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War in Gaza Leaves Power Vacuum


Since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly spoken of the need to topple Hamas but has done little to address the power vacuum that would leave — especially after Israeli forces withdraw.

That is already apparent in Gaza City, where a deadly battle at the territory’s largest hospital complex stretched into a third day on Wednesday, after the Israeli military said the re-emergence of Hamas fighters had forced it to return to a site it first stormed in November.

The military said on Wednesday that it had killed dozens of militants in the operation at Al-Shifa Hospital and questioned or arrested hundreds of people, while Hamas has said that it caused “deaths and injuries” to Israeli forces; neither account could be independently confirmed. The crossfire has endangered displaced people seeking shelter on the grounds, along with medical teams, patients and nearby residents.

Former Israeli security officials are split on how to address the growing anarchy in northern Gaza, but many agree that until the government has a detailed, workable plan for how the enclave will be governed and made secure, it will be impossible to chart a path toward a more stable future. And they said Mr. Netanyahu should have long since developed such a plan.

“It’s a huge mistake” not to have a governing plan now, said Gen. Gadi Shamni, a retired commander of the Gaza division of the Israeli Defense Forces. “It might take months or even years to create a successful alternative, but we need to start moving things in that direction.”

“We will continue doing these back-and-forth operations much longer than necessary,” he said. “Every time the I.D.F. leaves an area, Hamas will return.”

Mr. Netanyahu last month proposed a plan that called for Israeli security control over Gaza after the war and for the “administration of civilian affairs and the enforcement of public order” based on unnamed “local stakeholders with managerial experience” and no connections to terrorist groups like Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007. It envisions eliminating the United Nations agency that is a major provider of social services and employment in Gaza, without detailing what, if anything, would take up the slack.

The prime minister’s office said the plan “reflects broad public consensus over the goals of the war and for replacing Hamas rule in Gaza with a civilian alternative.”

But many experts said it was vague and an unrealistic effort to procrastinate on serious action.

“Lives have been transformed into hell,” said Talal Okal, a political analyst from Gaza City who fled northern Gaza in October and is now in the United Arab Emirates. “Netanyahu and his partners don’t want to answer the question of the day after the war.”

Mr. Netanyahu has outright rejected calls by the Biden administration and others for an overhauled Palestinian Authority — which now has limited governing powers in the West Bank — to govern Gaza as well. Many of his allies oppose unified control of the two territories as a step toward Palestinian statehood.

Yet there are no simple options for governing Gaza, Israeli security analysts say. Many Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority as tainted by corruption and mismanagement, and it is mistrusted by many Israelis as well.

Some Israeli military officials and politicians have called for Israel to occupy Gaza, at least temporarily, after the war, but that is widely opposed by the international community, it would put enormous limits on Palestinian freedoms and it would be a drain on Israel’s resources. How Hamas and other factions would confront an occupation would also pose a challenge.

Other former Israeli officials say that Mr. Netanyahu must introduce a governing body now in areas where the army has pulled out in order to block Hamas from reconstituting itself and to prevent chaos from proliferating. They argue that Israel’s forces would most likely have to continue returning to parts of Gaza, as they did at Al-Shifa, and without a more comprehensive plan would be left fighting a protracted war of attrition.

General Shamni said that Mr. Netanyahu’s stance so far reflected the fact that his government depends on hard-line coalition partners who vehemently oppose Palestinian statehood.

“What’s most important to him is his political survival,” General Shamni said.

Other retired Israeli officials have argued the Palestinian Authority is too weak to govern Gaza, but they have agreed that the status quo of leaving areas ungoverned is untenable. Instead, Israel should fully occupy Gaza first and then try to introduce an alternative governing body, they argue.

Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, said this week’s raid on Al-Shifa showed the need for a bigger Israeli security presence in the north.

“People are asking: Didn’t we already clean Shifa? We very much didn’t,” Mr. Milshtein said. “If you don’t remain there, within five minutes, they come back,” he said, referring to Hamas.

The Gazan Health Ministry has condemned the Israeli raid as a “crime against health institutions,” and humanitarian organizations expressed alarm over the situation at the complex, which, along with the surrounding area, had been sheltering thousands of people.

Fully occupying Gaza would require Israel to increase its forces there and dedicate more resources to providing services to Palestinians. At the same time, the military is clashing with Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon, and the mobilization of reservists has strained the Israeli economy.

Occupation would also defy international calls for Israel, including by President Biden, not to take such action.

For Palestinians, it would mean that the Israeli military would remain in full control of Gaza’s cities and entry and exit points.

Hamas would be likely to suffer under such a scenario, with less room to maneuver, because Israeli soldiers would be able to clamp down on the group more easily, but it is not clear just how Hamas and other groups would respond. Decades of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories has not eliminated armed militant groups opposing its presence.

With experts warning of imminent famine in Gaza, prolonged debates about postwar governance come at the cost of Gaza’s residents, said Mr. Okal, the political analyst from Gaza City.

“Complete chaos has taken hold and the people are paying the price,” he said. “But what can they do? All they can do is raise their hands and pray to God.”

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