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JERUSALEM — As Israel bombards Gaza and its forces coil for the start of a major war, many here are already asking: What lies at the end?
The uneasy coexistence that Israel and Hamas have honed over 17 years — cycles of bloody escalation followed by periods of “economic peace,” in which Gazans could work in and export goods to Israel — is unlikely to survive the coming conflagration, experts said.
The images of Hamas infiltrators slaughtering Israeli families and kidnapping children ended that status quo. What will replace it is still impossible to predict.
“We haven’t seen this before,” said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. “This is not just another round with Hamas.”
The shape of the next Israel-Gaza relationship may depend, among other factors, on what’s left of Hamas, and Gaza, when the fighting stops. Already, Israel’s air attacks have killed more than 2,300 and begun to decimate public infrastructure.
As the shock wave from a Hamas rampage that killed 1,300 Israelis has swept away old assumptions, scenarios that seemed impossible just days ago could be in play: Israel reoccupying Gaza, at least temporarily; the return of the Palestinian Authority to the enclave; international peacekeepers; a demilitarized Hamas still technically holding government authority.
Israeli officials are not ready to publicly discuss the possibilities.
“We need to see how long it will take to destroy Hamas. And then, I believe there will be an international understanding with Israel for the day after,” Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel said in an interview. “But now we need to put all our power into winning this war.”
Israeli military preparing ‘wide range’ of attacks as Gaza residents flee
Israel’s stated objective for the looming battle is to eliminate Hamas — which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and others — once and for all.
“We will crush and destroy it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to Israelis in a televised address Wednesday.
The Israeli public is widely and furiously behind that goal, for now. “Destroy Gaza,” reads a banner hanging over a highway in the left-leaning city of Tel Aviv. But past wars suggest the mood could shift — and international support could wane — if the expected ground war drags on and produces horrifying body counts.
Israel’s military is more circumspect than its leading politicians have been. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it is gathering tanks and troops — one the largest mobilizations in the country’s history — with an operational goal of defeating Hamas and eliminating all senior officials involved. This would amount to a greatly expanded version of previous war aims, in which the IDF pulled out once it completed a target list meant to degrade Hamas’s military capability.
A scenario in which the political wing of Hamas survives to govern the enclave is highly unlikely but not impossible, according to Yossi Melman, a longtime intelligence columnist for the newspaper Haaretz.
Officials entertain the possibility mainly because it would support a strategic priority of Netanyahu’s: continuing the split of the Palestinian people between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.
“This has always been a dream scenario for Israel, a disarmed Hamas that remains in power,” Melman said.
Even if Israel does kill every Hamas leader in Gaza and collapse every tunnel, “destroying” the organization may not be possible, experts said. Hamas has exiled but active leadership known to move around between Beirut, Istanbul and Doha, Qatar. And Hamas supporters can be found not just in Gaza but throughout the West Bank, and elsewhere.
“What does it mean to crush Hamas?” Melman asked. “Hamas is an ideology, like [the Islamic State]. It’s difficult to crush an idea.”
The vacuum that would follow a deposed Hamas would need to filled by some governing body that could rebuild the devastated enclave while preventing Hamas from regenerating itself. But who?
Israel dismantled Jewish settlements and pulled its permanent military presence out of Gaza in 2005. It last kept any military forces inside the enclave in 2014, during part of a seven-week war that killed more than 2,300 Gazans and 73 Israelis.
While security analysts said it was easy to imagine that this war would last even longer, the possibility that Israel might return to Gaza full-time is widely seen as a non-starter here.
Israel is not willing to sacrifice the lives of its soldiers any more than necessary, said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Coming after what could be a brutal invasion, staying in Gaza to govern will have no appeal.
“Israel is not going to occupy Gaza and run the lives of 2 million Palestinians,” Michael said.
An international or Arab peacekeeping force is one option, Michael said. Another is the eventual return of the Palestinian Authority, which was the governing body of the Gaza strip between 1994 and 2006, when Hamas won a surprise electoral victory.
A restoration of the authority, which is already viewed by many Palestinians as a corrupt agent of Israeli security agencies, would need to be carefully managed, he said. Its legitimacy would take another blow if Israel is seen as simply ushering in Palestinian Authority security forces when the IDF is ready to leave.
“It will be perceived that they were carried in on the bayonet of the Israeli army,” Melman said.
Some analysts said the recent thaw in Israel’s relations with Arab states could provide a way. Before the Hamas attack, Saudi Arabia was talking to the Biden ministration about establishing ties with Israel. It’s possible that Riyadh could play a role in brokering the Palestinian Authority’s arrival in Gaza City.
Riyadh had been signaling that any bilateral deal with Israel needed to include provisions for the Palestinians, probably including measures to bolster the diminishing Palestinian Authority, Freilich noted.
“Maybe this could be it,” he said.
But the willingness of Persian Gulf states, and other governments, to help Israel craft an endgame may depend on how the Gaza war concludes. The world was shocked by Hamas’s brutality, but the experience shows that civilian casualties and humanitarian agony in Gaza will erode public support.
“Now we see strong support from the U.S. and Western countries,” Freilich said. “But public support with shift, weaken, as the Gaza campaign gets ugly.”
Netanyahu’s standing, too, will be a factor. Anger is boiling at the prime minister both for failing to prevent the massacre and for the strategy that empowered Hamas as a rival to the Palestinian Authority.
Prime Minister Golda Meir stepped down soon after the 1973 Yom Kippur war surprised Israel, and Netanyahu can expect a similar reckoning, said Solon Solomon, a former Knesset lawyer and an international law professor at Brunel University London.
“It is almost certain that once the ground operation is over, after some months, Prime Minister Netanyahu will stop serving as prime minister,” he said.