21 November 2023

Inside Israel’s three ‘day after’ options for Gaza amid government split

Ben Caspit

TEL AVIV — Israel is far from knowing what to do about Gaza after it, in theory, brings down Hamas and rids the enclave of its leaders. As Yoav Mordechai, a retired Israeli major general, asks in his colorful Arabic, “Ba'adein?” — What then? A former coordinator of government activities in the territories, Mordechai is also one of the many people involved in the complicated hostage release negotiations with Hamas.

Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi has said in recent weeks that after ridding Gaza of Hamas, control of the territory should be handed to the Palestinian Authority (PA). This is not Israel’s official position, however. In fact, a clear majority among the ruling Likud party opposes the PA's return to the territory, from which Hamas ousted it in 2007. The extreme right-wing Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties in the governing coalition have completely discounted the idea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains ambiguity on the matter, rejecting various ideas, such as Israel occupying Gaza, but without offering alternatives. The only scenario to which he has committed is maintaining Israeli military control throughout the territory, as Israel has done for decades in the West Bank. His reluctance to commit is clearly linked to his own personal and political postwar future, which is almost as cloudy as Gaza’s.

"Israel has three options," a senior former security source told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "One of them is excellent, the second is bad, the third is not bad but unrealistic.”

A role for Egypt?

The first option, which enjoys the greatest support among Israeli decision-makers, is for Egypt to take control of the enclave in return for complete forgiveness of its massive foreign debt.

When Israeli and Egyptian leaders were negotiating their historic peace treaty in the late 1970s, the Israelis begged President Anwar Sadat to take back Gaza, which it had administered until Israel captured the territory in 1967. Sadat refused, leaving the demographic hot potato in Israel's hands. More than four decades on — with Gaza one of the most densely populated, poverty-ridden places on earth — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has also rejected all requests, entreaties and enticements presented to him.

“The Americans and we, as well as some of the Gulf states, have not yet given up on the Egyptian option,” said the former security source. “Efforts are being made to convince the relevant parties that there is an irrevocable opportunity here to put Egypt on its feet.”

The proposals include rebuilding Gaza south of its current location — rather than rebuilding in the areas of destruction left by Israeli bombs — and moving some of its residents to Arab or other countries and leaving the rest in a rebuilt Gaza.

The Egyptians have reacted angrily to these ideas. Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has been tasked by the Israeli government with devising an international lever that would move the Egyptians in the desired direction. He has activated his many connections, visited countries in the region and formulated proposals, but to no avail. The Egyptians remain entrenched in their position.

“They think that adding over 2 million Palestinians to the Egyptian population will awaken the Muslim Brotherhood and could cause a revolution in Egypt,” a senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “They would rather Egypt go bankrupt than face the fate of senior Palestinian officials whom Hamas threw off rooftops when it ousted the PA.”

From Ramallah to Gaza City

The second option is the PA's return to Gaza, which several Israeli decision-makers regard as a bad idea. Simply put, it would torpedo the government’s ultimate goal of severing all ties between itself and Gaza.

“That's it, Israel and Gaza are no more,” a senior Israeli security source said to Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity?]. “No Palestinian workers in Israel, no Israeli water supplies to Gaza, no electricity, no fuel, no trade, nothing. After what they did to us, they can forget about us.”

There are many political interests at play here. The Israeli political right vehemently opposes PA control of Gaza, fearing it will unite the Palestinians there and in the West Bank under joint leadership. This would bring an end to the Palestinian split that has served its ideology since 2007 and could revive the possibility of political negotiations on a Palestinian state.

The way things look, however, they have little reason to worry. Following the Oct. 7 catastrophe, there is a rare public consensus in Israel that the disengagement from Gaza begun by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 must be completed. PA rule in Gaza would not end the relationship between Israel and the Gaza Strip and could even strengthen it.

International coalition

The third option is handing the keys to an international coalition, consisting of Arab countries and/or NATO, the European Union or the United Nations.

“It sounds romantic,” a senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “but these ensembles never work. Those who run Gaza should be involved and have a real interest, and not just [be] guests.”

The political source pointed to the outcome of the 2006 Lebanon war and UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was supposed to push Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, away from Israel’s border, to a line north of the Litani River. A multinational force was deployed along the line, but Hezbollah gradually crept back south.

“No one dared tell Hezbollah not to resettle along the border [with Israel], which led us to the current escalation,” the source said, referring to violent clashes with Hezbollah in recent weeks.

One creative solution being floated is the construction of a huge artificial island off the coast of Gaza.

“It will be cheaper and faster than rebuilding the Gaza Strip itself,” a very senior former security official told Al-Monitor, seeking to promote his brainchild. “There is technology, means and money. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have huge numbers of such artificial islands, which have become hubs of tourism, commerce, housing and infrastructure. It is relatively easy. It is cheap and it will allow everyone to turn over a new leaf. The Gazans will receive a new land with efficient infrastructure. There will no longer be a land border between Israel and Gaza.”

The source warned that any attempt to rebuild Gaza is doomed given the massive underground tunnel network into which everything could collapse.

“The underground city will suck up what is above it. Disaster is yet to come,” the former security official said. “This island could be a pretty good solution.”

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