What is Israel’s end-game in Gaza?

In addition to the horrific abuses in Gaza, Israel’s berserk campaign threatens to set the entire region on fire

The campaign to eradicate Hamas is increasingly resembling a war of revenge and retribution. It has caused tremendous destruction and human suffering. After only four weeks, nearly 11,000 in Gaza are dead, one-third of them children under the age of 18, there is a horrifying scarcity of food, medicine, water, and fuel, and nearly half the population is now internally displaced.

This calamity is unfolding in front of our eyes and must stop, even temporarily, to help save the lives of many of the tens of thousands who are wounded, bury the dead, and avert wide-spread starvation. And even though a temporary cessation of hostilities benefits Hamas, it is still worth undertaking not only to alleviate the horrifying suffering of the entire population in Gaza, but also to open a window for negotiating the release of as many hostages as possible, especially all women and children, in exchange for the pause in fighting.

Whereas Israel’s stated goal from the onset was and still justifiably is the destruction of Hamas, Israel has not offered as yet any clear exit strategy nor endgame. Once Hamas is completely defeated, which is still a tall order, Israel with the support of the US and Saudi Arabia in particular will have to offer a sound alternative that meets the Palestinians’ aspiration and render Hamas irrelevant.

President Biden should demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his military brass develop, in coordination with the US, a clear exit strategy and an end-game consistent with Israel’s, the Palestinians’, and the US’ national interests.

What should be the end game? I believe there are three possible scenarios, two of which are impractical in a sense that they will not lead to a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli control over Gaza
First, Netanyahu is claiming that he wants to maintain security over Gaza, but he’s not saying who will govern and administer the Strip. Does he want to reoccupy all of Gaza or just the northern half, which may explain why he wanted the Palestinians to head south. President Biden is very correct to suggest that the reoccupation of Gaza, be that in part or in full, will be nothing short of a disaster for Israel and will only guarantee the prolongation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, it should be emphasized here that given Israel’s experience in the occupied West Bank, maintaining security was only marginally successful at best as evidenced by the continuing violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians, which has been increasingly escalating. Netanyahu is a fool to assume that he can maintain control over Gaza by establishing a security apparatus when the Hamas-affiliated militants in Gaza will subject the Israeli forces to terrorist attacks that will exact a heavy toll in blood and treasure. The violence in the West Bank will pale in comparison to what Hamas’ militants in Gaza will still be capable of doing against Israeli forces without an end in sight.

Resettling Palestinians in Egypt
The second option, which Netanyahu has been exploring with Egypt, would allow the settling of a few hundred thousand Palestinians in the Sinai; Egypt would assume administrative responsibility in Gaza while Israel maintains security. Egyptian President Sisi flatly rejected any future involvement with the Palestinians in Gaza, other than facilitating through the Rafah crossing the passage of people for justifiable reasons as well as the transfer of goods. The Egyptian government considers Hamas a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt. For this reason, Egypt has also blockaded Gaza to prevent the infiltration of Hamas militants into the country.

Transitional period for Gaza with UN supervision
The third option may well be more viable as it would entail a transitional period whereby the United Nations would assume responsibility. Administratively, as is well known, UNWRA has been on the ground for decades, providing aid and development services, including education, healthcare, microfinance, and job training. Although it has not been involved in the running of Gaza itself, UNWRA is very familiar with the scene in Gaza. It is familiar with the population’s needs, the prevailing socio-economic conditions, and the day-to-day problems Gazans face. UNWRA is in the best possible position to assume greater responsibility under a modified and expanded mandate, provided that it receives the manpower and the funding necessary.

In conjunction with UNWRA’s added administrative responsibilities, it will be necessary to establish a peacekeeping force to be in charge of security. This force ought to be comprised exclusively of the Arab states that are at peace with Israel, namely the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco, as well as Egypt.

It should be made clear that although post-Hamas the West Bank and Gaza should be governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), this should not and in fact cannot happen for at least a year to 18 months following the establishment of a UN administrative authority in Gaza. During this period, the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza would prepare themselves politically for a new election. The current PA is corrupt to the bone; President Abbas is rejected and despised by the majority of Palestinians and must go. Only a new, fresh, and uncorrupt newly-elected leadership that enjoys the confidence of the people can succeed.

On the Israeli side, no one should hold their breath waiting for Netanyahu and his gang of zealous coalition partners to agree on anything that even resembles an independent Palestinian state. Once the war ends, Netanyahu will face an inquiry about the unprecedented disaster that took place under his watch and he will have to resign or be ousted. Here too, a new government will have to be established in Israel which must commit itself from the onset to a two-state solution.

Once the above two prerequisites are in place, the UN administrative authority will then relinquish its role and responsibility to the PA.

The Arab states should condition their commitment to provide a peacekeeping force upon Israel’s acceptance of a two-state solution. That is, once such a peacekeeping force is created, the process of peacebuilding ought to commence in earnest toward that end. Any interim solution must be used only as a vehicle toward a final resolution, otherwise it would serve as nothing less than a respite from waiting for another disaster to unfold.

The role of the US and Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia and the US can play a major, in fact indispensable, role in this regard:

The US has and continues to be the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s national security, and President Biden has done more than any of his predecessors in this regard and demonstrated that in the most unambiguous way by his unflagging support of Israel. He must make it very clear (and is in a position to do so) to Netanyahu or his successor that the US’ unwavering support bears considerable political cost to America both domestically as well as internationally. Many countries around the world view the US as complicit to the unfolding horror in Gaza. President Biden must put in place a framework for a two-state solution, which he has been advocating for many decades.

The negotiating peace process will certainly take more than year to complete. 2024 is an election year in the US, but regardless of who the next president might be, Biden will have to stick to the plans because another Israeli-Palestinian conflagration will inescapably involve the US. It’s time for the US to put its foot down, no longer give Israel carte blanche to do as it pleases, and condition further support, financial and military, to genuine efforts to negotiate in good faith and reach a peace agreement.

Saudi Arabia can complement the US initiative with its own most significant role by seizing on the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian relations and offering an unprecedented breakthrough to bring an end to the conflict. The Saudis should make it clear that once the war ends, they will be ready to normalize relations with Israel on the condition that a new Israeli government agree to a two-state solution and negotiate continuously until an agreement is reached.

Israel should not prolong this tragic war by even one unnecessary day. Indeed, if this war lasts another month or two, it is almost certain that 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians, and scores of Israeli soldiers will be killed. The continuation of the terrifying death and destruction in Gaza along with Israeli losses will only deepen the hate, enmity, and distrust between Israel and the Palestinians and make a solution to the conflict ever more intractable.

Every Israeli should ask him/herself the painful question: do we want to memorialize the death of 1,400 innocent Israelis butchered by Hamas by killing, however inadvertently, 20,000 Palestinians? Is that how the Israeli victims should be commemorated? This is something that every Israeli needs to think about.

Yes, Israel can and will win every battle against Hamas, but it will lose the war unless a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians begins once the war comes to an end, under the auspices of the US and Saudi Arabia, which must lead to a two-state solution.

Dr Alon Ben-Meir
Dr Alon Ben-Meir
Dr Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]

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