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What’s Next for Gaza? Israel’s Difficult Dilemma

Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7th is a challenge not just for Israeli-Palestinian tensions but for regional stability. The Israeli political, military and intelligence leadership will have to answer to the nation for the many failures leading up to and during the attacks. But the greatest failure, one which rests on all of our shoulders, was the lack of a long-term plan for Gaza. For years, Israel followed a “mowing the grass” policy of deterrence towards Hamas, despite ample evidence that this approach could not guarantee long term peace and security for Israeli citizens.

The atrocities of October 7 destroyed that paradigm. But rather than rush headlong into war, without an endgame, Israel must think long-term, perhaps for the first time in years. The return of the Taliban to Kabul, 20 years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, begs the question: Will the situation in Gaza and southern Israel be better twenty, even ten years down the line? What are the options open to Israel, and what are their long-term implications?

  1. Hit back harder” – the idea that the Israeli military will hit Gaza infrastructure significantly harder than in prior wars, when restraint was exercised deliberately. While the military capabilities are there obviously, and this is already taking place to some extent, it is unlikely to satisfy either the Israeli public, nor should it be expected to buy anything but time as Hamas and other groups rearm themselves.

  2. Create a larger buffer zone – this could be achieved by shrinking the borders of Gaza, particularly from the north, which would create less area to monitor, and possibly augmenting this with space on the Israeli side. UN peacekeepers could even be placed in the buffer zone. A larger buffer zone would be relatively easy to achieve militarily, and might buy more time, but it should be assumed that here too it would only prolong another attack. It could however be used to buy time for negotiations with relevant actors over a long-term solution.

  3. Depopulate all or part of Gaza’s population – Israel could force some or all of the Gazan population to leave–evacuating to Egypt, from which many could request repatriation as refugees. This could be achieved militarily, pending Egyptian cooperation, which has refused thus far, but presumably could be persuaded with incentives. The area would then be left for agricultural purposes, or populated with Israeli citizens.

In the long-term, this could improve life for many Gazans, who live in a sealed, overpopulated area with almost no economic opportunities, headed by a dictatorial, jihadi entity, with near annual wars involving air strikes from Israel. Nonetheless, this would constitute ethnic cleansing and be a gross violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). The long-term impacts on Jewish-Arab relations within Israel, as well as impact on the West Bank, must also be considered, and what witnessing a “2023 Nakba” could do to the psyche. This option should be avoided at all costs.

  1. Removal of Hamas (and PIJ and other militant groups) and disarmament of the Gaza Strip–this will require a long, intensive ground operation, and bear a heavy cost, in both Israeli casualties, as well as civilian collateral damage. It would remove the threat of an attack on Israeli territory for years to come, and is militarily achievable. The real question–which must be considered by Israeli and regional leaders–is what comes the day after? A few options spring to mind:

    1. Palestinian Authority (PA) – the internationally recognized Palestinian government, based in Ramallah, could be handed the keys to Gaza. That is the most obvious and straightforward idea. However the PA was in control when Israel left Gaza in 2005, and promptly lost to Hamas (electorally and militarily). Would this time around go better?

    2. Egypt – which borders Gaza, could be left in control. Israel and Egypt enjoy strong security cooperation, and Egypt could be provided incentives (beyond the interest in a stable, demilitarized border region). In the long term this would be a setback for Palestinian autonomy or statehood, but it could be used as a bridge to build up Palestinian institutions.

    3. Israel–could reoccupy Gaza, mirroring the West Bank. This would strain Israeli resources, but perhaps provide greater security, while allowing some measure of mobility in linking Gaza with the West Bank, as well as employment within Israel. However it would be immensely unpopular with Palestinians, and risks future violence. The stagnated growth in the West Bank does not bode well for Gaza in such a scenario.

    4. United Nations–put in charge temporarily, allowing time to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure and economy, while developing political parties that could run in eventual elections. The challenge here is the same as that faced following the 2011-2012 Arab Spring–democracy is not born overnight, and decades of oppression have prevented the growth of real political leadership, with Islamist parties often the best organized.

These are the options facing Israeli leadership, which must balance domestic political demands with international pressure. There is no panacea–all have flaws. But for perhaps the first time since leaving Gaza in 2005, the decisions made regarding Gaza must be one that considers long-term interests as well.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (www.debateforpeace.org), and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown; Jurist.org, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at sra252@nyu.edu.
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