Andrew Jose
Journalist, Foreign Policy Analyst

Occupying Gaza is Israel’s best path forward

To end the thread of large-scale terror attacks, Israel must weaken Palestinian insurgency. Settlement is a key to that end
Ruins in Gaza (Photo by Hosny Salah via Pixabay)
Ruins in Gaza. (Hosny Salah via Pixabay)

As Israel’s war against Hamas enters its seventh month, questions arise about Jerusalem’s strategy for Gaza once hostilities cease, particularly the Palestinian exclave’s post-war governance.

The general preference of Israel’s partners, including the Biden administration and Jerusalem’s Abraham Accords counterparts, leans towards Palestinian self-rule, proposals for which exist on a spectrum. On one end lies the idea of a Palestinian civil administration backed by regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan. On the other end lies the proposal for fully implementing a two-state solution with an independent State of Palestine co-existing with Israel.

Israel, however, must categorically reject any form of Palestinian self-rule that lacks substantial Israeli military presence and oversight in Gaza. Palestinian autonomy in the medium-to-short term after the war will merely recreate the security situation Israel encountered in the lead-up to the Simchat Torah massacre. Once hostilities end, Jerusalem’s policy towards Gaza should be an occupation of the Palestinian exclave with limited collaboration with locals to clear the territory of Hamas and its remnants. To this end, Israel should encourage the construction of Israeli settlements as power projection platforms within the territory. 

The question of what to do with Gaza once the guns fall silent has been a source of division for Jerusalem’s wartime unity government. 

Self-governance proponents, notably Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, have ruled out support for military rule in Gaza, although Gallant, according to secret recordings leaked by Israeli media, appears to be opposed to full Palestinian statehood. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, has maintained ambiguity, though making it clear he would reject any settlement that could be seen as exchanging “Hamastan for Fatahstan.”

Several members of Israel’s nationalist right support an occupation of Gaza and the construction of settlements therein, notably National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi, and Knesset member Zvi Sukkot. Though the Israeli far-right has often been the subject of ridicule among left-leaning observers of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on the matter of Israel’s post-October 7 Gaza policy, their proposal of Israeli military control and settlement of Gaza remains an option more prudent than a Palestinian-led civil administration.

Now, Israeli military rule does not mean ruling out working with Gazans to ease the administrative burden Israel will incur. Instead, any local administration should be limited, divided, and restricted, so that it does not exploit its privileged position as an interlocutor between the Israeli government and Palestinian people to maximize its own power and undermine Israeli sovereignty through unilaterally pursuing independence like the Palestinian Authority. 

Furthermore, the local monopoly of violence in Gaza under military rule needs to be firmly in Israel’s favor, with Jerusalem stationing military or paramilitary forces to supervise the territory to avoid the formation of a statelet in the absence of Israeli troops, as there was after Israel’s 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. Before delving into the details of what Israeli military rule in Gaza should look like, the imprudence of granting Palestinians in Gaza self-rule, at least in the short-to-medium term, must be established. The greatest vindication for opponents of substantial Palestinian autonomy in Gaza comes from the fact that it has already been tried and failed violently.

In 2005, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew over 8,000 settlers from Gaza, handing over control to the Palestinian Authority. A year later, in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which international observers considered to be free and fair, Hamas won a majority in Gaza, prompting an intense power struggle with Fatah, culminating in the expulsion of the latter from the territory in the 2007 Battle for Gaza. As early as the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas used Gaza for frequent attacks against Israel, including the kidnapping of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit and the indiscriminate firing of rockets against Israel.

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Gaza was not occupied then. Hamas ruled Gaza like any state would, managing taxes, security, public health, and overseeing the distribution of foreign aid. Unlike the Allenby Crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, Hamas, not Israeli soldiers, controlled the Rafah Border Crossing with Egypt. The terrorist group also managed Palestinian foreign affairs in parallel with the Palestinian Authority via its political office in Doha, Qatar. For the most part, Israel permitted Hamas to govern Gaza unperturbed in as much as it did not attack Israel. 

The Israeli blockade over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and its restrictions on non-humanitarian transportation in and out of its borders with the exclave are often cited by critics of the state as evidence of its “occupation.” This is false. Israel’s blockade was how any state would respond if its neighbor attacked frequently — there is no obligation for a state to open its borders to a hostile neighbor.

In fact, it is prudent to close one’s borders to an enemy entity and deny them the means of using their land, air, and seas as a platform for attacks on one’s own. Besides, occupation requires either a direct ground presence or collaborationist local authorities. Israel never maintained a sustained presence in Gaza after the withdrawal, nor was Hamas a collaborationist local government. So, the objection that Gaza was occupied can be ruled out.

Enjoying unprecedented independence, the Palestinians of Gaza could have economically advanced the exclave and enjoyed a blossoming relationship with the Jewish state. Instead, Palestinian militant outfits spearheaded by Hamas used their independence to consolidate forces and mount a series of deadly attacks against the Jewish state, subsidized by international aid flows, which negated Gaza’s war-waging costs and Hamas’s governance expenses.

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Using its independence and control over Gaza’s border with Egypt, Hamas developed elaborate smuggling networks that brought assault rifles, shoulder-mounted missile systems, and rocket parts into Gaza. Furthermore, it built a tunnel system throughout Gaza that even ran into southern Israel, by which it engaged Israeli soldiers in combat and hid during bombing raids. From its positions embedded in Gaza’s civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure, the group launched attacks to test Israeli capabilities and tarnish Israel’s international reputation by ensuring that any Israeli response would be impossible to carry out without incurring massive civilian casualties that its media wing and global sympathizers could then harness to manufacture outrage.

The lack of an Israeli physical presence protected Hamas from being stopped in its tracks as it strengthened itself. Throughout the West Bank, Israel deployed an intricate, albeit imperfect, human intelligence network, which helped Israeli forces identify militant intent and thwart large-scale attacks by sending troops to detain suspects before they materialized. With no such military presence in Gaza, the Jewish state largely relied on technological surveillance, which has its advantages but cannot provide insights into target psychological profiles and intentions.

Even if the Jewish state obtained a valuable piece of human intelligence, the lack of military presence in Gaza meant that the Jewish state could not respond to threats except through airstrikes, which ran the risk of not hitting its targets. Israel’s military establishment was also averse to troop movements into Gaza since the Disengagement because of Hamas’s entrenched positions there and the risk of urban and tunnel warfare.

This threat environment allowed Hamas to accumulate forces and capabilities over time and, through an annual series of combined arms exercises under the Palestinian Joint Operations Room, prepare for October 7. Eventually, October 7 occurred, with 252 hostages taken from Israel into the territory and hidden under Palestinian civilian homes

Operation Swords of Iron, however, allows Israel an opportunity to rid itself of the historical error of permitting Gaza autonomy. As such, Jerusalem must never allow Palestinians to enjoy the level of independence they had in Gaza, and instead must impose military control over the territory postbellum to prevent the reincarnation of a threat environment like the one that persisted after the 2005 withdrawal.

But before discussing military rule, what about Palestinian autonomy without Hamas, under a group like the Palestinian Authority or another moderate Palestinian faction? Such a proposal is risky as well, for the interests of any PA-like entity would be to maximize its own power and survival, including making underhand deals with groups hostile to Israel. Corruption exacerbated by flowing international aid makes such entities quickly lose legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people, resulting in groups like Hamas and Lion’s Den causing chaos.

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Now, one might propose Palestinian autonomy in Gaza under international observers. The issue with this proposal is that aside from public relations purposes, international peacekeepers in Gaza would offer little practical benefit to Israel, as the peacekeepers’ priority would be to minimize their own casualties, instead of ensuring Israel’s security — no state other than Israel will put Israel’s security first.

The presence of UN observers in Lebanon, for example, does not protect Israel from attacks launched from southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah operates with little difficulty. There is no reason to believe that stationing peacekeeper forces in Gaza would make any difference. Additionally, the presence of peacekeepers might attract jihadists, who could launch attacks to force a withdrawal of these forces through a war of attrition.

A two-state solution is not a viable option either — it would create threats worse than Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank. And then Israel would lose strategically essential territory, such as the bulk of the Judean hills. If Palestinians can achieve what they did on October 7 with the blockade and restrictions in place, imagine how much worse future attacks could be if they were given more autonomy, via an Israeli withdrawal.

An internationally recognized state with the benefits of full sovereignty means that a future State of Palestine could form a sizeable army with funding, training, and arms flowing from its supporters across the Muslim world, and upon reaching a certain threshold of military strength, might invade and capture territory in Israel’s pre-1967 borders. 

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Pro-two-state solution activists would point out that Fatah and several Palestinian leaders have declared support for co-existing as an independent state with Israel. In international security, however, intentions do not matter; capabilities do. Intentions can change quickly, even overnight, unlike capabilities, which take time to accrue, especially if the hypothetical State of Palestine becomes a democratic state, as it is likely to be under American and European influence.

Populist sentiments could then bring groups like Hamas into power through elections like the one in 2006. With newfound capabilities thanks to independence, those groups, once in power, could reject any past peace settlement with and recognition of Israel, and invade the Jewish state.

Hence, Israel should work to ensure Palestinians lack the capability to do harm. Jerusalem must do this through working tactfully against the realization of a two-state solution via a combination of strategic deceit and ambiguity toward international pressure for Palestinian independence. 

As we have seen, most arrangements granting Palestinians autonomy in Gaza with limited Israeli oversight will be disastrous for the Jewish state. 

Hence, Israel, once the war ends, should occupy Gaza for at least the medium term so that the Gazan population that grew under Hamas rule would be acclimatized to Israeli rule. During this time, Jerusalem would necessarily destroy Hamas’s social support networks in the territory by making it clear that the monopoly on violence locally is in Israel’s favor and Palestinians would benefit from cooperation with the Jewish state. Hamas plays a social function in Gaza. To rid Gaza of the group’s influence, Israeli administrators must carry out an elaborate yet discrete social engineering process to make Israeli rule a fait accompli. 

Such a process should be accompanied by a settlement plan to project power into Gaza. Israelis living in the territory would allow the Jewish state to develop depth in the territory, which would be critical to swiftly putting down insurgents and permanently ending the threat of Palestinians being capable of large-scale attacks by using a sliver of independent territory as a launchpad. The key to weakening the Palestinian insurgency is to weaken Palestinian claims to the territories over generations and strengthen Israeli ones. Settlement is a key to that end.

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Israeli intelligence must also develop and hone a thorough informant network in Gaza that can provide information on pockets of Hamas fighters in the exclave. Hamas will not disappear instantly. Israel needs a lengthy occupation to gradually liquidate Hamas fighters, going to every nook and corner of the territory to sweep up clusters of Hamas remnants. If Israel withdraws as it did previously, Hamas can reconsolidate, taking advantage of its entrenched positions. But holding Gaza long enough can limit the utility of Hamas’ entrenchments.

Furthermore, a quick operation and withdrawal like Israel’s past “mowing the grass” strategy in Gaza would not be conducive to the development of a robust human intelligence network in Gaza; for, in such situations, the threat of dealing with Hamas once Israel withdraws, would always disincentivize Palestinian collaborators from working with the Jewish state. However, an indefinite Israeli presence could incentivize Palestinian collaborators to work with the Jewish state to administer the land and provide valuable intelligence upon the assurance that Israel could protect them.

The security infrastructure Israel should build would help it whenever there would be any conflagration in the territory, saving Jerusalem the expense of having to construct ad-hoc arrangements every time it invades Gaza, as it would need to should it withdraw from Gaza once Operation Swords of Iron ends. Israel should supplement this network with military bases in strategic locations throughout Gaza that would allow squads and platoons to intercept terrorist attacks and arrest suspects quickly. Rather than use the army, Jerusalem could deploy a paramilitary force under the Ministry of National Security. Physical presence, as previously mentioned, would prevent Hamas from accruing strength to the extent that it could launch October 7-like attacks. Such initiatives would not necessarily eliminate Hamas attacks but they would reduce their intensity. 

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Furthermore, Jerusalem must work to divide Gaza into sectors ruled by different local administrations to prevent them from consolidating into a unified body like the PA that could undermine Israeli sovereignty, exploiting their position. In the medium term, any Palestinian administration should not be elected but appointed — a free election risks bringing in entities like Hamas back to power. One might point to democratic norms, but if following democratic norms is to bring Israel security threats from Gaza, the norms should be suspended. 

To conclude, the mindset Jerusalem’s policymakers must have is that it is better for Israel to be feared by the Palestinian insurgency’s human terrain than loved. Ideally, it is best to be loved and feared, but if the choice is mutually exclusive, the Israeli government must give up any delusions of being loved by the Palestinian population. Operation Swords of Iron offers Israel a choice: return to the optimistic primrose path of giving Palestinians more autonomy, that would inevitably result in more October 7ths, or take the unpopular but strategically wise route of occupying Gaza and settling in the territory. The people of Israel should pressure the government to choose the latter option.

About the Author
Andrew Jose is a Washington DC-based news reporter and security policy analyst. His work has featured in the Times of Israel, National Interest, and The Western Journal. Follow Andrew on X (Twitter): @realAndrewJose.
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