Israel Raises Alarms by Suggesting ‘Indefinite’ Role in Gaza
By saying that Israel will maintain security control overGaza “for an indefinite period,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off alarm bells in Washington and questions at home.
The Biden administration, trying to manage severe criticism among Arab and European allies about the death toll in Gaza. — now at more than 10,000 Gazan officials say — was quick to push back.
“We’re very clear on no reoccupation, just as we’re very clear on no displacement of the Palestinian population,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Mr. Blinken did leave open the possibility of a “transition period” after the war ends, he said, but eventually Gaza’s administration “must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”
But everyone is vague on how that might happen, given the current weakness of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which is limited to parts of the occupied West Bank. Mr. Abbas is deeply unpopular, and the Authority is widely criticized among Palestinians for corruption and its collaboration with Israel. That collaboration helps Mr. Abbas tamp down dissent in the West Bank, including from members of Hamas, while Israeli settlements continue to expand there.
So, in a real sense, Mr. Netanyahu was just saying the obvious.
After the killing of so many Israelis by Hamas a month ago — about 1,400, officials say — Israel will want to ensure its own security so that such an invasion from Gaza can never happen again. The presumption is that Israel will control Gaza until some new arrangement can be made to govern the strip and patrol it, which could take a long time.
Even then, it is highly unlikely, Israeli officials say, that Israel will ever completely trust any Palestinian or even international peacekeeping force to keep Israel safe.
Israel is prioritizing its security, these officials say, and will maintain what it calls “operational flexibility,” which is understood to mean the ability to enter Gaza whenever it feels its security is at risk.
Israeli officials also say that they intend to create a new buffer zone inside Gaza, which logic says could include an area at the Egyptian border, as well, which would give Israel total control over all Gaza’s land borders.
Mr. Netanyahu set off the debate when he told ABC News that Israel would “for an indefinite period” have the overall security responsibility in Gaza “because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t have it.”
But even if Israel dismantles Hamas in Gaza, who will govern Gaza after the war and how the territory will be policed are listed in Israeli planning as “tbd.”
As in the West Bank, where Israeli troops are in charge of security in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Netanyahu seems to be imagining something similar for Gaza. At the same time, he and other senior Israeli officials say they have no intention of “reoccupying Gaza,” by which they seem to mean once again being responsible for civilian administration, too.
It is too early to decide these matters, Benny Gantz, a former defense minister who is part of Mr. Netanyahu’s small war cabinet in the emergency government, told reporters on Wednesday.
Once Gaza and other areas are safe, “we will sit down and review an alternative mechanism for Gaza,” he said. “I do not know what it will be. But I do know what cannot be there — an active presence of Hamas with governance and military capabilities.”
There may be a role for a multinational force to help stabilize Gaza, restore civil order and eventually usher in the Palestinian Authority, said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. But there is bound to be a budding insurgency in Gaza after the war, he said, “and in terms of counterinsurgency, there is no alternative to a hardheaded approach.”
Egypt will refuse to do it, and the Palestinian Authority can only do it with help from Israel, he said. “The thought that the Israelis would just evaporate is crazy,” he said. “It’s hard to see how anyone other than Israel can do that counterinsurgency work. As unappealing as the return of a partial Israeli presence is, chaos is worse, but ideally with as light and short an Israeli presence as possible.”
Israeli officials have spoken of dividing Gaza into “areas,” like those in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have freedom of action, supposedly in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, in areas of Palestinian control.
The hope would be, Mr. Sachs said, with the help of international forces, to have Gaza be as close to the West Bank’s Area A as possible — where the Palestinian Authority is supposed to have full control but where Israeli forces enter and leave when they consider it necessary.
Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and former minister and spokesman of the Palestinian Authority, said he believed that Mr. Netanyahu was thinking of the West Bank. “In the West Bank he is leaving the administrative functions to the Palestinian Authority and keeping for Israel the overall security responsibility,” he said.
Asked if he meant Israeli forces going in and out, Mr. Khatib agreed. “Israel gives itself the right to do anything it sees as necessary security-wise and has someone to do the dirty work.”
But in Gaza, the Authority will be less likely to agree. “I doubt very much, after the experience of the West Bank, that there will be anyone willing to repeat that experience on the Palestinian or Arab side,” he said.
Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian analyst, suggested that what Israel was discussing represented occupation, whatever it’s called.
“Either you are permanently there or you will not be there,” he said of Israel’s future role in controlling Gaza. “Either you stay or you don’t stay. Overall security control means being everywhere, in every corner. It means taking on social, educational and health needs and assuming responsibility” for the enclave, which is precisely what Israel says it will not do.
Despite Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, by most legal definitions, it still occupies the territory, since it controls Gaza’s airspace, its coastline, all the land borders except with Egypt, the vast majority of goods allowed to enter and the Gazans allowed to leave. Lawyers call this “functional occupation,” said Michael Sfard, a lawyer who specializes in the laws of war.
Even before the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Israel held “all the layers of control,” including the population register for births and deaths in Gaza, Mr. Sfard said. “The test for occupation is the level of control,” which is why Israel is judged internationally as continuing to occupy the strip, even if it is not responsible for collecting the garbage, he said.
And if Israel does chose to treat Gaza even like Area A in the West Bank, where it is free to enter and leave with its troops as it sees fit, that would mean an even clearer reason to call it an occupation, Mr. Sfard said.
Mr. Gantz, however, said that for Israel, defeating Hamas came first, and security for now was trumping everything, even if peace with the Palestinians remained his ultimate goal.
“Hamas started this war, but Israel will win it,” he said. “It will take some time and there will be casualties, and though we are trying as much as possible to move the Gazan people south and people are dying, we are doing what we can,” he insisted, despite the unprecedented number of civilian deaths.
He would not be drawn on the length of the war, saying that “there are no limitations” for a fight “for our existence and for Zionism.”
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