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Jonathan Lipow

Should Israel ‘clear and hold’ Gaza?

A time will come when Israel must occupy the Strip, finish off Hamas, and take responsibility for the governance of its population
A soldier aiming a machine gun in a building as part of the activity of the 99th Division in the Zaytoun Area of Gaza City (Photo by Israeli Army)
A soldier aiming a machine gun in a building as part of the activity of the 99th Division in the Zaytoun Area of Gaza City (Photo by Israeli Army)

Since overcoming the initial shock of October 7, Israel has prosecuted the war in Gaza through a remarkably successful series of large-scale raids. The IDF enters one region after another for some days or weeks, destroys terrorist infrastructure and forces Hamas into very lopsided engagements. The IDF then withdraws, only to return weeks or months later to repeat the process. The Israeli approach has clearly been successful, resulting in massive losses for Hamas while Israeli casualties have been light and relatively few Gazan civilians have died.

But American observers – such as Gen. Charles Brown and retired Gen. David Petraeus – have argued that in order to definitively win this war, Israel must shift to a strategy of “clear and hold” – taking firm control of the Strip and denying Hamas access to the key resource it needs to reconstitute itself, Gaza’s civilian population.

“Clear and hold” requires a prolonged Israeli occupation of Gaza. During the period of occupation, the IDF would hunt down Hamas personnel who are in hiding among the civilian population while starving out those sheltering in still unfound tunnels. Israel would also have to provide basic services – including healthcare, education, and law enforcement – to Gaza’s civilian population, and begin to lay the groundwork for the reconstruction of the Strip.

Should Israel switch from raiding to “clear and hold?” In the short run, this isn’t even a real question. Israel can ill afford to divert the number of troops required for occupation (estimates range as high as 50,000) from other missions while it faces the prospect of a major ground war with Hezbollah. Furthermore, as long as Hamas can put up an organized military resistance, establishing a permanent – and intrinsically vulnerable – military and civil presence in Gaza would result in large numbers of Israeli casualties. And yet another problem is that the small but vocal millennialist branch of the Zionist Movement may idiotically attempt to re-establish settlements in Gaza, leading to more political acrimony in a country that already has more than its fair share of civil strife.

It is only a matter of time, however, before Hamas transitions from resisting Israeli incursions to hiding and hoping to survive to fight another day. And it is also just a matter of time before the confrontation in the north is resolved – either through an agreement or through war. At that point, should Israel occupy Gaza, finish off Hamas, and take responsibility for the governance of its population?

The answer is yes.

This war cannot and will not go on forever. Eventually, this will have to end, and the much discussed “day after” will begin. There are only really two options for the “day after.” One is to reinsert the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, with its feeble security forces bolstered by peacekeepers from friendly Arab states. The other is to build Gazan institutions of self-governance – again with assistance from friendly Arab states and perhaps even Israel’s own Arab community. I personally believe that the Gazans themselves should make the choice between these alternatives, but whether they do or not, one of these two things is going to happen.

If Hamas has survived Israel’s onslaught, it will have considerable sway over how the “day after” plays out. Indeed, it is likely that no local solution will be possible if Hamas is still around – it will be too dangerous for anyone to step up and lead. Indeed, a leader of Gaza’s influential Doghemush clan who met with IDF to discuss local governance was assassinated by Hamas back in March.

Masked and armed members of the ‘People’s Protection Committees, which were formed by Hamas and other terror groups, patrol the streets of Gaza’s southern city of Rafah on March 6, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

As for a PA-led solution, once the Authority and Arab peacekeepers are on the ground, Israel’s military options will be extremely constrained. There will be no more big raids. But peacekeepers will not hunt down Hamas personnel. And neither will the PA’s feeble security forces. The Authority will not want to take the casualties and own the optics involved – seeming to do Israel’s dirty work. Indeed, the PA will inevitably seek some sort of accommodation with Hamas.

Hamas will have survived to fight another day, will correctly claim that it has won the war triggered by the events of 7 October, and will be well on its way to exert influence – and perhaps even control – over the PA. There will be no final peace agreement. And the region will be well on its way to its next war.

Now, if Israel conducts a “clear and hold” in Gaza, Hamas can actually be eliminated. A local solution becomes possible. And a PA-led solution becomes much more workable – it is a lot easier for the Authority and Arab peacekeepers to prevent the re-establishment of Hamas than to disarm and dismantle an existing organization.

An effective occupation will take a long time, be very difficult, require the continued mobilization of large numbers of IDF reservists, and cost a lot of money. But like so many of the actions that Israel and its allies have taken since October 7, the coming occupation of Gaza is TINA – “there is no alternative.”

About the Author
Dr. Jonathan Lipow holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley and is writing as a private citizen.