Published1 day ago
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has vowed to “change the Middle East.” Joe Biden has said there’s “no going back.” But as Israeli forces escalate their attacks on the Gaza Strip and issue fresh, urgent warnings to Palestinians to get out of the way, where is the war going, and what comes next?
After the horrors of 7 October, Israeli officials keep saying that they intend to uproot Hamas from the Gaza Strip, militarily and politically.
But beyond the application of relentless, overwhelming military might, it’s not clear how this unprecedented ambition will be achieved.
“You cannot promote such a historic move without a plan about the day after,” says Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre.
Dr Milshtein, a former head of the Department for Palestinian Affairs in Israeli Military Intelligence, fears that planning has barely begun.
“You need to do it right now,” he says.
Western diplomats say they’re conducting intense discussions with Israel about the future, but that so far nothing is clear.
“There absolutely isn’t a fixed plan,” one told me. “You can sketch out a few ideas on paper, but making them real is going to take weeks, months of diplomacy.”
Military plans exist, ranging from degrading Hamas’s military capability to taking over large parts of the Gaza Strip. But those with long experience of dealing with previous crises say that’s about as far as the planning goes.
“I don’t think that there is a viable, workable solution for Gaza the day after we evacuate our forces,” says Haim Tomer, a former senior officer with Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad.
Israelis are all-but unanimous: Hamas must be defeated. The massacres of 7 October were simply too appalling. The organisation cannot ever again be allowed to rule over Gaza.
But Hamas, Dr Milshtein says, is an idea, not something Israel can simply erase.
“It’s not like Berlin in 1945, when you stuck a flag over the Reichstag and that was that.”
A better parallel, he says, is Iraq in 2003, where US-led forces attempted to remove all traces of Saddam Hussein’s regime. “De-Baathification”, as it was called, was a disaster. It left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civil servants and members of the armed forces out of work, sowing the seeds for a devastating insurgency.
American veterans of that conflict are in Israel, talking to the Israeli military about their experiences in places like Falluja and Mosul. “I do hope they explain to the Israelis that they made some huge mistakes in Iraq,” Dr Milshtein says.
“For example, to not have any illusion about eradicating the ruling party or changing the minds of people. That won’t happen.”
“Hamas is a popular grassroots organisation,” says Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Palestinian National Initiative. “If they want to remove Hamas, they’ll need to ethnically cleanse all of Gaza.”
That thought – that Israel secretly intends to force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip and into neighbouring Egypt – is stirring the most deeply-rooted Palestinian fears.
For a population already largely made up of refugees – those who fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was founded – the thought of another mass exodus conjures memories of the traumatic events of 1948.
“Fleeing means a one-way ticket,” says Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “It doesn’t mean coming back.”
Israeli commentators, including former senior officials, have made frequent reference to the need for Palestinians to be housed, temporarily, across the border in Sinai.
Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, says the only way for Israel to achieve its military ambitions in Gaza without killing a lot of innocent Palestinians, is for civilians to evacuate Gaza.
“They should cross the border to Egypt,” he says, “temporarily or permanently.”
Adding to Palestinian fears is a line in US President Joe Biden’s 20 October request to Congress to approve funding to support Israel and Ukraine.
It says: “This crisis could well result in displacement across border and higher regional humanitarian needs.”
To date, Israel has not said it wants Palestinians to cross the border. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has repeatedly told civilians only to move to ill-defined “safe areas” in the south.
But Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, has warned that Israel’s war in Gaza might be “an attempt to push the civilian inhabitants to… migrate to Egypt.”
Assuming there are still Gazans in the Gaza Strip when this is all over, who’s going to rule them?
“That’s the million dollar question,” says Dr Milshtein.
Israel, he says, should support the creation of a new administration, run by Gazans, with buy-in from local leaders and support from the US, Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia.
It should also include leaders from Fatah, the rival Palestinian faction that Hamas violently ejected from Gaza a year after winning elections in 2006.
Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the city of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
But the PA and its ageing president Mahmud Abbas are wildly unpopular among Palestinians, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Diana Buttu says the PA might secretly want to return to Gaza, but not if that means “riding in on the back of an Israeli tank”.
And the veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, who briefly served in the PA in the 1990s, bristles at the thought that outsiders, including Israel, will once again attempt to determine how Palestinians run their lives.
“People who think that this is a chessboard and they can move a few pawns here and there and have a checkmate move at the end. This isn’t going to happen,” she says.
“You might find a few collaborators,” she says, “but the Gazans will not take kindly to them.”
Among those who have dealt with Gaza wars before, albeit not on this scale, there’s deep apprehension and a sense that almost everything has been tried before.
The former Mossad officer, Haim Tomer, says he would suspend military operations for a month in an effort to get hostages out first.
In 2012, after a previous round of fighting in Gaza, he accompanied the Mossad director to Cairo for secret talks that resulted in a ceasefire.
Hamas representatives, he says, were “on the other side of the street,” with Egyptian officials shuttling in between.
A similar mechanism should be used again, he says, and Israel would almost certainly pay a high price.
“I don’t care if we release a couple of thousand Hamas prisoners. I want to see our people coming back home.”
Israel, he says, could then decide whether to resume full-scale military operations or opt for a long-term ceasefire.
But short of physically separating the territory from Israel and dragging it into the Mediterranean, he says Israel is destined to deal with the Gaza Strip indefinitely.
“It’s like a bone in our throat.”