Inside storySecurity establishment moving toward accepting US stance

The US aims to wrap up Gaza war. How does that square with its goal of toppling Hamas?

Biden officials envision substantially weakened Hamas remaining in Gaza, but aim to marginalize it further with an Arab-backed PA that can out-govern the terror group

Jacob Magid

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

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists are seen on their way to cross the Israel-Gaza border fence from Khan Younis during the Hamas-led onslaught of October 7, 2023. (Said Khatib/ AFP/ File)
Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists are seen on their way to cross the Israel-Gaza border fence from Khan Younis during the Hamas-led onslaught of October 7, 2023. (Said Khatib/ AFP/ File)

More than seven months into the Israel-Hamas war, the Biden administration’s top priority is to try and secure a hostage deal. This would commence a weeks-long truce, but Washington’s goal is for that pause to be turned permanent.

“If we can get a ceasefire, we can get something more enduring and then maybe end the conflict,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said this month.

What appears less clear, though, is how pushing for this ceasefire squares with another US commitment, which is to eliminate the threat of Hamas.

“An enduring defeat of Hamas certainly remains the Israeli goal, and we share that goal with it,” Kirby said last week.

The two objectives seem to clash, given that a temporary-turned-permanent deal with Hamas would ostensibly leave the terror group standing in Gaza.

The Biden administration has not directly and publicly addressed this apparent dissonance, but two US officials and two other sources familiar with the matter who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity offered some clarity.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun, in a handout image released May 11, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The goal is for Hamas to be severely weakened when the dust settles, i.e., incapable of carrying out another attack like the one [it] launched on October 7,” the first US official said, referring to the terror onslaught unleashed on southern Israel during which some 1,200 people were killed and 252 were taken hostage.

“But we have to be honest about the fact that Hamas will remain in Gaza in some form after the war is over. The past six months have proven no amount of fighting is going to change that,” they added. Last week, Israeli troops raided Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood for the third time since the war’s outbreak after Hamas fighters returned to areas previously cleared by the IDF.

“What we are trying to do is advance a vision where Hamas would be marginalized, while Israel would be stronger through improved relations with its Arab neighbors,” the official explained. “By doing that, we are able to eliminate the threat of Hamas without having to continue the war indefinitely.”

“It’s a years-long process, and it will require Israeli buy-in, but the alternative is a never-ending cycle of violence that the Israelis could be left alone to deal with,” a second US official said, referencing the danger of waning international support.

Replacing Hamas

The four sources described an international effort to support the re-deployment of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces in the Gaza Strip.

They recognized that the PA is not currently in a position to immediately assume security — let alone governing — responsibilities in Gaza.

The PA is arguably in its weakest position since its founding 30 years ago, when it was envisioned as a precursor to a more sovereign entity. In the eyes of Palestinians, the PA’s legitimacy has waned amid charges of corruption and mismanagement that have piled up as Israel entrenched its presence in the West Bank.

The US along with its Arab and European partners are not deterred, though, and are working to establish mechanisms for a reformed PA to return to the Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Dr. Phil in an interview released on May 10, 2024. (YouTube screenshot. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

While much of the plan is still being crafted, stakeholders have been clear that it will be conditioned on Israel agreeing to a time-bound pathway to a Palestinian state.

Such acquiescence is highly unlikely to be accepted by the Israeli public, with an appetite for concessions to Palestinians at perhaps an all-time low following the October 7 attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested in an interview last week with Dr. Phil that countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia might be willing to assist in the administration of Gaza, despite his rejection of their main condition, which he has branded “a prize for Hamas’s terror.”

This was not received well in the UAE, whose Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed responded that Abu Dhabi would only offer its support once a “Palestinian government is formed that meets the hopes and aspirations of the brotherly Palestinian people and enjoys integrity, competence and independence.”

Some officials have suggested that Abu Dhabi and other Arab countries have privately shown more flexibility.

US President Joe Biden said last week that five Arab countries “are prepared to help rebuild Gaza, prepared to help transition to a two-state solution… to maintain the security and peace while they’re working out a Palestinian Authority that’s real and not corrupt.”

Biden said he did not want to name the five countries “because I don’t want to get them in trouble,” but it was quite clear that he was referring to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Hussein al-Sheikh, during a day of meetings about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

Those five countries are the ones that have been holding talks as a group and also with the US to put forward a postwar vision for Gaza aimed at an eventual end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US is aiming for that initiative to be tied to Saudi Arabia agreeing to normalize relations with Israel, but Riyadh has the same condition regarding eventual Palestinian statehood. US officials told The Times of Israel last month that there are still some senior members in the Biden administration who believe that Netanyahu would be willing to come around on this condition when cornered and presented with the alternatives.

As for the UAE’s Bin Zayed, what appeared to have particularly set him off was Netanyahu’s insistence in last week’s interview that Israel’s Arab allies would be willing to help manage the Strip, while Israel continues to regularly operate there militarily to prevent the resurgence of Hamas.

This dynamic helped contribute to the PA’s popularity plummet in the West Bank, with Ramallah seen as collaborating with Israel while getting no progress toward sovereignty in return for that security cooperation.

The UAE, Egypt and other Arab countries appear similarly sensitive to being framed in such a light and, accordingly, have chafed at the idea of operating in Gaza alongside Israeli forces after the war.

An American source familiar with the matter said this would likely be a sticking point, but said the US would not oppose Israel pursuing Hamas’s leadership after the war is over.

“Given that Hamas will still be in Gaza and our support for an enduring defeat of the terror group and commitment to preventing it from running the Strip again, you can read between the lines on that one,” the source said.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan holds up a picture of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar during a special session of the UN General Assembly regarding the Palestinian bid for full membership to the UN, at UN headquarters in New York City on May 10, 2024. (Photo by Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

A Hamas weakened but not eliminated

In the meantime, the US appears to be laying the groundwork for declaring that Israel has already weakened Hamas sufficiently to justify an end to the war.

“We believe that [Israel has] put an enormous amount of pressure on Hamas and that there are better ways to go after what is left of Hamas in Rafah than a major ground operation,” Kirby said last week, explaining Biden’s decision to publicly condition aid to Israel for the first time.

“Early on in the conflict, Hamas didn’t feel and hadn’t suffered the kinds of pressure and the kinds of casualties that they have suffered now,” he argued.

Israel has “eliminated a lot of the leaders through the fighting that they have conducted over the last several months. They have decimated the ranks of many of their units. The picture of Hamas today is not what it was six months ago,” Kirby said.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller added that Hamas’s “ability to launch the kind of attacks that they did on October 7 is significantly degraded if not completely eliminated… Their weapons production factories underground have been eliminated. Most of their battalion leadership in the north and in central Gaza has been eliminated.”

In a further indicator of why this depletion in Hamas’s standing might be sufficient for the US to support an imminent end to the war while Hamas still has fighters operating in Gaza, US Ambassador Jake Lew told Channel 12 on Sunday that Washington has long opposed rhetoric coming out of Israel regarding the need to “eliminate” Hamas.

People evacuate Rafah, bound for Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2024 (AFP)

“We have learned in our own experience in difficult wars that eliminating something is different than making it no longer be a threat,” Lew said.

“The challenge is to reduce Hamas to the point that it’s no longer a threat,” the US ambassador explained. “We have said consistently that Hamas should not be either a political or a governing body. That doesn’t mean that you’ve eliminated every last member of Hamas.”

Israel may disagree with such a strategy, and would not need to look too far back to counter its underlying thesis. Critics of the administration’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, which saw the Taliban immediately retake the country as US troops pulled out, may note the proven ability of once-decimated extremist groups to regroup, rebuild and reconquer territory from more moderate forces once an external powerful military pulls out.

Will Hamas turn into Hezbollah?

But the American source said there are some in the administration and in Arab capitals who believe that Hamas will be willing to formally withdraw from governing responsibilities in Gaza if it is part of a reconciliation deal with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

Notably, the US has signaled its tepid support for China’s recent efforts to strike a long-elusive deal between Hamas and Fatah. “If China wanted to play a productive role in bringing this conflict to an end, that is something that we would welcome,” Miller said last week.

This would likely mean a degree of Hamas approval of the individuals tapped to lead the transitional Palestinian government in Gaza, but the American source said that no Hamas members would be allowed in the government.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 14, 2023. (Jade GAO / POOL / AFP)

When the Palestinians get to a point where they are in a position to hold elections, a second US source said, the goal is for Hamas alternatives to have demonstrated results in governing that can be weighed against the destruction that the terror group unleashed on the enclave due to its October 7 terror onslaught.

But the envisioned scenario also draws comparisons to Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, where the terror group is not formally part of the government, but holds massive influence over its decision-making and is the most powerful military force in the country.

The second US source argued that, unlike Hezbollah, Hamas would not be able to easily re-arm if US plans to bolster Gaza’s border with Egypt are actualized. Whereas Israel has a much harder time preventing Iranian shipments to Hezbollah through Syria, the task is easier on Gaza’s Egyptian border where Israel already began operating last week.

In the meantime, the Biden administration has publicly sufficed with offering broad principles regarding post-war Gaza that it hopes to bend once it succeeds in brokering an initial truce and hostage deal.

“We have been clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land, with Hamas – a Foreign Terrorist Organization – no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel,” the State Department said in response to a query regarding this story.

“That is the future we seek, in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, the surrounding region, and the world,” the statement added.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, on the eve of Israel’s 76th independence day, May 13, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A senior Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity asserted that the Israeli security establishment was slowly moving toward the US position regarding post-war Gaza, recognizing that Hamas can’t be entirely defeated through warfare.

“The best path forward is to ink a deal with the terror group that saves the hostages who are still alive, even if it means ending the war,” the official said. “We’ll still be able to go after Hamas militarily, but we’ll also be able to start the work of establishing a viable political alternative to [the terror group] so that it doesn’t resurrect in Gaza.”

The official acknowledged, however, that the political echelon has been less convinced by the US approach.

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