Will Israel and the US get the Gaza they want—minus Hamas, and perhaps a great number of Palestinians? Or will the rising body count lead to a regional war—or a bloody occupation that destabilises the Middle East?
Big plans for postwar Gaza: What does Israel want?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hidden the fact that he is fiercely opposed to an independent Palestine state. OTOH, Tel Aviv has no interest in being saddled with a bombed-out Gaza filled with war-scarred Palestinians. A leaked intelligence paper offers a glimpse of Israeli thinking—even though it's just a ‘concept’ document.
The document looked at three postwar options. Two involve setting up some kind of self-rule in Gaza—either the Palestinian Authority that currently governs the West Bank or some other local regime. But it dismisses these alternatives:
Among other reasons, it rejects them as unable to deter attacks on Israel. The reinstatement of the Palestinian Authority, which was ejected from Gaza after a weeklong 2007 war that put Hamas in power, would be “an unprecedented victory of the Palestinian national movement, a victory that will claim the lives of thousands of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and does not safeguard Israel’s security,” the document says.
‘Transfer of population’: The paper therefore strongly recommends this last option:
The document recommends that Israel act to “evacuate the civilian population to Sinai” during the war; establish tent cities and later more permanent cities in the northern Sinai that will absorb the expelled population; and then create “a sterile zone of several kilometres … within Egypt, and [prevent] the return of the population to activities/residences near the border with Israel.”
The three stages of ‘transfer’: While these are hardly binding recommendations, the progress of the war in Gaza uncannily mirrors the three stages laid out by the paper:
- The first stage involves focusing air strikes on North Gaza—so the residents “evacuate south”.
- The second stage is a ground invasion—leading to a full occupation—and the “cleansing of the underground bunkers of Hamas fighters”.
- At this stage, Gazans will also be pushed into Egyptian territory—encouraging them to flee Israeli troops: “It is important to leave the travel routes to the south open to enable the evacuation of the civilian population toward Rafah.”
- In the last stage, the aim is to ensure they never return again: The document proposes moving Gaza’s civilian population to tent cities in northern Sinai, then “building permanent cities and an undefined humanitarian corridor”.
Point to note: “The report did not say what would become of Gaza once its population is cleared out.”
Will it work? Nope, the paper is mostly wishful thinking—reflecting the fond dreams of the hard right. The biggest obstacle: Israel's ally, Egypt—which has fiercely resisted any attempt to relocate Gazan refugees into its territory:
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, has said a mass influx of refugees from Gaza would eliminate the Palestinian nationalist cause. It would also risk bringing militants into Sinai, where they might launch attacks on Israel, he said. That would endanger the countries’ 1979 peace treaty. He proposed that Israel instead house Palestinians in [Israel’s] Negev Desert, which neighbours the Gaza Strip, until it ends its military operations.
El-Sissi is far more worried about giving sustenance to extremist groups in the Sinai—which have long been a challenge to his government and legitimacy.
Also a problem: The identity of Palestine is built around the Nakba—when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land in what would become Israel in 1948. Its memory holds immense emotional meaning for the entire Arab world:
“The biggest trauma in the Arab world that continues to this day is around the failure of Arab states in 1948 to do more to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” said Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow and head of the Palestine/Israel Program at the Arab Center... “No Arab leader wants to be seen as complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”
A red flag for the West Bank: There are already signs of trouble in the territory—which is essentially under the control of Israel. Its residents are facing violence from angry Israeli settlers. And they fear that the Hamas attacks will be used as an excuse to take over their homes. The violence is backed by increased police raids, arrests and brutality (a thread of appalling clips here). One telling example:
After a settler shot and killed Bilal Saleh, 38, on Saturday in the village of Sawiya, Israeli police at the scene asked his brother Hashem for eyewitness testimony. As he approached their jeep, Washington Post reporters saw uniformed officers pull him aside for questions, then handcuff him. Hashem — his shirt still stained with his brother’s blood — was shoved into an unmarked truck with civilian plates and driven away with a military escort. Israeli police told Hashem’s family he is being held on charges of supporting Hamas.
Things are so bad that US President Joe Biden said the attacks by “extremist settlers” amounted to “pouring gasoline” on an already explosive situation.
The main takeaway: It’s hard to see the residents of the West Bank standing by while Israel expels residents of Gaza from Palestinian land—even if they have no love for Hamas. Nor will the Arab world—especially Egypt and Jordan. In fact, Tel Aviv is only fuelling resistance in the West Bank—and confirming the worst fears of Arabs everywhere.
Big plans for postwar Gaza: What does the US want?
A separate set of plans leaked to Bloomberg News reflects the US' thinking. This joint effort between the US and Israel also has three options for Gaza. All of these are premised on the total destruction of Hamas.
Option #1: This would turn Gaza into a protectorate—temporarily governed by friendly Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE—backed by troops from the US, UK, Germany and France.
Option #2: A peacekeeping force that takes over Gaza. This would be similar to the Multinational Force and Observers—which was created in 1981 to enforce the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Its troops are drawn from 13 states—ranging from Australia to Canada, Colombia, Japan and the UK. Israel likes this option best since it ensures that the IDF does not have to deal with the dirty business of controlling an occupied Gaza—and the casualties it would bring.
Option #3: The UN takes over “temporary governance” of the strip—and brings the legitimacy bestowed by a global organisation—which also has the support of the Global South. But Israelis are not sold on giving any kind of role to the UN:
Israel views it as impractical, according to a person familiar with Israel’s thinking, who added that Israel believes that little good has come from the world body. Earlier this month, Israeli Minister Benny Gantz labeled UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres a “terror apologist” after Guterres argued that the October 7 attacks “did not happen in a vacuum.”
The US’ favourite option: involves the Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said: “At some point, what would make the most sense would be for an effective and revitalised Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza.”
Or failing that, “Then there are other temporary arrangements that may involve a number of other countries in the region. It may involve international agencies that would help provide for both security and governance."
Also this: A similar idea pushed by prominent DC think-tanks involves some kind of Palestinian interim administration—supported by UN aid—while the Arabs run the show:
Public safety and law enforcement could be directed by a consortium of the five Arab states who have reached peace agreements with Israel—Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Only those Arab states would have Israel’s confidence, which is essential for this effort to succeed.
A dream come true: These scenarios fulfil all of Washington’s goals for a post-war Middle East:
- Eliminate Hamas and weaken its patron Iran.
- Restart the process of building a new Middle East realignment—based on an alliance between Israel and the most powerful Arab states—Saudi Arabia and UAE.
- Get Israel to accept some kind of independent Palestine state—run by a docile government like the Palestinian Authority. The reason: it will provide the fig leaf that the Arabs need to make nice with Israel.
Will it work? Not if Israel keeps running up the Palestinian body count—either with air strikes or a long and bloody ground invasion. Jordan has already recalled its envoy to Tel Aviv after the Jabalia strikes—and told the Israeli ambassador not to return to Amman. And it has refused to normalise relationships until Israel ends the war. The biggest nightmare for King Abdullah: the war has made Hamas more popular with ordinary Jordanians.
As for the Saudis: The Hamas attacks were aimed at derailing Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to embrace Israel—in exchange for a defence pact with the US that would include nuclear power. And they’ve pretty much succeeded for now. Israel’s bloody retaliation has forced the Saudis back into their traditional stance—a strong defence of an independent Palestine:
The Ministry “recalls its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”
Most importantly this: Saudi Arabia may still be a wild card—and US officials remain optimistic of “normalising” its relations with Israel. But Saudis have zero interest in taking responsibility for Gaza—which would legitimise the Israeli war. Neither does any other Arab state. As one former Middle East negotiator puts it:
The idea of bringing Arab states in to do counter insurgency in Gaza in the wake of the death and destruction that the Israelis have visited is going to be extremely problematic because it would involve Arabs killing Palestinians.
The same goes for the Palestinian Authority—which loathes Hamas—but will not ride into town on Israeli tanks.
Quote to note: Riyadh issued its strongest statement yet after the Jabalia strikes:
The “dire humanitarian situation stemming from the ongoing escalation cannot be justified,” the statement added, noting that “halting the bloodshed, protecting civilians and the cessation of military operations are urgent priorities. The failure to promptly adhere to these principles will inevitably lead to a humanitarian disaster for which the Israeli occupation and the international community bear responsibility,” it said.
In other words, the Saudis have no intention of being even remotely associated with dead Palestinian children.
The bottomline: A postwar Gaza will be the problem of Israel and the US. And what they do with it will determine the future of the Middle East. Any fond dreams they may entertain to the contrary are doomed to fail. As Richard Haass notes in Foreign Affairs, this conflict is closer to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time around, Tel Aviv can’t simply punish, destroy and get the heck out. To rephrase Colin Powell, if the US and Israel break Gaza, they will indeed own it—but with repercussions that will be far greater than the misadventure in Iraq.
Bloomberg News has all the details of the postwar Gaza plans doing the rounds in Washington. The Wire is best on the Israeli intelligence document. Reuters explains why Saudi Arabia is a wild card—while Axios lays out the hopes of the Biden White House. This Stimson Centre piece is very good in explaining why an occupied Gaza is a disaster for the US and Israel–and its effect on the world. İyad el-Baghdad’s Twitter thread is brilliant in laying out the geopolitical motivations of all the key actors. If you want to understand the vision for the ‘new’ Middle East, we highly recommend this ECFR deep dive. We explained the effects of the Hamas attacks on this realignment in this Big Story. Will the war expand into a regional conflagration? Read Washington Post on the threat to Israel from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also worth your time: This Atlantic Council curation of expert predictions for the war.