Israeli official confirms plan for locals to run ‘humanitarian pockets’ in Gaza

Zeitoun district in Gaza City, largely cleared of terrorists, eyed for pilot run as Jerusalem seeks the ‘right people to step up’; Hamas official dismisses idea

People walk along a street ravaged by Israeli strikes in Gaza City on February 10, 2024. (AFP)
People walk along a street ravaged by Israeli strikes in Gaza City on February 10, 2024. (AFP)

Israel is seeking Palestinians who are not affiliated with Hamas to manage civilian affairs in areas of the Gaza Strip designed as testing grounds for post-war administration of the enclave, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday.

The Israeli official said the planned “humanitarian pockets” would be in districts of the Gaza Strip from which Hamas has been expelled, but that their ultimate success would hinge on Israel achieving its goal of destroying the Islamist terror group across the tiny coastal territory that it has been governing for 16 years.

“We’re looking for the right people to step up to the plate,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “But it is clear that this will take time, as no one will come forward if they think Hamas will put a bullet in their head.”

The plan, the official added, “may be achieved once Hamas is destroyed and doesn’t pose a threat to Israel or to Gazans.”

The Israeli official also made clear the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would also be barred as a partner in the “humanitarian pockets” on account of its failure to condemn the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists went on a murderous rampage across southern Israel, killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages.

“Anyone who took part in, or even failed to condemn, October 7 is ruled out,” the official said.

Still, Israel would be willing to consider “humanitarian pocket” partners with past links to the PA’s dominant Fatah faction, a more secular rival to Hamas, the official said.

Vehicles transporting humanitarian aid drive along the Salaheddin road in the Zeitoun district on the southern outskirts of Gaza City on November 26, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israel’s Channel 12 TV reported Wednesday that the Zeitoun neighborhood of northern Gaza City was a candidate for implementation of the plan, under which local merchants and civil society leaders would distribute humanitarian aid.

The Israeli military would provide peripheral security in Zeitoun, Channel 12 said, describing renewed troop incursions there this week as designed to root out remnants of a Hamas garrison that was hit hard in the early stages of the war.

A report by Channel 12 news said IDF officials have already met with a group of unnamed Palestinian community leaders who will be tasked with governing residents of the area who did not flee southward due to the fighting.

The report, which did not cite any sources, said Israel hopes that having the locals take charge of aid distribution will help create a civilian alternative to Hamas that can take over administrative duties, but noted the biggest challenge would be securing the area “to prevent Hamas from interfering.”

Troops of the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published February 20, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The network further reported that as part of the pilot, Israel is stressing a complete overhaul of the curriculums taught at Gaza schools, saying the textbooks incite against Israel and Jews.

Analysts have expressed heavy skepticism of this effort, noting the likelihood that any Palestinian community leaders seen openly and unilaterally cooperating with Israel will quickly be delegitimized and possibly find their lives at risk.

While many in the security establishment believe that the PA should be tasked with leading the governmental effort, the IDF is under direction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office not to formally draft any plans for post-war governance in Gaza that involve the PA and accordingly have been left with the framework that they’re currently trying to advance in Zeitoun, officials have told The Times of Israel.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said such a plan would be tantamount to Israel reoccupying Gaza, from which it withdrew troops and settler communities in 2005. Israel has said it will have indefinite security control over Gaza after the war, but denies this would be a reoccupation.

“We are confident this project is pointless and is a sign of confusion and it will never succeed,” Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

An IDF tank operates south of Gaza City, February 20, 2024. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Wassel Abu Yousef, a senior official with the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization of which the PA is part, also appeared dismissive of the Israeli plan on Thursday.

“All of Israel’s attempts to change the geographic and demographic features of Gaza will not succeed,” he told Reuters.

The United States has called for a “revitalized” PA to govern Gaza after the war. But Israel has been cool to the idea, noting that the PA provides payouts to jailed terrorists.

Speaking Wednesday, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz referred to a “pilot program” for aid distribution in Gaza, where he vowed Israel will retain complete security control but no civilian control after the fighting sparked by October 7 is over.

“In any future situation, Israel will maintain its supremacy and its operational capabilities in the entire Gaza Strip,” he promised, insisting that Israel “will not allow murderers to return to control places where the IDF has operated.

“We are examining a number of options so that aid to Gaza will be delivered through an international administration of moderate Arab countries with the support of the US. We are currently promoting pilot programs of the transfer” through third parties, he said.

“Our goal and the goal of the donor countries is the same: aid to the residents and not to the terrorists” and “we are working to strengthen the moderate axis vis-à-vis Iran, and establish a regional administration that will help the Palestinians build another government in Gaza.”

Gantz also addressed post-war Gaza in remarks on Sunday, when he cautioned it could take years to rebuild “governance capacity inside Gaza, which cannot be Hamas and should not be Israel,” and stated a future civilian administration of the coastal territory will likely be composed of “local Palestinians supported by some sort of regional committee or arrangement.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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