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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lack of plan for governing Gaza formed backdrop to deadly convoy chaos

Israeli soldiers on patrol during an escorted tour for journalists in the central Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured last Thursday, Gaza health officials said, after thousands of hungry Palestinian civilians rushed at a convoy of aid trucks, leading to a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire at the crowd. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Patrick Kingsley

Israel’s reluctance to fill the current leadership vacuum in the northern Gaza Strip formed the backdrop to the chaos that led to the deaths Thursday of dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza coast, analysts and aid workers have said.

More than 100 were killed and 700 injured, Gaza health officials said, after thousands of hungry civilians rushed at a convoy of aid trucks, leading to a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire at the crowd.

The immediate causes of the chaos were extreme hunger and desperation: The United Nations has warned of a looming famine in northern Gaza, where the incident occurred. Civilian attempts to ambush aid trucks, Israeli restrictions on convoys and the poor condition of roads damaged in the war have made it extremely difficult for food to reach the roughly 300,000 civilians still stranded in that region, leading the United States and others to airdrop aid instead.

But analysts say this dynamic has been exacerbated by Israel’s failure to set in motion a plan for how the north will be governed.

While southern Gaza is still an active conflict zone, fighting has mostly ebbed in the north of the enclave. The Israeli military defeated the bulk of Hamas’ fighting forces there by early January, leading Israeli soldiers to withdraw from parts of the north.

Now, those areas lack a centralized body to coordinate the provision of services, enforce law and order and protect aid trucks. To prevent Hamas from rebuilding itself, Israel has prevented police officers from the Hamas-led prewar government from escorting the trucks. But Israel has also delayed the creation of any alternative Palestinian law enforcement.

Aid groups have only a limited presence, with the U.N. still assessing how to increase its operations there. And Israel has said it will retain indefinite military control over the territory, without specifying exactly what that will mean on a day-to-day basis.

“This tragic event reflects how Israel has no long-term, realistic strategy,” said Michael Milstein, an analyst and a former Israeli intelligence official. “You can’t just take over Gaza City, leave, and then hope that something positive will grow there. Instead, there’s chaos.”

Since Israel invaded Gaza in October, following the Hamas-led attacks that devastated southern Israel earlier that month, Israeli politicians have debated and disagreed about how Gaza should be governed once the war winds down, a period that they describe as “the day after.”

In northern Gaza, that moment has essentially already arrived.

When U.N. officials toured the area last week to assess the damage there, they did not coordinate their visit with Hamas because it no longer exerts widespread influence in the north, according to Scott Anderson, the deputy Gaza director for UNRWA, the main U.N. aid agency in Gaza.

Reports have emerged of some Hamas members trying to reassert order in certain neighborhoods. But aside from limited services at several hospitals, Anderson said he saw no sign of civil servants or municipal officials. Uncollected trash and sewage lined the streets, he said.

“The leadership in Gaza is underground, literally or figuratively, and there is no structure in place to fill that void,” Anderson said in a phone interview from Gaza. “That creates a prevailing aura of desperation and fear,” which makes events like the disaster Thursday more likely, he said, adding, “It’s very frustrating and difficult to coordinate things when there’s nobody to coordinate with.”

Video has emerged of armed groups attacking convoys, and diplomats say criminal gangs are beginning to fill the void left by Hamas’ absence.

Without any plan, “the vacuum will either be filled by chaos and lawless gangs and criminals,” said Ahmed Fouad Khatib, an American commentator on Gaza affairs who was brought up in Gaza, “or by Hamas, which will manage to reemerge and attempt to reconstitute.”

Power vacuums are inevitable after most wars. But critics of the Israeli government say the vacuum in northern Gaza is worse than it could have been because Israeli leaders don’t agree about what should happen next.

The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, released a plan in late February that suggested that “the administration of civilian affairs and the enforcement of public order will be based on local stakeholders with managerial experience.” But beyond noting that these administrators could not be affiliated with “countries or entities that support terrorism,” Netanyahu gave no further details.

His plan was so vague that it was interpreted as an attempt to postpone a looming decision about whether to prioritize the goals of his domestic political base or those of Israel’s strongest foreign ally, the United States.

Vocal parts of Netanyahu’s right-wing base are pushing aggressively for the reestablishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza, nearly two decades after Israel removed them. Such a plan would necessitate long-term Israeli control over the territory, making it impossible to reestablish Palestinian governance there.

Conversely, the United States and other Western powers and Arab states are pushing for Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to be allowed to run Gaza, as part of a process toward creating a Palestinian state spread across both territories.

Pulled between those two contradictory paths, Netanyahu has opted for neither.

“He’s trying all kinds of maneuvers to keep his government calm,” said Milstein, the former intelligence official. “Because of all the tensions and all the problematic configurations in his government, he cannot take any real dramatic decision.”

The office of Netanyahu declined to comment for this article.

Nadav Shtrauchler, a former strategist for Netanyahu, dismissed concerns about Netanyahu’s strategy.

lan in his head, they’re wrong: He has a plan,” Shtrauchler said. “I think he has two plans. But I’m not sure which one he will choose in the end, and I’m not sure he knows.”

For now, Netanyahu is using the ambiguity to postpone inevitable confrontations with both his right-wing coalition allies and the United States for as long as possible, Shtrauchler and other analysts said.

Israeli officials have spoken of empowering clans in different pockets of Gaza to keep the peace in their immediate neighborhoods and protect aid supplies. But the plan is unproven and foreign diplomats are skeptical about its effectiveness.

Some Palestinians and foreign leaders say that several thousand former police officers from the Palestinian Authority, the body that ran Gaza until being pushed out by Hamas in 2007, could be retrained to fill the void. Others suggest that Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan could send a peacekeeping force to support the authority’s policemen.

In the meantime, “the Palestinians who stayed in the north of Gaza are starving to death,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor from Gaza City. “And basically, they are trying to find food in any possible way.”

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