Israel said to eye giving Palestinian traders postwar reins as fighting at Shifa rages

Wall Street Journal cites officials saying Israel put out feelers to Egypt, UAE, and Jordan on plan that would see businessmen take over aid operations and governance

File - A worker sorts flour bags during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)
File - A worker sorts flour bags during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

A report Thursday indicated that Israel was working on a postwar plan that would hand key roles governing Gaza to Palestinian public figures and businessmen, as fighting continued to rage in Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital and other parts of the Strip.

With war in its 167th day, efforts to reach a truce and free hostages held by the Hamas terror group sparked cautious optimism from the US’s top diplomat, who also pushed ahead with a proposed UN Security Council resolution calling for fighting to cease and captives to be released.

Israel has struggled thus far to formulate a plan for managing postwar Gaza, rejecting US suggestions that the Palestinian Authority undergo reforms and take control but insisting that it will not reoccupy the enclave itself.

The report in the Wall Street Journal Thursday detailed a plan being worked up by Israel that would instead seek to install Palestinian leaders and businessmen with no ties to Hamas. Under the proposal, the figures would first have key roles distributing aid in Gaza, a system that would eventually be developed into a Palestinian-led governing authority,

The report said an unnamed top Israeli defense official has held talks with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan with the aim of building regional support for the proposal.

Six months after the war began on October 7 with a devastating attack by the Palestinian terror group Hamas on Israel, a ballooning humanitarian crisis in Gaza has risen to become a central focus of the international community amid warnings from the UN and aid agencies that Gazans are on the brink of famine.

Aid deliveries, which are mostly trucked into the Palestinian enclave, have faced looting by gunmen and deadly stampedes by desperate civilians, while logistics of coordinating the convoys amid the fighting have also hampered supplies. Israel accuses Hamas, which has ruled the Strip since 2007, of seizing aid for its use, depriving civilians.

Officials, who largely spoke on condition of anonymity, told the WSJ that under the proposal, Israel would inspect aid before it enters Gaza by land and sea and is transported to large warehouses in the center of the Strip.

Those in charge of aid distribution from the warehouses will “assume authority to govern, backed up by security forces funded by wealthy Arab governments,” officials told the newspaper.

A man receives a bag of flour during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

The plan would seemingly expand on an initiative that has seen Israel working with Palestinian businesspeople to import food and other relief into the Strip, bypassing aid groups which refuse to cooperate with the IDF in order to maintain neutrality.

Israel has made overtures to several prominent Palestinians for help with the idea, the officials said, including the Palestinian Authority’s top intelligence official, Majid Faraj, and West Bank businessman Bashar Masri.

Also approached was Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior member of Fatah who was the PA head of security in Gaza before going into exile in the United Arab Emirates. Dahlan, who was first chased out of Gaza by Hamas, and then the West Bank following a falling out with Fatah, has nonetheless become an important power broker for the Palestinians in the Gulf.

According to the report, IDF Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, head of COGAT, the Israeli military body that coordinates civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, sees the proposed aid network as a key part of Israel’s plan to evacuate noncombatants from Rafah ahead of a planned military offensive. The city is the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza but has also seen an influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans fleeing the fighting.

The aid network would distribute food to up to a million people in displacement camps that Israel hopes will be built for those evacuating Rafah, officials said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet given his support for the plan, according to the broadsheet, as it would hand power to groups affiliated with the Fatah party, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

“We need someone who doesn’t want to murder Jews to step to the plate. That can happen once Hamas is destroyed in Gaza. That is within reach,” Ophir Falk, a senior diplomatic adviser to Netanyahu, told the WSJ.

However, another official cautioned the plan could be thwarted by strong opposition from Hamas, which remains a salient force in some parts of the Palestinian street.

This picture taken from Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip shows Israeli army battle tank at a position along the border with the Palestinian territory on March 19, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Earlier this month Hamas warned that anyone who cooperates with Israel will be considered a traitor and put to death. That warning came amid reports that Israel was seeking to set up local Palestine clans to govern regions of Gaza.

A Hamas official told the WSJ that the group already feels it is being cut out of the picture by an initiative organized by the US, the UAE, and others to ship aid to Gaza by sea.

With a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Israel has been under increasing pressure from the international community and aid agencies to allow more goods into the territory.

According to the UN, most of the Strip is experiencing catastrophic hunger and on the verge of famine.

War in Gaza was sparked on October 7, when Hamas carried out a massive cross-border attack from the Strip in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians. Terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages, who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

In response to the massacre, Israel launched an aerial offensive and ground campaign, vowing to eradicate the terror group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and release the hostages.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, March 20, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Fighting in recent days has erupted in Gaza City around the Strip’s largest hospital, where the Israel Defense Forces says Hamas terrorists have reestablished a command post.

The IDF said troops operating on the ground of Shifa Hospital killed more than 50 gunmen over the past day, taking the number of fighters killed around the hospital to 140.

It said it had located terrorist infrastructure and weapons in and around the facility, showing images of AK-47 automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other artillery.

Military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said “many Hamas terrorists — operatives and senior members” had been hiding in the hospital along with Islamic Jihad militants.

“When we entered the hospital, we were finding terrorists fighting against us here in this area,” he said.

Hamas has denied that the hospital harbored fighters and claimed those killed were wounded patients and displaced persons. Israel says it is taking care not to harm patients or medical staff.

Video footage released by Hamas showed its combatants next to the Shifa compound, carrying weapons and firing on Israeli tanks in streets reduced to rubble. The position of the buildings and outline matched satellite imagery checked by Reuters.

Near Shifa, residents told Reuters via a chat app that the army had blown up houses close by as buildings in the hospital complex burned.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of embedding itself among the civilian population in Gaza, including using hospitals and medical centers as part of its military operations. The IDF has provided evidence it says backs up the claims and would make Israeli raids on hospitals legitimate targets under international law.

In central Gaza, meanwhile, the IDF said Nahal Brigade troops killed some 20 Hamas operatives over the past day, while the 7th Armored Brigade launched an offensive against Hamas in the al-Qarara area of southern Gaza’s Khan Younis.

The raid in al-Qarara began with a wave of airstrikes, targeting Hamas sites and operatives, the IDF noted.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken steps out of a car as he departs for Cairo, in Jeddah on March 21, 2024. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

Satellite images analyzed by the United Nations Satellite Centre said Thursday that images collected on February 29 showed 35 percent of Gaza buildings — 88,868 structures — had been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.

The analyses showed that nearly 20,000 structures had been damaged since the last assessment, with the heaviest damage in and around Khan Younis, UNOSAT said.

Negotiators from Israel and Hamas are both in Qatar for indirect talks aimed at pausing the fighting for several weeks and freeing dozens of hostages, among the 134 captives — some killed — still in Gaza, according to the IDF.

Hamas says it will release hostages only as part of an agreement that would end the war, while Israel says it will discuss only a temporary pause.

“I think the gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible,” US Secretary of State Antony told Arabic broadcaster Al Hadath. “The Israeli team is present, has authority to reach an agreement.”

Blinken’s sixth visit to the region since the start of the Israel-Hamas war began in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and took him to Egypt on Thursday, where he and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi together reviewed progress in the talks, Sissi’s office and the US State Department said.

Sissi stressed the need for a truce to address the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza and warned of the dangers of a military operation in Rafah, the last zone of relative safety for civilians, where more than half the enclave’s population is now sheltering, pressed against the Egyptian border.

Blinken told al-Hadath the US had circulated a draft United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire linked to the release of hostages” in the Gaza Strip.

“We’re pressing for an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages. That would bring immediate relief to so many people who are suffering in Gaza – the children, the women, the men,” Blinken said.

“I think that would send a strong message, a strong signal,” he told Al Hadath.

A version of the draft, seen by AFP, stresses “the need for an immediate and durable ceasefire to protect civilians on all sides, enable the delivery of essential humanitarian aid, and alleviate suffering… in conjunction with the release of hostages still held.”

Washington had previously been averse to the word “ceasefire.”

No vote has yet been scheduled on the text.

The UN Security Council meets before voting on a resolution concerning a ceasefire in Gaza at United Nations headquarters, February 20, 2024. (AP/Seth Wenig)

During the five-month-long war, the US has vetoed three draft resolutions, two of which would have demanded an immediate ceasefire, arguing that they could jeopardize truce talks.

The US traditionally shields Israel at the UN, yet it has also abstained twice, allowing the council to adopt resolutions that aimed to boost aid to Gaza and called for extended pauses in fighting.

Blinken was due to meet foreign ministers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan on Thursday, as well as the Emirati international cooperation minister and the general secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, the Egyptian foreign ministry said.

The ministry gave no details of the talks, but Egyptian sources said Arab nations would stress the urgency of finding a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is set to visit Israel on Friday.

Riyadh announced Wednesday that it would donate $40 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in Gaza but has faced massive funding cuts and calls for its abolition spearheaded by Israel that has accused some of the agency staff of participating in the October 7 attack, or having ties to Hamas and other local terror groups.

The announcement came though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly made it clear that they will not play any role in the rehabilitation of Gaza unless it is part of a framework aimed at an eventual two-state solution.

Children carry bags of flour after humanitarian aid was distributed in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

Netanyahu has apparently held off holding substantive security cabinet discussions regarding the so-called “day after” the war, fearing this could lead to fractures in his mainly right-wing coalition.

The US has been pushing for a reformed PA to take over the governance of Gaza the day after the war, which Netanyahu has rejected outright.

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