Israel has launched what appears to be the first phase of a massive ground incursion into Gaza, vowing that Hamas must be eliminated or somehow rendered irrelevant, even at the expense of smashing Gaza to pieces.
But what then? Israeli officials have reportedly told the Biden administration that they haven’t engaged in any serious postconflict planning. That’s probably because none of their options is good and, despite a plethora of fantastical proposals, nobody is going to step in to bear the burden of Israel’s impossible dilemma or, put more simply, clean up its mess.
Israelis may feel that it doesn’t have any responsibility for realities in Gaza, given that Hamas has controlled the territory since 2007. But the rest of the world understands that the occupation has continued, albeit from beyond the borders of the Strip. Israel has all the while kept tight control over Gaza’s coastal waters, its airspace, its airwaves, and all of the crossings into the Strip except for a small one maintained by Egypt. Israel has made almost all of the major decisions regarding Gaza since 1967—including the reckless and self-destructive decision to bolster Hamas in order to split the Palestinian national movement between Islamists based in Gaza and secular nationalists in the West Bank.
Now Israel, apparently regretting this policy after the horrendous Hamas-led killing spree on October 7, has embarked on an offensive that will almost inevitably leave much of Gaza a smoldering pit of devastation. Yet, apparently, it still hopes to then withdraw, passing local authority to … somebody else. But this scenario is a fantasy. No third party is plausibly willing or able to police and rebuild Gaza on behalf of, and in coordination with, Israel.
One common proposal suggests that an expeditionary or police force, drawn from stable Arab countries, should secure Gaza as Israel withdraws. Given its geography and history, Egypt would have to be a central player in any such effort. But the Egyptians have made a foreign-policy priority of not getting sucked back into Gaza since 1979. They are not about to change their mind.
Another frequently suggested candidate is the Palestinian Authority. But the regime that Mahmoud Abbas leads in Ramallah has nothing to gain from reentering Gaza in the aftermath of Israeli devastation. Even in the decade before this war, Abbas rejected numerous Egyptian proposals to have the PA take over government ministries in Gaza, or supply security on the Palestinian side of crossings into the Strip. Hamas was apparently willing to accept these initiatives but also insisted that it would not disarm. Abbas reasonably feared winding up responsible for the impoverished population of Gaza, but without sufficient resources, and in the shadow of a heavily armed militia that could turn to violence whenever it liked.
If the PA was afraid of returning to Gaza back then, it will hardly be enthusiastic about stepping in behind Israeli forces after a devastating ground war. Gaza’s needs would be immense, and riding into power on the backs of Israeli tanks would mark the PA with a political kiss of death among Palestinians. Maybe, if a third party were to secure Gaza for a time after Israel withdraws, the PA might be willing to come in to replace it. But then we are back at square one: Who’s going to be that third party?
Some Israelis are quietly talking about the return of Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in Gaza who has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates since Hamas’s violent takeover in 2007. Dahlan still has supporters in Gaza, but he’s broadly unpopular among Palestinians and remains on terrible terms with Abbas and his inner circle. Without the backing of Ramallah, Dahlan can’t effectively return the PA to power in Gaza.
What about United Nations peacekeepers? Imagine a UN peacekeeping mission in charge of an utterly ravaged society that was already nonfunctional and on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Now imagine it battling the insurgency that Hamas is plainly planning to unleash on the Israelis, and which is one reason the Israel Defense Forces wants to get out as quickly as possible once they have finished wreaking havoc. The UN and its member countries will almost certainly not be willing to accept responsibility for policing the rubble and caring for more than 2 million impoverished and largely displaced Palestinians in a tiny and overcrowded area that has been reduced to ruins.
Hamas’s main aim since its founding in 1987 has been to take over the Palestinian national movement, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, with its precious international diplomatic presence, UN observer-state status, and more than 80 embassies around the world. In service of this aim, Hamas hopes to lure Israel into Gaza, where it can mount a long insurgency against the Israeli occupiers. Hamas will then claim to be taking the fight to Israel, while the secular nationalists in the West Bank sit around waiting for negotiations that will never take place.
Such is Hamas’s path to leadership among Palestinians. If the Israelis skedaddle, Hamas won’t simply abandon the planned insurgency. It will carry out the plan against whatever power appears to be representing Israel’s interests, whether Arab, UN, or even Palestinian.
No third party is going to step into Gaza to fight the insurgency planned for Israeli troops, rebuild the infrastructure and society shattered by war, and solve the long-standing problem of governance that Hamas’s armed presence has ensured will endure. Israel is on its own, and so it must find an alternative both to leaving Gaza quickly, thereby allowing Hamas to reemerge, at least as a political entity, and to staying and battling the inevitable insurgency.
Whatever Israel decides to do now that its ground attack in Gaza is under way, it needs to understand that no deus ex machina will swoop in and save it from the accumulated consequences of its actions since 1967. When the smoke clears, yet again, Israel and the Palestinians—and not anyone else—will be left to cope with their self-inflicted disasters.