November 28, 2023 | The National Interest

Gaza’s Gordian Knot

Unless the United States and its partners solve the paradox of who controls Gaza, adversaries will continue to try to exploit the situation.
November 28, 2023 | The National Interest

Gaza’s Gordian Knot

Unless the United States and its partners solve the paradox of who controls Gaza, adversaries will continue to try to exploit the situation.

Israel and Hamas agreed to a pause in fighting on Friday, November 24, after almost fifty days of war in Gaza. The pause required Hamas to release dozens of hostages while Israel would release Palestinian prisoners. However, Israeli officials have vowed to continue fighting in Gaza. This leaves questions about what will become of Gaza after the war. Competing visions for Gaza illustrate that there is no clear policy for the area when the war is over.  Consequently, the differing views in Israel, the United States, and the region must be reconciled to move forward. 

Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi went to northern Israel on November 28 and spoke to IDF troops. He announced, “we are preparing for the continuation of the operation to dismantle Hamas. It will take time, these are complex goals, but they are justified beyond measure.” Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visited Gaza over the weekend on November 25. He told soldiers that “our ability to bring home the first group of hostages is the result of military pressure. As soon as military pressure is applied, they [Hamas] want a break. When you increase the pressure, they want another break.” The timeframe for continuing operations was mere days, meaning the pause in fighting was not expected to last long: “Any further negotiations [with Hamas] will be held under fire.” 

Currently, Israel has three divisions of soldiers in Gaza. The Thirty-Sixth Armored Division sits across the center of the Gaza Strip, cutting off Gaza City from southern Gaza. Other units operate along the coast and north of Gaza City, essentially encircling the city. Hamas has been pushed out of numerous neighborhoods, and it has taken losses, although the exact number is unclear.  

Israel has been there before. While Israel once administered the Gaza Strip after the 1967 war, it evacuated Jewish communities there in 2005. Hamas came to power over the next two years, ejecting the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority from Gaza. In the wake of this rout, Washington invested in the Palestinian Authority Security Forces. However, the PA has faced numerous challenges controlling the West Bank over the last sixteen years. Over the previous year, Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been able to destabilize Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank. Israel frequently clashes with terror groups in Nablus and Tulkarm, two other cities in the northern West Bank.

What this illustrates is that even if Hamas is defeated in Gaza, it remains to be seen if the Palestinian Authority can exercise control over Gaza. In any case, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the idea that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority will rule Gaza after Hamas. The aging and ineffectual Mahmoud Abbas will not likely take control of Gaza. Members of Abbas’ Fatah party have also shown that they can’t get along with Israel in a framework that would work in Gaza. For example, Fatah official Jabril Rajoub excused the Hamas October 7 attack. Israel won’t accept officials running Gaza who support the attack that killed 1,200 people.

Israel doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza. Israeli authorities have also said they want to defeat Hamas in Gaza. This means two million Palestinians will soon need a capable government. Regional Arab states also refuse to stake out a role in post-war Gaza. The Kingdom of Jordan, which once governed the West Bank, has said that Arab militaries will not be deployed to Gaza any time soon.  

U.S. policy supports two states: a Palestinian state, which controls the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel. Joe Biden recently maintained, “we need to renew our resolve to pursue this two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can one day live side by side in a two-state solution with equal measure of freedom and dignity.” 

This presents a puzzle. Israel doesn’t want Hamas in Gaza. Israel also doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority running Gaza. The Arab states don’t want to run Gaza. The United States and the West want a Palestinian nation to rise from the conflict. How can these competing demands be met? It appears they contradict one another.

Furthermore, the supporters of Hamas, which include Iran, Turkey, and some other countries and groups, don’t seem to mind if Hamas comes to power in the West Bank. Hamas is exploiting the current conflict in Gaza to slowly release hostages and bring itself applause and influence in the West Bank. Israel, which won’t accept Hamas power in Gaza, won’t want Hamas to grow its tentacles into the West Bank. However, the Palestinian Authority’s capabilities are eroding as it loses control of cities. The current war in Gaza is not empowering it, and the PA could be destabilized. This comes at a time when Western countries no longer want to pursue nation-building policies.

The United States, for instance, has not been willing to invest in eastern Syria to ensure stability. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) helped defeat ISIS in 2019, but there does not appear to be an appetite in Washington or the West to increase support for them. This means the United States works with Central Command “by, with and through” groups like the SDF in Syria. However, there is no wider political goal. At the same time, Syria remains divided. Turkey, a member of NATO, occupies parts of northern Syria. The Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, controls central Syria. Syria, like the conflict in Gaza and the simmering conflict in the West Bank, does not have a straightforward outcome. 

The situation in Syria and Gaza is inflamed by Iranian-backed proxy groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and militias in Syria that carry out attacks on U.S. forces. However, like in Gaza, there is no clear other option for parts of Syria. Washington doesn’t want Turkey invading eastern Syria or displacing the Syrian regime. Turkey doesn’t want the Assad regime invading occupied northern Syria either. Therefore, the lesson for Gaza is that these kinds of divided situations do not have an easy endgame. Unless the United States and its partners solve the paradox of who controls Gaza, adversaries will continue to try to exploit the situation. Similarly, Israel will need to find a strategy for Gaza that goes beyond the tactical defeat of Hamas.  

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  

Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Palestinian Politics