David Lehrer

Where do we go from here? ‘Clear, Hold, Build’

With a protracted war ahead, Israel has a vested interest in quickly rebuilding and establishing civilian control in Gaza

The war is far from over. The hostages have not been freed. Civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel are in mortal danger. Perhaps it is still too soon to ask, where do we go from here? However, from day one of Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians, people have questioned the wisdom of invading Gaza without a clear exit strategy.

Engaging a coalition of regional and international partners in building and implementing the strategy for what happens the day after cannot wait until the day after. According to pronouncements made by Israeli government officials, including the prime minister, we can expect this war to go on for months, maybe a year or even more. What happens to the more than two million Palestinian civilians while Israel conducts a months-long or years-long military operation in Gaza to root out Hamas is a mystery to me. I am doubtful that any foreign government or coalition of governments will be willing to take any responsibility for the well-being of the civilian population under those circumstances. I hope that someone in the Israeli government has a plan.

In the 2006 US Army handbook on counterinsurgency operations, General David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Iraq, explained the objectives of his “Clear, Hold, Build” counterinsurgency strategy: “Create a secure environment; establish government control over an area; and gain the support of the populace.” Petraeus argues that a strategy that can yield stability, “requires not just the neutralization of armed combatants, but securing vital infrastructure, improving essential services, establishing a political apparatus, and even building and improving schools.”

I am no military expert. I have no idea how the IDF will neutralize the tens of thousands of Hamas terrorists it has yet to capture or eliminate, nor do I know how long that will take. I do not know when and how the Israeli hostages will be freed and returned home. I do know that leaving almost two million Palestinians in refugee camps in southern Gaza for months or years while Israel hunts Hamas, is inhuman, will not be tolerated by the international community, will hurt our fragile relationships with Egypt, Jordan, and Abraham Accords partners, and will nurture a new generation of terrorists.

Whether it’s possible to move on to the “hold” and “build” phases of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy before completing the “clear” phase is an open question. But the faster Israel moves to enable the establishment of civilian control and the rebuilding of housing, infrastructure, and civilian institutions, the slower the radicalization of the next generation.

There is a debate as to whether the Palestinian Authority has the capacity to step in, to fill the void in government control in Gaza. The current Palestinian Authority (PA) is weak and corrupt. It is not fit to govern Gaza. It will take time and a great deal of investment on the part of the international community to help support and prepare the PA for this critical task. There may be some interim international force that steps in to provide security and order, but only Palestinians can govern Palestinians. Great Britain and Israel tried to govern Palestinians without their consent and neither attempt worked out so well.

The PA will also demand a heavy price from Israel for agreeing to take responsibility for governance in Gaza, a real peace process that leads to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Because this will be a long process and because a major part of the support and preparation of the PA can take place in Ramallah and not in Gaza, the process should not wait until the “clear” phase of Israel’s military operation is complete.

Over the past 20 years, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have been locked in a struggle in which each side found every reason in the world to stop cooperating with the other. At the same time, Israeli NGOs, like the Arava Institute, were able to forge cross-border partnerships with Palestinian NGOs by seeking compromise, accepting that disagreements will arise, and maintaining ongoing communication, even in the most difficult of times, like now. Through these strong partnerships, Palestinian and Israeli NGOs have been strengthened and have accomplished real change on the ground. The Israeli government and the PA could learn a lot from civil society about managing contentious relationships while making concrete progress.

Even if a credible Palestinian-led civilian government is established in Gaza, without the resources to rebuild Gaza, to provide living space for the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who are now homeless, to provide electricity 24/7, clean drinking water, sanitation, and water for agriculture to address food security, and promote economic growth, that government will not gain the support of the Palestinian population, and will not maintain its legitimacy.

In a blog post published in June, I wrote: “A massive effort led by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, supported by the Gulf states and international funding agencies, to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure could provide clean and adequate drinking water, water for agriculture, sanitation, reliable energy, food security, and economic opportunities for a young generation which has lost all hope. A Marshal Plan for Gaza would offer Israel the opportunity to use technology and innovation to help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Such an initiative would have a positive impact on political relations between Israel, the Arab world, Europe, and the United States. More importantly, it would offer the people of Gaza and their Israeli neighbors in the Gaza envelope, hope that their future does not have to look like the last 18 years.”

Of course, everything has changed since October 7th. But while the need for a Marshal Plan to address the severe lack of operating infrastructure in Gaza was critical prior to the war, the need for a massive rebuilding of Gaza after the war is of epic proportions and now must also include a Marshal Plan for the Gaza Envelope. The sooner the “build” phase of the counterinsurgency operation is initiated, the quicker Gazans will start to feel their lives improving and hopefully the slower any radicalization process will take hold.

Rebuilding Gaza, including not just getting back to where it was but moving Gaza into the 21st century, will take a massive sum of financial resources and years of planning and implementation. The international donor community would be well advised to look to the NGOs that have accomplished small-scale infrastructure projects that provide water and energy to vulnerable communities. These off-grid initiatives powered by solar energy and batteries, require less major planning and investment and can be rapidly deployed. These small-scale distributed technologies can provide interim solutions to critical pain points while larger more long-term solutions are in the pipeline.

I have no doubt that the current Israeli government has a plan to implement the “clear” phase of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy. I am also sure that plan includes the return of the hostages by a combination of military force and negotiated exchanges. What I hope but sincerely doubt is that the Israeli government has a plan to “hold” and “build” Gaza, which is essential for Israel’s security and to end the cycle of violence we have all suffered from for close to two decades.

About the Author
Dr. Lehrer holds a PhD from the Geography and Environmental Development Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a joint Masters Degree in Management Science from Boston University and Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Lehrer was the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies from 2001 until August 2021 and has now become Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy. Dr. Lehrer has been a member of Kibbutz Ketura since 1981.