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Who will run Gaza after the war? U.S. searches for best of bad options

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TEL AVIV — The Israelis say they don’t want the job. Arab nations are resisting. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might volunteer, but the Palestinian people probably don’t want him.

As the Biden administration begins to plan for “the day after” in Gaza — confronting problematic questions such as who runs the territory once the shooting stops, how it gets rebuilt and, potentially, how it eventually becomes a part of an independent Palestinian state — the stakeholders face a host of unattractive options.

On a trip to Israel and the West Bank last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to advance those discussions, but there were few easy answers. The Biden administration is pushing to install a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority as Gaza’s administrator, but it is an unpopular idea with the Israeli government and even among many Palestinians. U.S. officials acknowledge the challenge, but say the group is the best, and perhaps the only, solution among a list of worse options, which include a return to direct Israeli occupation of the strip.

“We have no illusions this is going to be easy. We’ll surely have disagreements along the way,” Blinken told reporters while in Tel Aviv. But, he said, “the alternative — more terrorist attacks, more violence, more innocent suffering — is unacceptable.”

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed at least 1,200 Israelis, Israel vowed to destroy the group as both a military and governing entity.

But after more than 15 years in power in Gaza, Hamas and its supporters are deeply embedded in every sector of society — not only in the government ministries they run, but in charities, courts, mosques, sport teams, jails, municipalities and youth groups.

The de facto governing body in the Gaza Strip since 2007, when it ousted the Palestinian Authority from power, Hamas has overseen the economy, health care, water and electricity, trade and infrastructure. It runs the security forces in Gaza — not only the militant brigades, like Qassam, now fighting Israeli forces in the streets but also the regular police force, including traffic cops.

The group remains popular among many Palestinians following the attack. Both the Trump and Biden administrations had focused on brokering better relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors — to the detriment of the Palestinians, who had become sidelined as a cause, many felt. Now, thanks to Hamas, Palestinians are again front and center.

Even the week-long pause in Israel’s attack on Gaza was structured in a way that boosted Hamas’s popularity, as joyous Palestinian families welcomed home wives, sisters and children who were freed from Israeli prisons in exchange for hostages taken during last month’s attack.

U.S. officials blame Hamas for the desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, saying the group could have spared Palestinians from Israeli retaliation if it had not carried out the Oct. 7 massacre. But they concede, too, that the hardhanded Israeli response has inflamed Palestinian anger and set back progress toward a more durable peace.

Failing to protect civilians can “drive them into the arms of the enemy,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday.

Israelis say they don’t want to return to an occupation of Gaza. But they are discussing security enhancements such as a buffer zone along its border with Israel and access to the territory for Israeli forces during a transition period that would revoke some elements of autonomy from Gaza’s residents. The Biden administration hotly opposes any restrictions on how Gazans can use their land, and is eager for Israeli forces to turn over responsibility, possibly to international forces pledged by Arab nations, for the territory’s security.

But any planning for the future will be complicated by what happens while the conflict continues to rage, observers say.

“The way the war is prosecuted will determine the range of options,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. “Every bomb that’s dropped, and every day that Hamas still stands out, increases the costs of the reconstruction.”

The question of who maintains law and order after the conflict is deeply complicated, experts say. Israeli authorities acknowledge the need to make such plans, say U.S. officials who met with them last week, but they don’t have concrete proposals and appear to want others to decide.

After the conflict ends, a stable transition in Gaza will need to find a way to “permit demilitarization, with a mechanism to ensure there can’t be any rearming of anybody,” said Dennis A. Ross, a former adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations about Israel-Palestinian negotiations who is now at the Washington Institute, a research group.

And the Palestinian Authority needs to change if it is to run anything in Gaza.

“It’s not just that they can’t come in on the back of Israeli tanks,” Ross said. “The fact is, they can’t manage themselves right now.”

The Israelis don’t want United Nations peacekeepers, because they don’t trust the United Nations to be receptive to their concerns. Arab nations are deeply skeptical about sending in their security forces because they worry about the optics of having to impose force on Palestinians should the need arise.

“One Arab official told me, ‘Imagine the footage of our soldiers shooting at Palestinians and being shot by Palestinians,’” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators. For the Biden administration, the focus on empowering the Palestinian Authority and, eventually, a full Palestinian state, is a way to compel Arab nations to engage in discussions about the complicated transition and potentially to take part in it, he said.

Arab nations, “to even be able to engage with us, they need that framing, the two-state solution framing and the transitional framing,” he said. “Because this way they can always claim, ‘we’re doing this to support the Palestinians.’”

The Palestinian Authority, which the Biden administration sees as the long-term solution, has done little for Palestinians in recent years. Its president, Abbas, turned 88 last month and is widely seen as unimaginative and tired — but still relatively healthy despite the cigarettes he puffs throughout meetings with visiting delegations. He is in the 18th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term.

The Palestinian Authority “may be the best of a range of very bad options to start with,” said Katulis, of the Middle East Institute.

Its credibility with the Palestinian people has been undercut by its security role in the West Bank, which has seen its police force charged not only with protecting Palestinians but by extension assisting the Israeli military occupation.

“The Authority is perceived as corrupt and lacks support among the Palestinian population,” said Shawqi Issa, a human rights activist from Bethlehem and a former Palestinian Authority minister.

Biden officials think of better days between 2007 and 2013, when Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, served as prime minister of the authority. He improved the entity’s ability to deliver basic services. U.S. officials don’t say explicitly that Abbas needs to go, nor do they venture ideas about who should replace him, saying that Palestinians and their regional backers must have that conversation.

But they do have ideas about basic reforms to lay the groundwork for a more open Gazan society, which hasn’t had a chance to vote in elections since 2006. After meeting with Abbas on Thursday, Blinken told reporters that the Biden administration was seeking reforms that would “effectively deliver on the needs of the Palestinian people.”

The Palestinian Authority needs to combat corruption, engage with civil society and improve support for a free media, Blinken said. Ultimately, he said, it should face voters to pick leadership, he said, although he appeared to suggest that doing so should not be the first priority.

“We support free and fair elections around the world, including, of course, for Palestinians,” he said. “But that has to be a process and it’s something to talk about as we move from the conflict to what we’ve been calling the day after.”

Offering elections right now could well lead to a Hamas victory, a non-starter for Israeli leaders and a reason U.S. officials say that other Palestinian choices need to be seen as more attractive. In private, officials from Israel’s far-right government are dismissive, saying they see little difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, whom they also accuse of undermining Israeli security.

In the long run, the daily needs of Palestinians — the sort of issues on which democratically-elected leaders rise and fall — are unlikely to be addressed so long as their territories are occupied by Israel, said Issa, the former Palestinian Authority minister.

“The average person in the West Bank or Gaza Strip will not see their problems solved unless the occupation ends and the Palestinian people obtain their rights,” he said. “All discussions about temporary solutions fall short of addressing the main problem.”

Many Gaza refugees say they are unhappy with all their options — though thinking about politics is difficult while under Israeli bombardment, one said.

“Our current focus is solely on ending the war,” said Safwan Jamal, 28, who is from Gaza City and has been displaced to the Nuseirat refugee camp, which has experienced devastating bombing, alongside shortages of food, water and electricity.

“While Hamas may be somewhat reckless, the Palestinian Authority is riddled with corruption and unfit to govern us,” he said.

Hamas is “far from ideal,” he said, but “we are oppressed, and those willing to help us must respect our perspectives and facilitate elections, allowing the Palestinian people to choose their leadership, whether it be Hamas or others.”

A mother of two children from Gaza City, Lamees Haddad, 32, said that both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority “are marred by corruption.”

“We endure without support from any party. Current political discussions seem senseless while people in Gaza continue to suffer, not just from bombings, but also due to hunger and thirst,” she said.

In the long run, Biden administration officials say, a separate Palestinian state is the only stable solution for ensuring security for both Israelis and Palestinians. They are still working to convince Israelis about the necessity of their vision.

“There are two schools of thought” among Israelis, said Ross, the former U.S. negotiator. “One school of thought goes, ‘This just proved we can’t afford a Palestinian state next to us because it can be taken over by groups like Hamas.’ And the other school of thought will be, ‘Okay, we just defeated Hamas. And if you think we can control or occupy the Palestinians forever, exclusively on our terms, and we won’t face a successor to Hamas, you live in a dream world.’”

Booth reported from London and Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan. Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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