Israel’s celebration over the return of dozens of women and children who had been kidnapped on October 7 and then held hostage by Hamas has been tempered by the knowledge that the temporary truce that was imposed as a condition of their return will make it much more difficult for the Israeli army to complete the fulfillment of its main mission, the complete destruction of Hamas in Gaza.
Israeli army leaders believe that the only reason Hamas agreed to give up the hostages was because the invasion of northern Gaza had put them under such intense pressure that they needed the pause in the fighting in order to regroup, recover and survive to fight another day.
Israel’s leaders were also aware that once they had agreed to the temporary truce as a condition for the release of the hostages, they would come under intense diplomatic pressure to make the cease-fire permanent by canceling the planned next stage in the Gaza conflict, a “high intensity” ground attack on southern Gaza.
For example, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Majed Al-Ansari, told reporters last week in Doha that when his country had agreed to serve as the middleman in the negotiations with Hamas for the release of the Israeli hostages, “Of course, our aim [was] for this deal to end in a lasting truce.”
When a Washington Post reporter asked an unnamed senior Israeli official about that likelihood, he replied, “The IDF is determined to go to the next stage of the war. We’re not at the stabilization phase yet.” He then emphasized, “There is very strong determination on the part of the IDF and the Israeli people that we can no longer live with Hamas ruling Gaza.”
WILL ISRAEL BACK DOWN TO U.S. PRESSURE AGAIN?
In the coming days, as Israel’s joy from the release of some of the hostages inevitably fades from the headlines, the country’s leaders will face the challenge of how to finish the job of destroying Hamas without triggering renewed international outrage.
Israel has faced this kind of challenge several times before and was forced each time to cave in to international pressure to leave the job unfinished. In the 1955 Suez War, Israeli forces defeated the Egyptian army and advanced all the way to the Suez Canal, before U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded that Israel withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and return the conquered territory to Egypt.
At the end of the 1973 Yom Kipper War, when Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal and trapped the Egyptian Army on its eastern side, Israel was prevented from destroying it by an ultimatum issued by President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
In 1982 when Israel invaded south Lebanon in response to attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and advanced north all the way to lay siege to Beirut, it was ultimately forced by the U.S. to accept a cease-fire that allowed PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his terrorist followers to leave the city and go into exile in Tunisia.
Finally, and most relevant to the current situation, on July 7, 2014, when Israel invaded Gaza to stop its rocket fire and destroy the tunnels that Hamas had dug under the border with Israel for launching terrorist attacks, it was forced by the United States and Egypt to accept four temporary cease-fires, on August 1, 10, 13 and 19, and finally agreed to a lasting truce on August 26, which left the job of destroying the Hamas threat still unfinished.
ISRAEL FOLLOWING A NEW STRATEGY FOR ATTACKING TUNNELS
Having learned the lessons from the heavy losses it suffered during the 2014 invasion of Gaza, the Israeli military adopted a different strategy in response to the October 7 attack.
Even though Israel has trained special tunnel warfare teams in recent years in anticipation of today’s need to clean out the extensive network of tunnels under Gaza, its commanders realized that requiring their troops to expose themselves to the many ambush sites and mines that Hamas has prepared for them in hundreds of miles of barricaded and fortified underground passageways was still too dangerous. Instead, it adopted a more cautious approach to the problem, designed to move forward gradually while minimizing Israeli casualties.
Instead of rushing in immediately with an armor-back ground invasion force, Israel began the war in Gaza with an intensive, three-week air bombardment campaign on Hamas’ above-ground infrastructure, while using that time to perfect a plan to take out the Hamas tunnels with a minimum of casualties, and to train the reserve troops that it had just called up in the new tactics the plan required.
Israel did not begin the ground assault phase of the war in Gaza until October 27. Israeli military planners at the time expected would take approximately three months to complete. The ground war plan has been very successful so far militarily, but it has been a public relations disaster, due to the anti-Israeli international news coverage of the unintended but inevitable collateral damage that the Israeli attacks have inflicted upon Gaza’s civilian population.
A PAUSE TO PREPARE FOR THE NEXT STAGE OF THE WAR
While admitting that Hamas will undoubtedly use the current pause for the hostage release to rest and reorganize, the Israeli official said, so will the IDF: “The pause will let our fighters get better prepared for the next stage of the war,” in which Israel hopes to root out the Hamas fighters remaining in southern Gaza while inflicting fewer casualties on Palestinian civilians.
The Israeli military would also like to send home some of the 300,000 reserve soldiers who were called up immediately after the October 7 attack, due to the initial fear that Hezbollah might launch a full-scale attack from Lebanon, opening a second front in the north in support of Hamas. But despite the nearly daily incidents of harassing missile fire from Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, that has not yet happened, so those reservists who will not be needed for the next phase of the fighting in Gaza will be sent back to their civilian jobs in order to strengthen the Israeli economy, which has been brought to “nearly a standstill” by a Gaza war-induced labor shortage.
But first and foremost, the Israeli official emphasized to veteran Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, that winning the war in Gaza by destroying Hamas remains the army’s overriding priority, because, “the economic costs of the war are short term relative to the long-term benefit from the Israeli people being able to go back to living in safety and security.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN THE DAY AFTER HAMAS IS DEFEATED?
Ignatius writes that while the senior military commanders he met at Israel’s Defense Ministry complex in Tel Aviv, known as the Kirya, “were thoughtful, professional soldiers, [and] I came away impressed by their skill and dedication, but here’s the truth: Israel doesn’t yet have a clear conception of ‘the day after.’”
Political and military leaders agree on the need to destroy Hamas and to cut any Israeli connections to Gaza. But there is no consensus about [what the] next steps [must be].
Ignatius quotes the comments in a recent press briefing by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who said that “he is open to any solution that allows Israel to cut the cord to Gaza — so long as it adheres to a simple formula: ‘At the end of the war, Hamas will be destroyed, there will no longer be a military threat to Israel from Gaza, and Israel will not be in Gaza.’”
The chief IDF spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari of the Israeli navy, whose cogent reports on the Gaza war have won a widespread public following, has described Israel’s goals for the end of the war as “not Hamas, and not chaos,” but he has not been able to say exactly how Israel hopes to achieve that outcome.
According to Ignatius, Israel’s commanders and political leaders also “realize, increasingly,” that they will need a new military approach going forward, because even though “northern Gaza is now largely under Israeli control, in the process it has been reduced to a skeleton. . .
“If Israel doesn’t do a dramatically better job [of managing] the humanitarian issues in [the next phase of] this war, it will [fatally] damage its relationships with the United States, Europe, and Arab neighbors such as Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps Saudi Arabia.”
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly boasted that “Hamas has lost control in the north of the Gaza Strip. They have no safe place to hide.” But that claim appears to have been premature. Despite the tremendous devastation that the Israeli attacks have already caused in and around Gaza City, a second Israeli high official has admitted that even there the Israeli military operation is not over yet. That is because, he said, the Hamas tunnel network in northern Gaza “is more developed than we thought.” As a result, some Hamas fighters remain well-entrenched underground in the more than 600 tunnel shafts that Israel has already discovered there.
HOW ISRAEL HOPES TO PROTECT CIVILIANS IN SOUTHERN GAZA
According to Ignatius, in planning for the next phase of the war in southern Gaza, Israeli military leaders “will attempt to separate the battlespace — dividing it into military targets around Khan Younis and civilian safe zones to the west [where the one million civilians who heeded Israel’s urging to flee from northern Gaza can avoid] again [getting] caught in the crossfire.
Ignatius reports that “to care for Palestinians who have fled the battle zones, Israel plans to create a vast tent city for refugees at Al-Mawasi, on the [Mediterranean] coast just north of the Gazan border with Egypt. The location should allow humanitarian supplies to be delivered easily by land and sea.
“After the intense international criticism for the hospital battles in northern Gaza, Israeli commanders want to quickly create temporary medical facilities for thousands of wounded civilians threatened now with starvation and infectious disease. . .
“They understand,” Ignatius adds, “that this humanitarian relief. . . is absolutely essential to achieving their war aims.” Without it, Israel risks exhausting the patience of the Biden administration which has provided essential diplomatic cover and military support for its continued pursuit of Hamas. Israel would likely be forced, once again, to accept a premature end to the war, leaving a portion of Hamas still in place in Gaza and able to attack Israel again from there someday. That is an outcome that the Israeli people will no longer be willing to accept after having suffered the attack on October 7.
MULTIPLE CLOCKS ARE NOW TICKING
According to one senior Israeli commander Ignatius interviewed, the Gaza war can be seen “as a series of clocks, all running at different speeds. The Israeli military has its clock to destroy Hamas, which has several months to run but might need to be adjusted; Hamas has a survival clock, which it would like to extend as long as possible; and the United States and Western allies have a clock of patience that appears to have nearly run out.
“The Israeli military knows the only way it can put more time on its clock is by adopting tactics that reduce the harm to civilians and by providing more humanitarian aid. . .
“Because of the competing timelines,” Ignatius writes, “the IDF has adopted what its commanders describe as a ‘decision tree’ of ‘flexible, adaptive plans.’”
On the other hand, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the Hamas game plan is to extend the temporary cease-fire, which was initiated to enable the hostage returns, for as long as possible. Hamas leaders thereby hope to “outlast Israel and survive,” by sapping the momentum of Israel’s offensive and creating international pressure to end the conflict before Israel can achieve its goals.
According to Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research in Israel’s military intelligence division, Hamas leaders hope they can release hostages gradually enough to turn “this entire idea of defeating Hamas into something that will never happen.”
ISRAELI DETERRENCE HAS BEEN DAMAGED
Hamas leaders believe they have already scored a big victory because of the humiliation that was suffered by the vaunted Israeli military due to the surprising success of the October 7 attack. The success of the attack also badly damaged Israel’s aura of invincibility which had deterred attacks by its other deadly enemies, such as Hezbollah and Iran’s other terrorist proxies.
The fallout from the October 7 attack has also dealt what is hopefully only a temporary setback to U.S. and Israeli efforts to expand the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states in the region, which hope to reap important economic and security benefits from their quiet willingness to live in peace with Israel.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has been pushing back against the widespread accusations that it has violated international law in its attacks on civilian targets in Gaza by declassifying and releasing its intelligence findings proving that Hamas has been systematically using the schools, mosques, and hospitals of Gaza, which are supposed to remain neutral and immune from attack under the rules of war, as command and control centers, missile launching sites and weapons storehouses.
On Monday, the commander of the IDF’s special forces unit known as Shaldag held a closed press conference limited to military reporters in which he presented videos showing the special tactics that his unit used to capture the areas in the al Shifa hospital complex that Israel had long believed to be in use by senior Hamas leaders.
To make the initial entry, Shaldag fighters blew open a wall instead of using a doorway in order to preserve the element of surprise. Then specially trained dogs were sent in to locate any booby-traps that had been set, or Hamas fighters that might be waiting in ambush.
Upon searching the hospital, the Shaldag fighters found some unusually well-appointed and air-conditioned rooms that had apparently been used by senior Hamas leaders as their base of operations until they had fled several days before the Shaldag incursion. The Hamas operatives left behind a substantial variety of weapons that had been hidden throughout the complex, including the hospital’s MRI diagnostic center, as well as evidence that the hospital’s Outpatient Building had been used as a holding area for some of the hostages who had been kidnapped on October 7, before they were moved to another location.
HAMAS’ SENIOR LEADERSHIP IS STILL INTACT
While a significant number of mid-level Hamas military commanders have been killed by targeted air strikes and the Israeli ground attacks inside Gaza, it is believed that the senior leadership of Hamas, made up of roughly 15 men is still intact. It has been reported that the October 7 attack was masterminded by Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, working in close cooperation with Hamas’ longtime chief military commander, Mohammed Deif, and that, for security reasons, they have kept their plans for the October 7 attack from other members of the Hamas leadership who were not directly involved in the operation.
According to popular Israeli military commentator Ehud Yaari, it is believed that Sinwar, the senior Hamas military commanders in Gaza, and the remaining hostages are currently in the tunnel network in southern Gaza.
It is also widely expected that once the extended truce due to the hostage transfers comes to an end, Sinwar’s hometown of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza will become the next target of the resumed Israeli offensive. In addition, the Israeli army is also expected to take over the city of Rafah which is located along the Egyptian border. Rafah has become notorious in recent years as the center of a massive smuggling operation controlled by Hamas, for bringing all kinds of contraband, including weapons, into Gaza.
At a recent joint press conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant said that all members of Hamas, including its leaders who live outside Gaza, are legitimate Israeli targets for assassination, turning them into “dead men walking.” Gallant also said that there is “no difference between a terrorist with a Kalashnikov and a terrorist in a three-piece suit,” in an apparent reference to Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader based in Qatar.
However, according to a report in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Qatar had insisted that Israel give it a guarantee that the Mossad would not try to assassinate Hamas leaders living in that country, as a pre-condition for Qatar to serve as a mediator in the hostage release negotiations.
At the joint press conference with Gallant, Netanyahu was asked why he had changed his previous decision against allowing humanitarian fuel deliveries into Gaza. The prime minister answered that if Israel had permitted Gaza’s fresh water and sewer systems to fail due to a lack of fuel, it could have triggered the outbreak of an epidemic, and then “we would lose control of everything.”
In order to convince the skeptics in the media and the diplomatic community who have expressed doubts about the Israeli account, the IDF spokesman’s office has been showing a 45-minute presentation it compiled from videos of the October 7 attack taken by security cameras in the towns which had been overrun by the terrorists, as well as footage recovered from the body cameras and cell phones of the Hamas fighters who were killed or captured.
The video documents the unspeakable brutality and the atrocities that were committed by the Hamas terrorists that day against defenseless Israeli civilians, including women and children. Yet the advocates and apologists for Hamas, including much of the mainstream news media, and even some progressive Democrat Jewish elected officials, still refuse to recognize the October 7 attack for what it clearly was, a deliberate act of genocide against the Jewish people as heinous and carefully organized as the crimes against humanity that were committed in the Nazi death camps.
CAN HAMAS’ IDEOLOGY BE DEFEATED?
While Israel’s government and military leaders seem to be confident that they can achieve their goal of defeating Hamas and ousting its control over Gaza when the fighting resumes, other observers are skeptical. They predict that even if Hamas is defeated, its antisemitic ideology will survive, and another terrorist group will likely emerge in Gaza, and possibly in the West Bank as well, to take its place. However, it also can be implied from Monday’s statement by Biden administration spokesman John Kirby that the White House still supports Israel’s right to resume its attack on Hamas in Gaza once the hostage return truce comes to an end, because the U.S. recognizes that Israel is facing “a genocidal and existential threat” from Hamas. However, Kirby also said that the White House would prefer to see the truce extended under the current terms, with 10 or more hostages being released each day until all of those who were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 have been returned.
In addition, the Israeli government’s willingness to suspend the attack on Hamas in Gaza for the initial four days of hostage returns, followed by a two-day extension of the truce to permit additional returns, has taken some of the pressure off of the strained personal relationship between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
BIDEN DEFYING ADMINISTRATION CRITICS OF ISRAEL
To his credit, President Biden has maintained his lifelong support for Israel, despite the strong objections raised by about 20 liberal staffers in the Biden White House during a meeting with Biden’s three top advisors a few weeks ago. According to a Washington Post report, the staffers complained that Biden was not doing enough to force Israel to stop the civilian deaths due to its war on Hamas in Gaza. Their challenge to Biden’s pro-Israel position was the most important internal policy division within his administration since Biden took office almost three years ago. It also reflects the current deep divisions over continued U.S. support for Israel in its war against Hamas between progressive and traditional Democrats. While some pro-Hamas progressive Democrats in the House and Senate have called upon President Biden to put restrictive conditions on more U.S. military aid for Israel, administration spokesmen firmly rejected that idea a few days after Biden seemed to be willing to consider it.
Going one step further, the White House has asked the Senate to lift current restrictions to give Israel better access to a U.S. military war reserve stockpile located in Israel that holds large quantities of smart bombs, Hellfire missiles, military vehicles, and other ammunition and equipment that Israel needs to continue its war against Hamas. If the Senate agrees to the White House request, which was issued three weeks after the October 7 attack, it would “allow for the transfer of all categories of defense articles” in the stockpile to Israel and remove the annual spending cap for replenishing the arms that Israel draws down from the stockpile.
BIDEN’S LOW-KEY SUGGESTIONS HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL
There were initial fears that Biden would cave in to pressure from liberal Democrats who demanded that he try to impose a premature end to Israel’s war against Hamas. But a Wall Street Journal editorial argues that, in retrospect, Biden’s persistent suggestions to Israel about how best to go about defeating Hamas, while minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza, were much more effective than if he had listened to leftist demands that he publicly condemn Israel for its war against Hamas and demand an immediate cease-fire. Instead, by continuing to affirm Israel’s basic right to defend itself by eliminating the threat from Hamas, Biden was able to “persuade Israel to delay and moderate its ground invasion, decline to escalate with Hezbollah. . . allow more aid [to enter Gaza] and helped shape the hostage deal.”
There has also been a welcome pushback by some elected public officials from both parties against the disturbing spike in openly antisemitic incidents and violent pro-Hamas demonstrations since the October 7 attack.
In addition, some major Jewish donors to Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have announced that they are withdrawing their support in protest against the failure of the administrators of those colleges to speak out against the outbreak of antisemitic speech and pro-Hamas demonstrations on their campuses since October 7.
THE HOSTAGE RETURNS HAVE SENT A POWERFUL PRO-ISRAEL MESSAGE
There is also a growing appreciation for Israel’s decision to accept the risk of suspending its military operation in Gaza on humanitarian grounds, to enable the return of some of the women and children who were kidnapped by Hamas. It has sent a powerful emotional message refuting the accusations of Israel’s pro-Hamas critics by demonstrating the very high value that Israel places on the life of every hostage, from young children to old women.
As a Wall Street Journal editorial has pointed out, the rest of the civilized world has joined with Israel and the Jewish people in “rejoicing at the release of hostages by Hamas, especially the sight of young children reunited with parents after seven weeks of [cruel captivity]. But that relief shouldn’t blind us to the way the jihadists are manipulating human sentiment to achieve their terrorist aims. . . [and] is using the hostages to play on Western respect for human life.”
It was not easy for Israel to stop its massive military attack in Gaza, and now that it has stopped, it will not be easy to get it restarted with the same energy and momentum. There is also a risk that the Palestinian women and minors who are being released from Israeli prisons could commit more acts of terrorism.
In addition, the lull in the fighting will enable Hamas to move its remaining forces around Gaza freely to prepare for the renewed Israeli offensive that they know is coming, which means that Israeli soldiers can expect to meet tougher resistance whenever the fighting resumes.
ISRAEL’S RISK-BENEFIT CALCULATIONS
Nevertheless, when Israel’s leaders weighed the risks against the benefits of the original hostage deal, they voted overwhelmingly to go forward with it. They also made the same calculation when they concluded that the additional military risk from agreeing to a two-day extension of the original four-day truce seems minimal compared to the humanitarian benefits from the return of 20 more hostages.
Another reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu overruled his right-wing coalition partners who objected to the hostage release deal is that since October 7, the families of the hostages have become a powerful political force in Israel. They have also become a symbol of courage and hope to Jews around the world who are still recovering from the shock of the Hamas attack.
Netanyahu also understands that after the war in Gaza is over, Israeli voters will want to hold him and others in the government accountable for the failure to foresee and prevent the October 7 attack. Therefore, Netanyahu’s only hope to survive as prime minister in the long term is to fulfill his pledge to destroy Hamas while bringing home as many of the hostages as possible.
THE ISRAELI PUBLIC’S STRONG SUPPORT FOR WAR
A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found a clear consensus among Israeli Jews that the redemption of the hostages was well worth the price that Hamas demanded for their return. In addition, seven weeks after the October 7 attack, there is still a strong conviction among Israel’s leaders and the Israeli soldiers who will be risking their lives in battle, that Hamas must be destroyed, so that it can never again be in a position to attack Israel.
More than 90 percent of those polled said they support the twin goals of crushing Hamas and saving the hostages. When asked which goal was more important, 49 percent chose “releasing all the hostages,” while 32 percent said they believed that “toppling Hamas” should be the primary aim.
In light of those findings, IDI President Yohanan Plesner said, “There is no basis in [Israeli] public opinion for anything having to do with a [permanent] cease-fire with Hamas or any diplomatic solution. There is [also] a broad understanding that there is no way we can restore security, stability, or any kind of peaceful relations with Palestinians without eliminating Hamas. And that means more [Israeli army] ground operations [in Gaza].”
Similarly, shortly after the Israeli cabinet voted to approve the hostage release deal and the temporary truce with Hamas, Defense Minister Gallant told Israeli Navy commandos that “this respite will be short,” and instructed them to be ready for at least two more months of fighting in Gaza.
HAMAS HAS BEEN PLAYING GAMES WITH THE HOSTAGE RELEASE
The initial release of the Israeli hostages did not go smoothly, primarily because Hamas failed to live up to the terms of the agreement that it negotiated with Qatar’s help, which was not really a surprise. The deal called for the release of the children being held hostage simultaneously with their mothers, if they, too were in Hamas custody. But when 13-year-old Hila Rotem was released on Motzoei Shabbos, she was not accompanied by her mother, Raya, age 54. Their separation was particularly disturbing because they had been kidnapped together from their home in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7, and then held together by Hamas in Gaza until they were separated just two days before Hila was released.
There is also particular concern about the fate of four members of the Bibas family, the father, Yarden, age 34, his wife, Shiri, age 32, and their two boys, Ariel, age 4, and 10-month-old Kfir, who is the youngest child being held hostage by Hamas. All of them were kidnapped on October 7 from their home in Kibbutz Nir Oz. Tragically, Shiri’s parents, Margit Silberman Shnaider and Yossie Silberman, who lived in the same kibbutz, were killed in the October 7 attack.
There has also been severe criticism of the International Red Cross by the family of 84-year-old hostage, Elma Avraham, for refusing to bring her life-saving medications that they had supplied during the 51 days that she was held in Hamas’ custody. As a result, when Elma Avraham was released on Sunday, she was semi-conscious and in a life-threatening condition, and had to be flown by helicopter for immediate treatment in an ICU unit at the Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva.
According to Elma Avraham’s daughter, Tal Amano, “My mother didn’t have to return like this. It was neglect during her entire period there [in Gaza]. She didn’t receive her lifesaving medications. She was abandoned twice, once on October 7 and a second time by all the organizations [including the Red Cross] that should have saved her and prevented her condition.”
There is also harsh criticism of the Red Cross for failing to demand permission to visit the hostages that remain in Hamas custody to confirm their condition, in accordance with the rules of the Geneva condition, and despite reports that such a visit was one of the conditions of the original hostage release agreement.
There is also an Israeli media report that Hamas has somehow “lost track” of 40 of the hostages that were taken on October 7, and that some of them are children who are now in the custody of criminal families in Gaza, which intend to use them as “bargaining chips” to cut their own deals with the Israeli government.
While there is every reason to rejoice in the near term over the safe return of the Israeli hostages that Hamas is willing to free, and to encourage Israel’s leaders to finish the job of destroying Hamas before it can attack again, there still remains the unanswered questions of who will take over Gaza after Hamas is destroyed, and what will be the nature of the future relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people.
U.S. AND ISRAEL DISAGREE OVER GAZA’S FUTURE
President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have declared that after Hamas is defeated by Israel, hopefully with a minimum of civilian casualties, the Palestinians of Gaza should somehow be re-unified with the Palestinians of the West Bank under the rule of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority.
The question first arose when President Biden publicly warned Israel in a televised CBS News interview on October 15 that any attempt by it to re-occupy Gaza would be a “big mistake.” Prime Minister Netanyahu responded that he saw no alternative to Israel assuming “overall security responsibility” in Gaza “for an indefinite period” after the war against Hamas is won.
Less than 24 hours later, Secretary of State Blinken pushed back, stating that the U.S. believes there can be “no reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict, hence, no attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza,” and “no reduction in the territory of Gaza.” Blinken then added that the future of Gaza “must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”
But Netanyahu rejected that idea. In a televised interview with NBC News, he declared that even though Israel has no desire to take back permanent control over Gaza, after the war, for the sake of Israel’s security, Gaza must be “demilitarized and deradicalized,” and in his opinion, the Palestinian Authority is simply not up to the job.
THE FATALLY FLAWED PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY
Netanyahu’s low opinion of the Palestinian Authority’s ability to assume responsibility for security in Gaza, as well as its current performance as the civilian authority over the Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank, is widely shared by the Palestinian people themselves. Many of them see the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, as a corrupt and ineffective leader who has been actively collaborating with Israeli security forces in their efforts to suppress Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations operating in the West Bank, where he would not be able to survive for long without the support of the Israeli army.
The Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords in 1993 as an interim self-governing body for the Palestinian people during U.S.-sponsored negotiations that were supposed to lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there have been no such negotiations since Abbas sabotaged the last effort by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process in 2014.
Even among the members of the Palestinian middle class that have grown up in the relative stability of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, there is little respect or support for Abbas, who has been running the PA since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Abbas is now in the eighteenth year of what was supposed to be a four-year term when he was elected president of the PA in 2005. There have been no national elections held by the Palestinian Authority since Abbas’ Fatah political faction lost a legislative ballot to Hamas in 2006.
HAMAS HAS FILLED THE PALESTINIAN POWER VACUUM
By launching the October 7 attack, Hamas filled the power vacuum in Palestinian politics left by Abbas and the PA, and earned widespread admiration in the Palestinian street.
Sari Nusseibeh is a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian families, and once served as the president of Al Quds University. He claims that he abhorred the violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7, but admits that, “from the Palestinian point of view, [the attack] looked like a miracle,” because it put the half-forgotten plight of the Palestinian people back into the international spotlight.
“Who is the Palestinian leadership now? It’s Hamas, like it or not,” Mr. Nusseibeh told the New York Times. “At the moment Hamas is seen by Palestinians as the foremost representative of Palestinian interests.” And why? “Because no one else is. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t figure in people’s minds.”
According to the latest survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, 66 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank said that they regard the Palestinian Authority as a burden, and 85 percent said they want Abbas to resign, including “more than 60 percent of his own rank-and-file” Fatah party members.
When asked if the PA in its current state could take over Gaza, Shikaki replied, “Of course not. Governance is about establishing law and order and enforcing the rules, and the PA cannot do that.”
WHO WILL SUCCEED MAHMOUD ABBAS?
Part of the problem is that there is no obvious successor in line to succeed Abbas, who is now 88 years old, as the PA’s president. The names mentioned most often include Marwan Barghouti, 64, who, since 2004, has been serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison for the killing of civilians committed by the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade under his command during the second intifada.
Another name mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas is Mohammed Dahlan, 62, a former Fatah leader from Gaza who was overthrown by Hamas in 2007. In 2011, Abbas had Dahlan expelled from Fatah and accused him of having poisoned Yasser Arafat. Since then, Dahlan has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
For the Israelis, the PA has long served as a useful security partner to quell terrorism in the West Bank, but since the PA has lost control over parts of the northern West Bank, especially around Jenin, its main utility for the Netanyahu government is its obvious incompetence to serve as a legitimate representative for the best interests of the Palestinian people and as a negotiating partner for peace.
Many Israelis would also say that the Palestinian Authority and Abbas have disqualified themselves for post-Hamas rule over Gaza because they have refused to condemn Hamas for its October 7 attack or for kidnapping more than 240 people and holding them as hostages in Gaza. The official Palestinian Authority news agency has described the attack as a “heroic battle,” and Abbas has tried to justify it under the “Palestinian right to self-defense.” Abbas hasn’t even denounced the holding of innocent hostages by members of his own Fatah faction.
Fatah leaders have also boasted that some of its members directly participated in the October 7 attack by crossing into southern Israel and brutalizing civilians. They have repeatedly cited a video shown on a West Bank-based Telegram social media channel showing terrorists wearing the yellow headbands of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade firing Kalashnikovs while assaulting the Nahal Oz kibbutz.
IN SEARCH OF A NEW APPROACH FOR GOVERNING GAZA
But the Biden administration and its European allies have refused to disown Abbas and the Palestinian Authority over its corruption and its repeated refusals to negotiate in good faith to reach a peace agreement with Israel. To do so would amount to recognition of the failure of the Oslo peace process and the futility of continuing to pursue a two-state solution which, at this point, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian people really want.
President Biden does deserve a great deal of credit for maintaining his support for Israel’s refusal to agree to a permanent cease-fire in Gaza over the vocal objections by pro-Hamas progressive Democrats in Congress and even within his own administration. However, his naive attempts to revive and somehow “revitalize” the Palestinian Authority as a solution to the problem of governing Gaza the day after Hamas is defeated is clearly doomed to fail. At least Netanyahu is being realistic by demanding that Israel take responsibility for maintaining post-Hamas security in Gaza on an interim basis, until an entirely new approach to the problem, that is not based upon obsolete 30-year-old thinking, can be developed.