The Biden administration on Wednesday acknowledged that Israel will “likely” maintain a degree of security control over the Gaza Strip after the end of the war in which it aims to eradicate Hamas, in comments that appeared to move Washington’s stance on the matter closer to that of Jerusalem.
“I think all of us can foresee a period of time after the conflict is over where Israeli forces will likely still be in Gaza and will have some initial security responsibilities,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN.
This was the first time a US official has publicly made such an acknowledgment, and it came two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would have to maintain “overall security responsibility of Gaza for an “indefinite period.”
Israeli officials had initially said that they were not interested in reoccupying the Strip, so Netanyahu’s comments led to concerns that he was laying the groundwork for just that. It led to several statements from top US officials doubling down on their opposition to Israel reoccupying Gaza.
But Kirby took a slightly different approach Wednesday, accepting the Israeli position that the IDF will have to remain in charge of security in Gaza for a certain amount of time after the war.
“But for how long and where and to what size and scale and scope, I think it’s too soon to know,” he said, adding he would leave it to Netanyahu to clarify what he means by “indefinite.”
Kirby clarified to CNN that the US believes it would be a “mistake” for Israel to reoccupy the territory.
The US is focused on devising a long-term governance structure for Gaza after the current conflict, Kirby said while adding that a viable plan has not been crafted yet.
“I think where we are is a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers,” he said. “We know what we don’t want to see in Gaza post-conflict, we don’t want to see Hamas in control and we don’t want to see a reoccupation by Israel.”
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reportedly rejected a proposal from CIA Director William Burns for Cairo to temporarily manage security in the Gaza Strip after the war until the Palestinian Authority is prepared to take over.
Sissi told Burns that Egypt won’t play a role in removing Hamas as the terror group has helped keep its border with Gaza relatively calm in recent years, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing senior Egyptian officials.
Kirby said Palestinians “should be the determining voice” in deciding who will govern the Gaza Strip after the war is over.
Asked if the administration wants the PA, which currently governs parts of the West Bank, to oversee Gaza as well, Kirby responded that the Biden administration believes “that the Palestinians should be in charge of their future.”
“Now, what exactly does that governance structure looks like, and when does it get put in place, and who are the players that are going to help adapt that — all that we’re working out,” Kirby said.
Speaking to reporters after G7 foreign ministers held talks in Japan earlier Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed what he said was needed in order to create “durable peace and security.”
“The United States believes key elements should include: no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, not now, not after the war; no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks; no reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends,” Blinken said.
He said other conditions included no “attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza” or any “reduction in the territory of Gaza.”
It appeared to be the first time that a US official had publicly made these two points after long avoiding any criticism of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which Jerusalem says is necessary to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Strip. Human rights groups say the policy has stymied the enclave’s economy significantly.
The call for Israel not to take over Gaza territory after the war also flies in the face of comments by Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who have indicated that the IDF will have to establish some sort of buffer zone within the Strip to better secure the border.
“We must also ensure no terrorist threats emerge from the West Bank,” Blinken added.
What Gaza should have is “Palestinian governance, Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority… a sustained mechanism for reconstruction in Gaza, and a pathway” to a two-state solution, he said.
Asked about Netanyahu’s comments on Israel assuming security responsibility in Gaza indefinitely, Blinken allowed that “there may be a need for some transition period.”
Israel has vowed to remove Hamas from power and crush its military capabilities — but has not said what would come next.
Officials in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority have repeatedly said they will not take responsibility for Gaza unless it is part of a broader peace agreement that includes the West Bank and paves the way to statehood.
US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel also told reporters Tuesday, “Our viewpoint is that Palestinians must be at the forefront of these decisions and Gaza is Palestinian land and it will remain Palestinian land.”
The Israel Defense Forces, alongside intensive airstrikes on Hamas’s terror infrastructure, has pressed forward with a forceful ground incursion in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers in 2005 but kept control over Gaza’s airspace, coastline, population registry and border crossings, except those into Egypt. Hamas seized power from forces loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Since then, Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza to varying degrees.
Since Israel withdrew its military and evacuated its settlements in Gaza nearly two decades ago, it has faced frequent bouts of rocket attacks from the Strip as well as the threat of offensive attack tunnels dug under the border. The rocket attacks, which began before the 2005 disengagement but have expanded significantly since, have sparked a number of extended Israeli military engagements against Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip.