Inside story

Israel cornering itself into postwar Gaza military occupation, Western diplomats warn

By asserting it will maintain security control over Strip, rejecting PA return, not advancing alternate plans, Israel likely to find itself stuck in enclave, top officials tell ToI

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Israeli soldiers are seen during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
Israeli soldiers are seen during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Israel is setting the conditions for the Israel Defense Forces to reoccupy Gaza after the war, three senior Western diplomats told The Times of Israel over the past week.

The diplomats — two of whom are ambassadors — acknowledged Israel’s stated desire to avoid such a scenario.

However, they explained that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian Authority returning to govern Gaza, his failure to advance viable alternatives, and Jerusalem’s assertion that Israel will maintain overall security control of the Strip are dissuading regional and global actors from cooperating with US efforts to rehabilitate the enclave after the war.

“Given these circumstances, I don’t see a more likely scenario,” said one of the diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We will work to prevent the reoccupation of Gaza, but there aren’t any volunteers to govern there besides the PA, which the current Israeli government is determined to weaken, so where does that leave us?” asked a second diplomat, highlighting the decision by the cabinet last month to withhold hundreds of millions in Ramallah’s own tax revenues, depriving the already cash-strapped PA of much-needed funds.

The third diplomat agreed with the prognosis shared by the other two but speculated that Israel could change course eventually, as it did after occupying southern Lebanon for 15 years. The government withdrew its forces from its south Lebanon security zone in 2000 amid waning public support for a mission that took the lives of hundreds of IDF soldiers stationed there.

The comments from the Western diplomats revealed the sobering outlook held in several of the countries that continue to support Israel’s military operation against Hamas but that are increasingly opposed to Netanyahu’s plans for Gaza when the war winds down. The remarks also exposed the limited degree of sway that some of the world’s most influential governments believe they currently have over Israel after October 7.

Israeli soldiers opening gates for a tank during the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, on June 22, 2000. (Flash90)

‘Civil administration for Gaza’

In the two-plus months since Hamas’s terror onslaught — in which roughly 1,200 people were massacred in southern Israel and some 240 were taken hostage into Gaza — Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will maintain “overall security control” of the Strip after the war in order to ensure that a similar attack can never take place again.

The view is shared across Israel’s leadership, with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz saying last week, “We will establish full security control over the space, including a territorial seizure that will allow the continuation of the operational effort.”

In addition to the creation of a military buffer zone inside Gaza, the IDF will also enter the enclave as needed in order to neutralize brewing terror threats, Israeli leaders have also declared.

“We know that we will have the freedom to eliminate any kind of threat in the future, and there will be no serious military threats against Israel from Gaza… We will conduct any needed operation and military effort in order to secure our future,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Monday.

Gallant also immediately clarified that Israel “will not control Gaza in any civilian way.”

Israeli officials have privately likened the future status they envision for Gaza to that of the West Bank’s Area B, where Israel maintains security control while not being responsible for civilian services for Palestinians.

Palestinian police prevent demonstrators from gathering in the West Bank city of Ramallah ahead of a planned protest against the Palestinian Authority on July 5, 2021 (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

“No Arab force will agree to enter Gaza under such circumstances,” said one of the diplomats. They argued that this breakdown of responsibility is what led the PA to become so unpopular in the West Bank and that Abbas could, therefore, not be expected to return to Gaza under a similar format.

Indeed, a top aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the PA will not agree to return to Gaza — where it was in charge from the time of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005 until it was violently ousted by Hamas in 2007 — unless Israeli forces are completely withdrawn and unless the move is part of a broader initiative aimed at an eventual two-state solution.

But Netanyahu has all but rejected both conditions, saying repeatedly that he will not allow Gaza to become “Fatahstan,” in reference to Abbas’s party, and declaring Saturday that he is “proud” to have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state.

As for what government he would accept in Gaza after the war, Netanyahu sufficed by saying, “There will be a civil administration that does not educate its children to destroy Israel.”

A Civil Administration official hands a notice regarding the pending demolition of Khan al-Ahmar to one of its residents on September 23, 2018. (Civil Administration)

He apparently referred to a Palestinian-run body, though “Civil Administration” is also the name of the Defense Ministry body responsible for administrative services for settlers and Palestinians in IDF-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

Gantz was slightly more specific, saying last week that Israel should “identify local sources who will take care of sewage, medicine and civil issues” with support from “moderate Arab states.”

But the United Arab Emirates, for one, has conditioned financial and political support for the reconstruction of Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war on the advancement of a US-backed initiative toward a two-state solution.

A long-term ‘transition period’

For its part, the US has included opposition to the reoccupation of Gaza and to the reduction of Gaza’s territory via a buffer zone among its “five principles” for post-war Gaza.

Biden aides have acknowledged, though, that the IDF will have to maintain a security presence in Gaza for an initial period after the war.

“Yes, there will need to be some transition period at the end of this conflict, so there is not a security vacuum on the ground. But ultimately, as the secretary has been very clear and the president has been very clear, there cannot be a reoccupation of Gaza,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Monday.

From left: IDF chief Herzi Halevi, US military chief CQ Brown, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The US wants this transition period to start within weeks, as visiting Biden officials are leaning on Israel to shift from high- to “low-intensity” military operations in Gaza.

But Israel views this interim period as one that could last years and wants to take a page out of the US playbook.

“The United States was in Germany for several years, and they were in Japan for several years, and today Germany and Japan are two of your strongest allies. That’s the change we have to have with the Palestinians,” Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer told MSNBC last month.

Asked to characterize Dermer’s comments, one of the senior Western diplomats responded, “That sounds a lot like occupation of Gaza to me.”

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