PM: IDF to indefinitely maintain freedom to operate in Gaza

Netanyahu presents post-war plan to cabinet, aims for ‘local officials’ to govern Gaza

‘Day after Hamas’ paper sees Egypt cooperation to end smuggling; Arab countries funding reconstruction; no unilateral Palestinian state; no UNRWA; Gaza ‘de-radicalized,’ demilitarized

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

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2-L) heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2-L) heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the security cabinet with a document of principles regarding the management of Gaza after the war on Thursday night, aiming to install “local officials” unaffiliated with terrorism to administer services in the Strip instead of Hamas.

The subsequently publicized document, a one-pager entitled “The Day After Hamas” released overnight in Israel, is largely a collection of principles the premier has been vocalizing since the beginning of the war, but it is the first time they have formally been presented to the cabinet for approval.

For over four months, Netanyahu has held off holding security cabinet discussions regarding the so-called “day after” the war, fearing this could lead to fractures in his mainly right-wing coalition. Some of his far-right ministers aim to use such meetings to push for the re-establishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the permanent Israeli control of the Strip — policies the premier says he opposes and would surely lead to the dissipation of Israel’s remaining support in the West.

Netanyahu has sufficed with saying that he will not allow the Palestinian Authority to return to govern Gaza. He has sometimes qualified this assertion by saying that Israel won’t allow the PA in its current form to return to the Palestinian enclave, indicating that Israel could live with a reformed PA of the kind that the Biden administration has been pushing. Other times, though, Netanyahu has given a more blanket rejection of allowing Gaza to become “Fatahstan” — referring to the political party headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Notably, the document of principles Netanyahu presented to security cabinet ministers at Thursday night’s meeting does not specifically name the PA or rule out its participation in the post-war governance of Gaza.

Instead, it says that civil affairs in Gaza will be run by “local officials” who have “administrative experience” and who are not tied to “countries or entities that support terrorism.”

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

The language is vague, but it could rule out groups that receive funding from Qatar and Iran — as Hamas does — or possibly the PA, whose welfare program includes payments to convicted terrorists and their families.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the document is based on principles broadly accepted by the public and that it will serve as the basis for future discussions regarding the post-war management of Gaza.

The plan begins by stipulating a principle for the immediate term: The IDF will continue the war until achieving its goals, which are the destruction of the military capabilities and governmental infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the return of the hostages abducted on October 7, and the removal of any security threat from Gaza Strip long-term.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘The Day After Hamas’ document, February 22, 2024 (Courtesy)

The IDF will maintain an indefinite freedom to operate throughout the entire Strip to prevent the resurgence of terror activity, the document says, describing this as an intermediate-term principle.

The plan states that Israel will move forward with its already-in-motion project to establish a security buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the Strip’s border, adding that it will remain in place “as long as there is a security need for it.”

This plan is directly at odds with one of the Biden administration’s own principles for post-war Gaza, which states that there will be no reduction in the enclave’s territory.

The document presented by Netanyahu also offers the most concrete details to date regarding Israel’s plans for the Egyptian-Gaza border, which has been plagued by smuggling both above and below ground. It states that Israel will enforce a “southern closure” on the border to prevent the revival of terror activity.

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo published on February 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The closure will be upheld with assistance from the US and in cooperation with Egypt “as much as possible,” the document states, in an apparent acknowledgment of Cairo’s disapproval of the plan due to the ostensible violation of its sovereignty.

Cairo has pushed back against Israeli calls to take over control over the Philadelphi corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border but privately has indicated more flexibility, US and Arab diplomats have told The Times of Israel. Both the US and Egypt, however, are less likely to cooperate with such plans that are not part of a broader initiative aimed at creating a pathway toward an eventual Palestinian state — something Netanyahu rejects.

The document added that the “southern closure will be made up of measures aimed at preventing smuggling from Egypt — both underground and above ground, including at the Rafah crossing.”

Also in the intermediate stage, Israel will maintain security control “over the entire area west of Jordan,” from the land, air and sea “to prevent the strengthening of terrorist elements in the [West Bank] and the Gaza Strip and to thwart threats from them towards Israel,” the document states.

Netanyahu’s plan envisions Gaza’s “complete demilitarization… beyond what is required for the needs of maintaining public order.” It adds that Israel will be responsible for realizing this goal for the foreseeable future, potentially leaving the door open for other forces to finish the job down the line.

A Palestinian walks through the rubble of the Khatab family building after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

In addition to the “local officials” whom Netanyahu envisions being responsible for public order and for providing civil services, the document adds that Israel will also promote a “de-radicalization plan… in all religious, educational and welfare institutions in Gaza.”

This too will be advanced “as much as possible with the involvement and assistance of Arab countries that have experience in promoting de-radicalization.”

This line appears to be a nod at Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but both have repeatedly made 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.

Analysts have also expressed heavy skepticism of Netanyahu’s goal to anoint unaffiliated Palestinian clan leaders, 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. They say a similar effort was advanced by the United States after it invaded Iraq two decades ago only to backfire.

Accordingly, the international community is pushing for the PA to eventually govern Gaza, given that it already has some of the infrastructure in place to do so. Its legitimacy among Palestinians is lacking, but the stakeholders are hoping that this will change after it institutes a series of reforms.

Flares above Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024 (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

An Israeli official revealed earlier Thursday that this aspect of the plan is already being advanced, and argued that the PA should not be included in post-war governance, noting 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.

Another key aspect of Netanyahu’s document of principles is the shuttering of the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. The document notes the alleged involvement of 12 UNRWA staffers in the October 7 onslaught and says Israel will work to replace the agency with “responsible international aid organizations.

In the short term, however, a senior Israeli official briefing The Times of Israel last month said that Jerusalem opposes UNRWA’s immediate dissolution. The official explained that UNRWA currently is the main aid distribution organization on the ground and that its shuttering risks a humanitarian catastrophe that could force Israel to cease its fighting against Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Notably, the document clarified that Israel will only allow the reconstruction of Gaza to begin after the completion of the Strip’s de-militarization and the commencement of the “de-radicalization process.”

“The rehabilitation plan will be financed and led by countries acceptable to Israel,” the document states, again coming at odds with many of the countries seen as potential donors, who demand that Gaza’s reconstruction be in tandem to a political horizon for the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s plan concludes by reiterating a pair of principles adopted earlier this week by both the cabinet and the Knesset: that Israel outright rejects any international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, which should only be reached through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions; and that Israel will continue to oppose the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, which it views as a “reward for terror.”

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