'We are not collaborators. Israel should stop these games'

Israel wants local clans to run Gaza after the war. But the candidates are refusing

Jerusalem is trying to forge a path to non-Hamas governance, but hope of working with Strip’s powerful families dampened by fears of retribution, as terror group still dominant

Masked men from the so-called 'People's Protection Committees' patrol the streets armed with batons and guns in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Masked men from the so-called 'People's Protection Committees' patrol the streets armed with batons and guns in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Reuters — The plan for postwar Gaza that Israel has pitched to US allies is to run the Strip in cooperation with powerful local families. But there’s a problem: In a place where Hamas still wields ruthless influence, none want to be seen talking to the enemy.

Jerusalem is under pressure from Washington to wind down its military offensive, nearly nine months after the October 7 Hamas massacre inside Israel, but does not want the Palestinian terror group to remain in charge after the fighting ends.

Israeli officials have therefore been trying to plot a path ahead for the day after the fighting stops.

A major pillar of the plan, according to public statements from leading Israeli officials, was to shape an alternative civil administration involving local Palestinian actors who are not part of the existing structures of power, don’t have ties to any terror organizations, and are willing to work alongside Israel.

However, the only plausible candidates in Gaza for this role – the heads of powerful local families – are unwilling to get involved, according to Reuters’ conversations with five members of major families in Gaza, including the head of one grouping.

Israel has been “actively looking for local tribes and families on the ground to work with them,” said Tahani Mustafa, senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “They refused.”

They don’t want to get involved, in part because they fear retribution from Hamas, said Mustafa, who is in touch with some of the families and other local stakeholders in Gaza.

That threat is real because – despite Israel’s war objective of destroying Hamas – the Palestinian terror group still has operatives enforcing its will on the streets of Gaza, according to six residents who spoke to Reuters.

Masked and armed members of the ‘People’s Protection Committees,’ which were formed by Hamas and other terror groups, patrol the streets of Gaza’s southern city of Rafah on March 6, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Asked what the outcome would be for any head of Gaza’s powerful families if they cooperate with Israel, Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of the Hamas-run government media office in Gaza, said: “I expect it to be lethal.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the challenges last week, saying in an interview with the right-wing Channel 14 network that the Defense Ministry had already made attempts to reach out to Gaza clans but “Hamas eliminated” them.

He said the Defense Ministry had a new plan, but would not give details other than specifying he was not willing to bring in the Palestinian Authority, which currently governs the West Bank.

Reuters could not establish if Israel’s efforts to work with the families were ongoing.

Despite Netanyahu’s vocal insistence that the Palestinian Authority would not play any part in managing postwar Gaza, his office has privately been walking back its opposition in recent weeks, three officials familiar with the matter have told The Times of Israel.

Even as Netanyahu has continued to publicly oppose the idea, his top aides have privately concluded that individuals with links to the PA are the only viable option Israel has if it wants to rely on “local Palestinians” — code for PA-affiliated individuals — to manage civilian affairs in Gaza after the war, two Israeli and one US official confirmed over the past week.

Two Israeli officials explained that the individuals in question are Gazans on the PA’s payroll who managed civilian affairs in the Strip until Hamas’s violent takeover in 2007, and are now being vetted by Israel. However, support is weak among Gazans for the PA, according to a June 12 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR).

Netanyahu has said he doesn’t trust the PA, which in turn says he seeks to keep Gaza and the West Bank divided.

However, two US officials told Reuters Netanyahu may have little choice but to turn security over to the PA, and throughout the war, Washington has advocated for reforms to strengthen the PA to return to power in the Palestinian enclave.

“It’s going to be a fight. But there is no other short-to-medium term option,” said one of the officials.

Israel has yet to develop a concrete postwar plan for governance and security in the enclave, said the officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Both said Israeli officials were considering a range of ideas but did not provide details.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also discussed postwar plans at a meeting in Washington last week with US officials.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as he arrives during an honor cordon at the Pentagon on June 25, 2024, in Arlington, Virginia. (Andrew Harnik/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP)

Briefing reporters during the visit, Gallant said: “The only solution for the future of Gaza is governance by local Palestinians. It cannot be Israel and cannot be Hamas.” He did not mention the clans specifically.

Contacted for comment, the Prime Minister’s Office referred Reuters to Netanyahu’s previous public comments on the topic, while the Defense Ministry did not respond to Reuters’ questions.

The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza erupted when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border with Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 251 hostages across southern Israel, the majority of them civilians.

In response, Israel launched an air and ground offensive which it said would destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, as well as rescue the hostages taken that day.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claims close to 38,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though the toll cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and fighters. Israel says it has killed some 15,000 combatants in battle and some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel during the October 7 attack.

Powerful clans

Gaza has dozens of powerful families who function as well-organized clans. Many do not have formal links to Hamas. They derive their power from controlling businesses and command the loyalty of hundreds or thousands of relatives. Each family has a leader, known as a mukhtar, or chieftain.

British colonial rulers of the Holy Land before the State of Israel was created in 1948 relied heavily on mukhtars to govern. After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, it curtailed the power of the families. But they have retained a degree of autonomy.

Israel does already speak to some Gaza merchants, to coordinate commercial shipments through a southern checkpoint. Residents are reluctant to disclose any interactions with Israel.

The approaches from Israel described by members of the Gaza clans were modest in scope but different: they were about practical issues inside Gaza itself and focused on the north of the Strip, where Israel says it is concentrating its civil governance efforts.

A produce merchant arranges lemons for sale at a stall along a market street in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on July 2, 2024. (Bashar Taleb / AFP)

One of Gaza’s clan leaders, who asked not to be named, told Reuters Israeli officials had contacted other mukhtars – though not him — in the past few weeks. He said he knew about it because the recipients of the calls told him about the calls.

He said the Israeli officials wanted “some respected and influential people” to help with aid deliveries in northern Gaza. “I expect that mukhtars will not cooperate with these games,” he said, citing anger with Israel over its offensive, which has killed clan members and destroyed property.

The person, whose clan is a major player in agriculture and the Gaza import business, has no formal connection to Hamas.

In another contact between Israel and influential Gazans, officials from the Defense Ministry have in the past two weeks contacted two major Gaza business owners in the food sector, according to a Palestinian briefed on the contacts.

It was unclear what the Israeli side wanted to talk about, and the business owners, who are from the north of Gaza, refused to engage with the Israelis, according to the person.

A senior member of a different clan said Israeli officials had not contacted his clan but would be given short shrift if they did.

“We are not collaborators. Israel should stop these games,” the clan member, who also has no formal connection to Hamas, told Reuters.

Alternative options

National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, speaking last week, said the government had authorized the military to find “a local leadership, willing to live side by side with Israel and not to devote its life to killing Israelis.”

Speaking through a translator at a conference, he said the process was starting in the northern part of Gaza, and practical results should be seen soon.

To that end, an Israeli military pilot to create “humanitarian enclaves” for Gazan civilians unaffiliated with Hamas is set to be rolled out in two northern Gaza cities in the near future, the Financial Times reported earlier this week, although some officials are skeptical the plan will point the way to a new reality in the battered enclave.

The plan to carve out Hamas-free “bubbles,” where local Palestinians would slowly take over aid distribution responsibilities, will initially be implemented in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia.

Under the pilot, which will also be implemented in the northwestern Beit Lahia neighborhood of Atatra, Israeli forces would retain security duties for the time being, while Palestinians would gradually take over civil governance, according to the report, which cited six people with knowledge of the plan.

An Israeli military vehicle leads a truck in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip during an operation to deliver humanitarian aid from Jordan to the coastal territory through the Erez Crossing, on May 1, 2024. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

Besides civil administration, the other pillars of Israel’s plan for postwar Gaza include bringing in a security force from outside to keep order, seeking international help with reconstruction, and searching for a long-term peace settlement.

The Arab states whose support Israel would need say they won’t get involved unless Israel agrees to a firm timeline for a Palestinian state – something Netanyahu says he will not be pushed into doing.

Hamas holding on

While some Gazans blame Hamas for inciting the war, others, angered and radicalized by the war, have drawn closer to the group, with its declared commitment to destroying Israel, PCPSR polls show.

Hamas has recognized it is unlikely to govern after the war, but expects to retain influence.

A Gaza resident said he saw members of the Hamas police force touring the streets of Gaza City in June, warning merchants against hiking prices. They were in plain clothes instead of their usual uniforms, and moved on bicycles, said the resident, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisal.

Hamas operatives have intervened to control aid shipments, including killing some clan figures at the start of this year who tried to take over the shipments in Gaza City, according to four residents from the city who spoke to Reuters.

The terror group declined to comment about the killings.

In April, Hamas said its security services arrested several members of a security apparatus loyal to the Palestinian Authority. Three people close to the PA said the arrested men were escorting a delivery of aid to the northern Gaza Strip.

“There is no vacuum in Gaza, Hamas is still the prominent power,” said Michael Milshtein, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence who now heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center, a research center in Israel.

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