Rooting out Hamas and its network of militant fighters from the densely packed Gaza Strip is one of the most complex challenges the Israeli military has ever faced.
Yet Israel, the U.S., the Arab world and the international community may have an even more daunting task on the horizon: figuring out what happens once the Israeli operation ends.
Uncertainty about the future of Gaza and the more than 2 million residents of the Palestinian enclave is on every front. Gaza is the epicenter of Israel’s relentless counterattack on Hamas after the group’s Oct. 7 terrorist assault.
The list of unanswered questions is long and carries far-reaching implications for the region: Who will govern Gaza if and when Hamas is dismantled? Would Israel embark on another full-blown, yearslong occupation? Which nations or international organizations will take on the massive responsibility of rebuilding the enclave, more of which is being reduced to rubble each day?
Perhaps the single most urgent question is whether Israel’s stated goal — the total defeat of Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since it won elections in 2006 — is achievable. If it’s not achievable and Israel doesn’t budge from its vow to permanently crush Hamas, the stage could be set for prolonged fighting and human suffering in Gaza and perhaps for an even more violent wave of Palestinian resistance fighters in the future.
“It won’t disappear. It will still exist. You can wipe out the whole leadership and there will be others who will come to the fore because there’s a constituency,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.
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“There are people who are Islamists and people who believe … in resistance, and as long as there’s an occupation or a blockade [of Gaza], in one form or another, there’s going to be a resistance,” he said in an interview. “And it is more likely now to be a violent resistance, given the scale of the violence” in Gaza from Israel’s military campaign.
Terrorism and politics
In one scenario, Israel’s military strategy plants the seeds for its long-term failure. Since the Gaza campaign began, more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Outside organizations haven’t verified those numbers, but the death toll is undoubtedly staggering.
The images of death and destruction could drive young Gaza residents and other Arabs to take up arms against Israel regardless of any political deals between the two sides.
“Israel’s strategy for defeating Hamas — destroying its military and political capabilities to the point where the terrorist group can never again launch major attacks against Israeli civilians — is unlikely to work. Indeed, Israel is likely already producing more terrorists than it’s killing,” Robert A. Pape, professor of political science and director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, wrote in a recent piece for CNN.com.
“To defeat terrorist groups like Hamas, it is important to separate the terrorists from the local population from which they emerge. Otherwise, the current generation of terrorists can be killed, only to be replaced by a new, larger generation of terrorists in the future,” he wrote.
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In Gaza, packed with more than 2 million people but constituting only about 140 square miles of land, that may be easier said than done.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006, when it won the last set of elections and then engaged in a bloody conflict to drive out the more moderate Fatah Party. Fatah is the largest political party in Palestinian politics, but its influence has been limited primarily to the West Bank since its internal clash with Hamas.
The complexities of Palestinian politics will complicate the future of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, headed since 2005 by President Mahmoud Abbas, could play a leading role in the governance of postwar Gaza, though it remains to be seen how effective the organization might be or whether the population would welcome it.
Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken focused heavily on the Palestinian Authority’s role in the long run Sunday during his second diplomatic tour of the region since the fighting began.
“If you project forward into the future, what we all agree is that in defining that future and shaping that future for Gaza, for the West Bank, and ultimately for a Palestinian state, Palestinian voices have to be at the center of that,” Mr. Blinken said in Baghdad while conferring with Iraqi leaders about the crisis. “The Palestinian Authority is the representative of those voices, so it’s important that it play a leading role.”
The Palestinian Authority was created in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the umbrella group the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The PLO had long been the leading group for Palestinian causes and represented their interests at the United Nations and other forums. The Palestinian Authority was given the administrative power to establish and operate limited self-governments in Gaza and the West Bank.
Analysts say both organizations have flaws but are likely vital for a functional Gaza. Although the PLO has long been resistant to Hamas and its violent tactics, it might have to change that stance to bring all stakeholders together under one tent.
“Both the PLO and the PA should have been reformed and reconfigured long ago, and the urgency of that task has never been greater than it is today. The first step must be the immediate and unconditional expansion of the PLO to include all major factions and political forces, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Salam Fayyad, a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, wrote in a recent analysis for Foreign Affairs magazine.
“Hamas won an outright majority in the last parliamentary elections held in the Palestinian territories, in 2006, and although no such elections have been held since then, polls show that Hamas has continued to enjoy considerable public support,” wrote Mr. Fayyad, now a visiting senior scholar at Princeton University. “Moreover, it is impossible to see how the PLO can credibly make any commitment to nonviolence as part of any attempt to restart the peace process if Hamas and factions of a similar orientation are not represented.”
Whatever the outcome of the Israel-Hamas war, a political and physical rebuilding process will be necessary. For the U.S. and most Arab states, the broad policy goals remain a “two-state solution” that ultimately creates an independent state for the Palestinians that, in theory, can live peacefully alongside Israel.
Such an outcome is hard to envision given the current violence and seething anger toward Israel across much of the Arab world. Still, the Biden administration insists it remains the objective.
“We’re focused on setting the conditions for a durable and sustainable peace and security,” Mr. Blinken said Friday during a stop in Israel for talks with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The United States continues to believe that the best viable path — indeed, the only path — is through a two-state solution,” he said at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “That’s the only guarantor of a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel; the only guarantor of Palestinians realizing their legitimate right to live in a state of their own, enjoying equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity; the only way to end a cycle of violence once and for all.”
The U.S. may be losing influence over such a peace process with its perceived unconditional support for Israel’s military campaign.
“The days of a U.S.-led peace process are over, and they’re not going to come back anytime soon,” Mr. Elgindy said.
There are also serious questions about the physical future of Gaza. Specialists say leading Arab world powers will have to play a central role in rebuilding the enclave, though it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to work with Israel given the unfolding carnage in Gaza.
“You have three countries — Qatar, the [United Arab Emirates] and Saudi Arabia. Basically, they are going to be called upon in the future to rebuild a destroyed Gaza Strip,” said Randa Slim, senior fellow and director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute.
“You’re going to talk about not only security but also we’re going to talk about who’s going to provide prefab homes for people,” she said at a recent forum hosted by the think tank. “Who’s going to provide water? Who’s going to provide electricity?
“The fighting stops, and then what’s going to happen?” she said.