Israel is fighting without a plan for Gaza's future

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As war rages in Gaza, Israeli leadership offers no coherent plan for the enclave once the fighting ends.

Hamas has ruled over virtually every aspect of life in Gaza for 17 years. Its eradication — Israel‘s stated objective — entails dismantling what government and essential services currently exist there.

America’s endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that overthrowing a ruling force with no consideration of what comes next is a prescription for long-term, costly entanglements. Without a clear strategy now, Israel may end up continuously fighting some variant of this war in coming decades.

Israel doesn’t seem to desire a long-term occupation of Gaza after the war, even if it must assume some short-term security and governance responsibilities there once the fighting ends. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ABC News without specificity that Israel will play some undefined role in securing Gaza for an “indefinite period” after the war. But two days later, Ron Dermer, Israeli minister of strategic affairs, seeking to clarify, further muddied the waters, explaining that Israel will not occupy Gaza, again without specificity.

So no one seems to be on the same page. Israeli leadership has been so focused on the military offensive that post-war planning has received scant attention or energy. From Oct. 7 to today, Jerusalem’s priorities are to get the hostages back, eliminate Hamas and then…figure out what to do next.

The loose concept coheres around three sequential elements. First, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will secure Gaza for up to six months, until the U.S. helps cobble together a transitional coalition of Sunni Middle Eastern countries (led by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to assume authority in Gaza. This phase — an Arab coalition overseeing the enclave — could last years. In the meantime, the U.S. and Israel will work with the Palestinian Authority, the transition to which serves as the final and enduring component.

None of these three steps will be easy. Each presents bleak tradeoffs. Long-held grievances, geopolitical complexities and the looming threat of Iran hover over all three.

First, the IDF will find it challenging to secure post-Hamas Gaza for any length of time. A prolonged military presence in a densely populated urban area poses significant operational challenges. Meanwhile, the IDF must also protect its northern border from Hezbollah, a terror group better armed, better trained and more militarily capable than Hamas.

Israel’s historical experiences with occupation, particularly in Lebanon and its previous control over Gaza, influence its current reluctance to re-occupy Gaza. The Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, for instance, became a protracted military engagement that entangled Israel in local conflicts and against guerilla fighters, ultimately leading to a costly withdrawal without achieving long-term security objectives. Similarly, Israel’s control over Gaza, which began with the 1967 Six-Day War and ended in 2005, was marked by persistent security challenges that stressed the IDF, including attacks on Israeli forces and settlements.

Many Gazans believe Israel has occupied Gaza — along with East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank — unceasingly since 1967. Even those inside the enclave who despise Hamas will not lightly accept Israeli oversight of security. Israeli leadership knows it may be unable to maintain security, weather the high economic and human costs and withstand the international criticism that often accompanies prolonged military occupations.

Second, a coalition of Arab countries governing Gaza will face intense internal pressure. The idea of, for example, Amman coordinating with Jerusalem for a transition of security responsibility after the IDF obliterates Gaza will be abhorrent to many inside Jordan.

Further, Sunni Arab countries are hesitant to assume governance in Gaza, as they worry this could jeopardize their overarching aim of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Cairo has consistently declined requests to administer Gaza since the start of the Israeli blockade 16 years ago, concerned that this might become a pretext for transferring Gaza’s 2 million residents into Egypt. Moreover, Riyadh may be disinclined to engage in a strategy that seems to conflict with the two-state solution approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Such a coalition will require not only the consensus among the key Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but also a clear and coordinated strategy for governance, security and economic development in Gaza. Each coalition member must agree on specific roles and responsibilities and a collective plan for the reconstruction of infrastructure, the provision of essential services and the establishment of a stable and inclusive political framework.

The final stage of this plan — a permanent transition to the Palestinian Authority — requires a significant rebranding of the PA before it can serve as a palatable form of government in Gaza. Since the 2006 legislative elections, when Hamas won a huge majority in parliament, and following its victory in the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the PA lost authority over the Gaza Strip, ceding complete control to Hamas.

The PA maintains power over approximately 40 percent of the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation. Inside Gaza, the PA is remarkably unpopular, partly due to the perception that its forces collaborate with Israel on security matters.

The PA, which emerged from the 1993 Oslo Accords, initially intended to lay the groundwork for an eventual Palestinian state. However, as the likelihood of establishing such a state has diminished, so too has trust in the PA. Further, while Hamas is not particularly popular among Palestinians, the PA, however, is a largely reviled body, perceived as corrupt, authoritarian, ineffective, and dismissive of the views of its constituents.

Through each phase, Iran will seek to bog down Israel and exhaust American forces in the region. Through its proxy groups, including those in Syria, Iran may seek to escalate hostilities just short of direct confrontation. Without a clear transition strategy, the IDF may be unable to withstand pressure across multiple fronts.

A durable solution for lasting peace and stability in Gaza requires a developed strategy, considerate of a full-course of complexities. Right now, Israel does not have one.

There are no easy answers ahead. Regardless of who comes in behind Hamas or the method of administration of security and services, Gazans must feel they have agency in this process. Otherwise, Israel will remain mired in a low-grade war in Gaza for years to come.

Joe Buccino is a research analyst at the Defense Innovation Board, a former communications director at U.S. Central Command and a retired U.S. Army colonel with five deployments to the Middle East during his military career.

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