The world seems focussed on ceasefires and humanitarian pauses, with a passing mention of the desirability of a two-state solution. Israel’s Defence Forces meanwhile are moving through consecutive phases of a seemingly ordered campaign with clear objectives: The elimination of any future threat to Israel’s security from Hamas; and the return of the hostages taken from Israel to Gaza on October 7.
But as the daily news reports progress on all these goals, there’s an urgent need, however premature it may seem, to contemplate an ending.
What should be done with the piece of land called the Gaza Strip, and its approximately 2 million inhabitants? It is not certain that there is a good option, or even a least-worst option, available. Global debate is short-term, or long-term, whereas the need both for Israel and for the inhabitants of Gaza is more subtle – a medium-term solution, which can achieve stability on both sides and then (and only then) potentially provide a platform for longer-term resolution.
A resumption of control by Hamas would constitute an abject failure intolerable to Israel’s people and its leaders. It would be nice to think it would be equally intolerable to Israel’s key international allies, who have been forced to come face to face with the terrorist and jihadist nature of Hamas’s agenda, and would also be keen to ensure that what has become a proxy state for Iran was not re-established.
Israel has planted its flags inside the Hamas governmental institutions which the army has overrun, as evidence of the absolute ending of the Hamas regime. But while Israel is committed to delivering security for Israel as a whole, and in particular the communities alongside the Gaza strip, there are no indications that Israel wishes to retain governmental responsibility for Gaza, other than perhaps in the very short term.
This leaves the field open to an alternative governing power – but the list is neither long, nor straightforward.
Extending the Palestinian Authority’s area of control from the West Bank across to Gaza might seem like the easiest option. But it isn’t. The PA has done little to build trust with Israel through this war, and its democratic credentials are limited, its reputation for good governance pretty tarnished, and its history in Gaza not promising – shortly after Israel pulled out in 2005, Hamas’s brutal putsch included murdering a significant number of Fatah officials. A new Palestinian Authority government may well be no more successful in its work on behalf of the citizens of Gaza, or in keeping more radical forces, including potentially a rejuvenated Hamas, at bay.
Egypt controls the Rafah crossing and Gaza’s other border, but has never shown any great desire to involve itself in the running of Gaza. It’s reluctance to open up to take in Gazan refugees even temporarily, and its delays in allowing humanitarian aid to enter the strip highlight its nervousness at any increased exposure to the area. For Egypt, Hamas are at best first cousins of the Moslem Brotherhood with whom the Government continues to wage war in Sinai, and Egypt’s greatest desire is to keep Gaza firmly self-contained.
An international force is an obvious alternative – potentially formed under the (Gaza-loving) banner of the UN. A UN patrol already operates on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, to keep Hezbollah in check. The idea is appealing in theory, but faces two substantial challenges: Firstly, which countries would be acceptable to Israel as members of the international force; and secondly, which countries would be willing to place their own people at risk by sending soldiers to participate in a force of this kind in such a volatile part of the world. Neutrality – as perceived by all sides – would be almost impossible.
This leaves open the – albeit extremely idealistic possibility of a new regime. Perhaps the wake-up call as to its true nature sent by Hamas to Gaza’s citizens as well as to Israel and the world – can really deliver change. Could Gazan elders, unaffiliated to Hamas, work to sew the seeds for a truly democratic government which, as in other conflict zones, might even include representatives of current terrorist organisations who have renounced violence and pursue peace?
But what seems more likely is a return to some sort of Islamic fundamentalist state sponsored by Iran, led by a government with a new badge, name, and potentially more conciliatory rhetoric, but essentially Hamas in a new guise. Or, despite the promises of Israel’s leaders, that the future cannot be allowed to resemble the past, there may be a return to some form of touchy co-existence, whereby an uneasy peace is established between Gaza and Israel, giving both some breathing time before another round of conflict kicks off.
In 2005, Israel and the wider world dreamed a dream – that Gaza might become a Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East, a super city-state, with backing from a range of other Arab countries. Its citizens would be delivered out of poverty, and the influence of terrorist organisations would wane as they became a threat to prosperity. I want to believe there is still hope. I want to believe that Gaza’s people, despite the indoctrination they go through and the Hamas framework in which they have been forced to live, also ultimately want peace with Israel. It is just uncertain whether that voice can ever be loud enough to shape the future of this narrow strip of land.