The Day After in Gaza

NPR (“Israel has no plan for Gaza after Hamas rule, the Israeli defense chief says“):

Amid growing frustration in Israel over where the war is headed eight months in, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday accused Israel’s leadership of ignoring his requests to discuss a replacement to Hamas rule in Gaza.

“Since October, I have been raising this issue consistently in the Cabinet, and have received no response,” Gallant said.

His speech, broadcast live, is the harshest rebuke yet of Israel’s war strategy in Gaza from within Israel’s three-man war cabinet. It set off a political firestorm that could threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power.

The debate over the “day after” in Gaza erupted when Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari was asked at a news conference  Tuesday whether Israeli troops had been sent to retake areas of Gaza they had retreated from because there were no governing alternatives to Hamas. Hagari said a replacement for Hamas would pressure the militant group, but that it was a question for Israel’s political leaders.

Netanyahu then said in a video released by his office  Wednesday that discussions about a “day-after” strategy are meaningless until Hamas is defeated, and said some of Israel’s efforts to replace Hamas are covert.

Gallant appeared to refute Netanyahu’s claims, saying no efforts were being made to establish an an alternative to Hamas in Gaza. He called on Netanyahu to declare that Israel would not establish civil or military rule in Gaza for the long term.

“The ‘day after Hamas’ will only be achieved with Palestinian entities taking control of Gaza, accompanied by international actors, establishing a governing alternative to Hamas’ rule,” Gallant said in his live speech . “Unfortunately, the plan was not brought for discussion, and worse, an alternative discussion was not raised in its place.”

In response, several hard-right members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition called for the defense minister to be replaced.

[…]

With Netanyahu failing to articulate a clear plan for replacing Hamas rule, several thousand Israeli settlers and their supporters — including senior ministers in Netanyahu’s government — rallied Tuesday for Israel to build Jewish settlements atop the ruins of Gaza’s destroyed cities, and to encourage Palestinians to emigrate.

The rally took place next to the Gaza border in the city of Sderot, as large pillars of smoke rose across the border in Gaza.

It was held on Israel’s 76th Independence Day, which Palestinians commemorate annually as the Nakba, or catastrophe, when many Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and exiled in Israel’s founding war. Palestinians rallied this week in commemoration in parts of Israel and the occupied West Bank.

In a speech at the pro-settlement rally, far-right lawmaker Zvi Sukkot celebrated the immense destruction the Israeli army has wreaked on Gaza in the more than seven months of war, saying Israel’s enemies must relinquish land as a consequence of attacking the country.

Far-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir also addressed demonstrators.

“To be a free people in our country,” Ben Gvir said to a cheering crowd, referencing Israel’s national anthem, “is also to say to Biden, ‘Mr. President, this is ours. We’re going home to Gaza.’”

[…]

Netanyahu has said Israel does not intend to reoccupy Gaza for the long term or to resettle it, but he has also resisted U.S. calls for Gaza to be governed by  a revitalized Palestinian Authority, a more moderate Palestinian leadership.

“In various Cabinet meetings and consultations, Netanyahu has talked about some kind of a self-rule by the Palestinians that will involve Arab countries such as the [United Arab Emirates] and Egypt, with some sort of an international coordination,” says Eyal, the writer. “He was very resolved to make sure that this would not include the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, which is the party that’s most dominant within the Palestinian Authority and is, of course, a competitor of Hamas in the Palestinian society. But he did not present any plan for that.”

Eyal Hulata, who served as Israel’s national security adviser under Netanyahu’s predecessor, Naftali Bennett, and is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says, “Nobody’s talking about a two-state solution. We’re talking about a prospect of self-governance by the Palestinians, something that gets the support of the vast majority of Israelis. And Netanyahu, for his own political reasons, isn’t capable of saying that.”

WaPo (“As Hamas returns to the north, Israel’s Gaza endgame is nowhere in sight“):

It was last December when the Israeli military declared victory in the Jabalya refugee camp, saying it had broken Hamas’s grip on its traditional stronghold in the northern Gaza Strip.

“Jabalya is not the Jabalya it used to be,” Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of Division 162, said at the time, adding that “hundreds of terrorists” had been killed and 500 suspects arrested.

Five months later, Israeli forces are back in Jabalya. Ground troops are pushing into the densely packed camp, backed by artillery and airstrikes — one in a string of recent “re-clearing” operations launched by the Israel Defense Forces against Hamas, whose fighters have rapidly regrouped in areas vacated by the IDF.

Israel’s fast-moving offensive in Gaza has given way to a grinding battle of attrition, highlighting how far it remains from its chief military aim — the complete dismantling of Hamas. As an adaptable militant organization that has easy access to recruits, an expansive tunnel network and is deeply embedded in the fabric of Gaza, Hamas has shown it can weather a protracted and devastating war.

The resumption of heavy fighting in the north comes as the IDF presses ahead with its heavily criticized campaign in the southern city of Rafah  — long framed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a final battle against Hamas’s last intact battalions. Now, American officials  and some of the prime minister’s fellow cabinet members  are offering increasingly blunt assessments about the resilience of the militant group and Netanyahu’s failure to plan for postwar Gaza.

In striking remarks Wednesday night, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called on Netanyahu  to make a public commitment that Israel will not end up governing Gaza after the war, amid mounting fears in the IDF that its mission is creeping toward reoccupation of the territory.

“Hamas might regain its strength as long as it maintains civilian control,” Gallant said. Failure to create an “alternative governing authority,” he said, “is equivalent to choosing between the two worst alternatives: Hamas rule or Israeli control of Gaza.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan sounded a similar note on Monday: “Military pressure is necessary but not sufficient to fully defeat Hamas,” he told reporters. “If Israel’s efforts are not accompanied by a political plan for the future of Gaza, and the Palestinian people, the terrorists will keep coming back.”

Netanyahu said last week that Israel has killed 14,000 Hamas militants; the IDF put its estimate  at 13,000 last month. The numbers are not possible to independently verify — and no evidence has been offered to support them — but even the high-end figure would amount to less than half of Hamas’s estimated fighting force before the war. Thousands of other militants belong to smaller groups that vie with Hamas for local influence.

[…]

“It would be astounding for me if it wasn’t incredibly easy for Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza to recruit,” said H.A. Hellyer, a scholar specializing in Middle East security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute.

While Hamas has been “significantly and substantially degraded,” he said, an organization that has been active in Gaza since the 1980s and governed it for more than 15 years is not going to “simply disappear.”

After seven months of bombardment and ground operations by one of the world’s “most powerful armies,” he said, “Israeli forces still haven’t been able to come close to victory.”

When Israeli troops withdrew from Jabalya last year, Hamas began a recruitment drive for jobs securing aid and setting up a new headquarters there, according to residents. “There is the presence of policemen, but without a police uniform, and they are all in civilian clothes,” said a 42-year-old Jabalya resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

Not only does the killing of innocent Palestinians make it easier for Hamas to recruit but the fact that the terrorist organization violates the laws of war by hiding among the civilian population and failure to wear identifying uniforms means that any escape outlet allowed for said civilians to escape the depredations of war likewise allow the targeted fighters to escape right along with them. All of which has been obvious from the outset.

As much as I disdain Netanyahu—going back to his first stint as premier in the late 1990s—he has no politically feasible options. It’s not just that he’s a hardliner and a jerk but it’s just about inconceivable to offer an end state for the war where Palestinians are better off than they were before. Israeli Jews would, quite understandably, see that as a reward for the October 7 massacre.

But, of course, failure to craft a better state of peace acceptable to both sides guarantees that killing will resume at some point in the future. WaPo’s David Ignatius (“This ‘indispensable’ Israeli leader has a proposal for ‘the day after’ in Gaza“) thinks Gallant points to a way.

It’s time for Israel to begin building a Palestinian security force in Gaza that can provide stability there after the political power of Hamas is broken, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a blunt briefing this week.

“The idea is simple,” Gallant told me. “We will not allow Hamas to control Gaza. We don’t want Israel to control it, either. What is the solution? Local Palestinian actors backed by international actors.”

Gallant’s frank comments mark a turn in the Israeli government’s debate about governance and security issues in Gaza, known by the shorthand phrase “the day after.” His views are widely shared by the defense and security establishment but opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.

The defense minister presented these arguments to the Israeli public in a speech Wednesday, following our embargoed briefing Tuesday. This open, public campaign for a new approach to postwar Gaza that includes Palestinian security forces could split the Likud party, of which Gallant and Netanyahu are both members, and increase what has been growing talk in Israel and the United States that Gallant could be a future prime minister. Gallant said in his speech: “I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision” and support “a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.” He said that “indecision is, in essence, a decision — this leads to a dangerous course.”

Gallant’s approach aligns with that of the Biden administration, which has been urging Netanyahu for months to start building Palestinian forces that can eventually take over security responsibility in Gaza. National security adviser Jake Sullivan explained the administration’s view in a meeting with reporters Monday. “Any military operation … has got to be connected to a strategic endgame that answers the question: What comes next?” Sullivan said. “We want an outcome in which the page gets turned.”

Biden administration officials say Gallant has taken a larger role in U.S.-Israeli dialogue in recent months, as relations have soured between Netanyahu and President Biden. One U.S. official described Gallant as an “indispensable” problem-solver in the increasingly tense debate about how to end the war in Gaza.

[…]

In January, Gallant released a public plan that stated his central point : “Gaza residents are Palestinian, therefore Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against Israel.” He proposed a multinational task force to help stabilize Gaza including U.S., European and Arab partners, with Egypt playing a special role as a “major actor.”

Gallant didn’t say so, but defense officials recognize that any new Gaza security force will have some links with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. As one senior Israeli defense official put it: “In Gaza, the color of the flag is either Hamas or the PA. There is no other option. We will have to build local forces, but they will look to Ramallah.” Israelis who take this pragmatic view share the American demand for a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority that is less corrupt and more efficient.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, is already assessing possible recruits for a Gaza security force from the more than 8,000 people there who are linked to the Palestinian Authority, Israeli and American officials told me. In going through the names, Israelis are asking “how many are too Hamas, too old or too dead,” one official explained.

Gallant said of his proposal to rely on Palestinians for basic postwar security: “This is not a perfect solution. I have been fighting Palestinian [terrorism] since 1976. I know the risks. But the other option is to have Israel or Hamas controlling Gaza,” which are both unacceptable, he said.

The bottom line is that “any military action has to end in a political solution,” Gallant told me. What I took away from the conversation is that significant new debate is beginning in Israel — and with its partner, the United States — not just about ending the war in Gaza but also creating stable Palestinian governance there after it’s over.

I’m highly skeptical that this plan is sellable to Israeli Jews. For that matter, Hamas is likely to reject it as well, either at the bargaining table or at the barrel of a gun later on.

At the same time, that “any military action has to end in a political solution” is axiomatic. That the Israeli government does not have an end state in mind beyond the quixotic “destroy Hamas” is more than a bit problematic.