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Israel risks facing a long and bloody insurgency if it defeats Hamas and occupies Gaza without a credible post-war plan to withdraw its troops and move toward the creation of a Palestinian state, U.S. and Arab officials, diplomats and analysts said.
None of the ideas proposed so far by Israel, the United States and Arab nations for the post-war governance of Gaza has been able to garner support, according to two US and four regional officials, as well as four diplomats familiar with the discussions. This raises fears that the Israeli military could become mired in a prolonged security operation.
As Israel tightens its grip on northern Gaza, some officials in Washington and Arab capitals fear it is ignoring the lessons of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, when quick military victories were followed by years of brutal militancy.
If the Hamas-run government in Gaza is toppled, its infrastructure destroyed and its economy ruined, the radicalization of an angry population could fuel an uprising targeting Israeli troops in the enclave’s narrow streets, diplomats and officials say.
Israel, the United States and many Arab countries agree that Hamas must be ousted after it launched a cross-border attack on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages. But there is no consensus on what should replace it.
What will happen to Gaza after Hamas – the question that will confuse the war
Arab countries and Western allies have said a strengthened Palestinian Authority – which partially rules the West Bank – is a natural candidate to play a bigger role in Gaza, home to about 2.3 million people.
But confidence in the body – run by the Fatah party of 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas – has been undermined by the loss of control of Gaza to Hamas in a 2007 conflict, its failure to stop the spread of Israeli settlements in the West coast and accusations of rampant corruption and incompetence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said over the weekend that the Palestinian Authority in its current form should not take over Gaza. He said the Israeli army is the only force capable of eliminating Hamas and ensuring that terrorism does not re-emerge. After Netanyahu’s comments, Israeli officials insisted that Israel does not intend to occupy the Gaza Strip.
Mohammed Dahlan, who was the Palestinian Authority’s security chief for Gaza until it lost control of the strip to Hamas and has been tipped to become the next leader of a post-war government there, said Israel was wrong to think that tightening control of Gaza would will end the conflict.
“Israel is an occupying power and the Palestinian people will deal with it as an occupying power,” Dahlan said in his office in Abu Dhabi, where he now lives. “None of the Hamas leadership or fighters will surrender. They will blow themselves up, but they will not surrender.”
Dahlan has the backing of the influential United Arab Emirates to lead a post-war administration in Gaza, according to diplomats and Arab officials. But he said no one, certainly not him, would want to step in to govern a broken and broken territory without a clear political path in sight.
“I didn’t see any vision from Israel, America or the international community,” Dahlan said, calling on Israel to stop the war and begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution.
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US President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu on Wednesday that occupying Gaza would be a “big mistake”. So far, the US and its allies have not seen a clear road map from Israel for its exit strategy from Gaza beyond the stated goal of rooting out Hamas, diplomats say. US officials are pressing Israel for realistic goals and a plan to achieve them.
The Israeli government did not respond to requests for comment on its post-war plan in Gaza. Israel’s operation in Gaza – launched in retaliation for the October 7 attack – has so far killed more than 11,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless, according to the United Nations and the Red Crescent.
While insisting on Israel’s right to defend itself, some US officials are concerned that the high number of civilian casualties could radicalise more Palestinians, driving new fighters into the arms of Hamas or future militant groups that may emerge, to to replace him, according to a source familiar with the US. policy making.
Israel can win the battle with Hamas and lose the war
More than a dozen Gazans interviewed by Reuters said the Israeli invasion had spawned a new generation of fighters. Abu Mohammad, a 37-year-old civil servant from the Jabalia refugee camp, said he would rather die than face Israeli occupation.
“I am not Hamas, but in days of war we are all one people and if the fighters finish them off, we will take our guns and fight,” he told Reuters, declining to give his full name for fear of reprisals. “The Israelis may occupy Gaza, but they will never feel secure, not for a day.”
Negotiations led by the US
Washington’s discussions on a post-war plan for Gaza are still in the early stages with the Palestinian Authority, other Palestinian stakeholders and allies including Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to two US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We’re certainly not there yet in terms of any effort to sell that vision to our regional partners, who will ultimately have to live with it and/or implement it,” a senior U.S. official said.
Although Biden insists the war must end with a “vision” of a two-state solution — which would unite the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into a Palestinian state — he and his senior aides have not offered specific details on how they expect to achieve that either. suggested a resumption of negotiations.
Some experts see any effort to revive talks as a long shot, not least because of the embittered mood of Israelis over Hamas atrocities since October 7 and Palestinians over Israel’s retaliation in Gaza.
“Among the many tragedies of the Hamas terrorist attack is that it fundamentally undermined and rejected the Palestinian cause for a sovereign, independent state,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former US government deputy national intelligence officer for the Middle East who is now in the Atlantic Council Think Tank.
According to a person familiar with the matter, Biden may decide on a more modest initiative that could include charting a path toward an eventual resumption of talks. Biden aides acknowledge that Netanyahu and his far-right coalition, which has rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood, have little appetite for renewed talks.
As Biden seeks re-election next year, he may be reluctant to alienate pro-Israel voters by being seen to pressure Netanyahu for concessions to the Palestinians.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in a speech last week in Tokyo, explained Washington’s red lines on Gaza, saying the administration opposes the forced displacement of Palestinians from the territory, any reduction in its size, its occupation or blockade by Israel . He also said that it cannot become a platform for terrorism.
Blinken has repeatedly said that Washington would like to see a “revived” Palestinian Authority to eventually rule the Gaza Strip and have its rule merged with the West Bank.
Under Abbas – who has led the Palestinian Authority since 2005 – trust in him has waned as the promise of a path to a two-state solution outlined in the 1993 Oslo peace accords has weakened.
Israel’s “war on two or three fronts”: will the West Bank also flare up?
That dynamic needs to change, US officials say. A leadership change in the Palestinian Authority may be possible, with Abbas perhaps remaining in an honorary role, some diplomats said. Another step under discussion is giving the Palestinian Authority a key role in distributing post-war aid to Gaza to revive its legitimacy, a senior European diplomat said.
Asked about the discussions, a senior Palestinian Authority official said its return to Gaza was the only acceptable scenario and that was being discussed with the US and other Western powers. He declined to comment on the proposal that Dahlan or others lead a Palestinian government.
Some senior Palestinian officials, including Prime Minister Mohammad Staye, have said the Palestinian Authority will not return to power in Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks.
A proposal for a two-year transitional administration of technocrats in Gaza, backed by the United Nations and Arab powers, has been floated by Western partners and some Middle Eastern countries, diplomats said. But there has been resistance from key Arab governments – including Egypt – to being drawn into what they see as the Gaza quagmire, diplomats said.
Regional powers fear that any Arab forces stationed in Gaza may have to use force against the Palestinians, and no Arab nation wants its military to be put in that position.
There is no management agreement
While the aging Abbas is unpopular with many Palestinians, there is no consensus on who might replace him as the next leader.
Dahlan is likely to be acceptable to Egypt and Israel, but – despite working closely with the US during his time as Gaza’s security chief – a US source said Washington would have some concerns about his return to power. He has a long-standing feud with Abbas and the inner circle of the Palestinian Authority, as well as with supporters of Hamas.
Dahlan led a wave of arrests and crackdowns on senior Hamas leaders in 1996 following a series of suicide bombings against Israel. A UAE representative said Abu Dhabi would support any post-war arrangements agreed by all parties to the conflict and supported by the United Nations to restore stability and achieve a two-state solution.
Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader jailed by Israel since 2002 for murder, is popular among many Palestinians but seen by some in Washington as impractical because the Israeli government would not want to release someone they accuse of ” his hands are stained with blood”.
A US official said choosing a leader would be difficult because each of the regional players had their own favorites and interests. Ultimately, Washington will cast its lot with whichever leader wins the support of the Palestinian people and its regional allies, as well as Israel.
“Obviously a rejuvenation of the Palestinian leadership is desperately needed, but getting there again is a very complicated thing,” said Joost R. Hilterman, the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa program director. He said Arab countries could veto any candidate they did not like, and Hamas – which portrays itself as a defender of Palestinian independence – would likely win any election.
It is also very possible that the conflict will spill over into the Israeli-occupied West Bank and outside of Israel. According to Arab officials and diplomats, there has not been such widespread anxiety about the hostilities raging in the Middle East since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Whatever Biden decides to do diplomatically, his aides say he has no interest in drawing the U.S. into a direct military role in the conflict unless America’s own security interests are threatened by Iran or its regional proxies.
“There are no plans or intentions to deploy US military units to Gaza, now or in the future,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters this month.