. We have seen that and that is unfortunately what we’ve faced in the past. This time,” he said, “must be different.”