October 24, 2023

IntelBrief: What Follows Hamas in Gaza?

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Israel plans to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip but plans for the long-term governance of the territory are yet undefined and fraught with significant challenges.
  • Israel seeks to avoid a renewed occupation of the Gaza Strip and to cede responsibility for its security and welfare to the Arab states.
  • Most experts agree that the optimal solution is for Palestinians to govern the Gaza Strip, but the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank remains unpopular, and there are several challenges to its legitimacy.
  • It is likely that Hamas, or its derivatives or offshoots, will form an insurgent campaign to regain power or disrupt whatever governing authority is set up in Gaza.

On October 20, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant outlined Israel’s plan for the removal of Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip and for the security and governance of the territory in the immediate aftermath. The third phase of Israel’s plan, according to Gallant - presumably to be enacted after Hamas is ousted from control - is to create a new “security regime” for Gaza. However, neither he nor any other Israeli officials have specified what entities or bodies might ultimately assume control of the area. All Israeli leaders have stated clearly that Israel does not intend to resume an occupation of the territory. Israel ceded control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority in 2005, opting to wall the territory off with tight border controls and other defensive security measures. However, the United Nations still considers the territory as Israel-occupied from an international legal point of view. Tel Aviv is responsible for providing utilities to Gaza's residents and controls the borders in and out of the area. Israeli leaders undoubtedly calculate that governing Gaza directly after uprooting Hamas would subject Israel to unending insurgency and unrest, taking Israeli forces and resources away from the other fronts, including the northern border with Lebanon. There, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) face off with the well-armed Iranian ally, Lebanese Hezbollah. Since the crisis began, Israeli leaders have reportedly stated that the Gaza Strip should ultimately become the “responsibility” of the Arab states, without specifying precisely what a longer-term role of the Arab world in Gaza would look like in practice. Presumably, if an Israeli-Palestinian political solution were reached in which a Palestinian state is formed, the Gaza Strip would become a part of that new state.

Most observers agree that, as an end stage, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which still runs the civil administration of the West Bank, is the most viable longer-term successor to Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza. It is difficult to envision any other option that would garner acceptance from the Palestinian population writ large or from Arab states. During his October 18 trip to the region, U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly planned to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman to discuss an eventual PA assumption of authority in Gaza, but the meeting was canceled after a deadly explosion destroyed part of a Gaza hospital. The PA was in charge in Gaza until 2007, when Hamas, after triumphing in the 2006 legislative elections there, forcibly expelled PA security forces and administrators from the territory. However, the PA has not successfully addressed the problems that led PA members to fare poorly in the 2006 elections – a perception of corrupt rule and failure to produce Israeli concessions in negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Moreover, it is not clear that a restoration of PA authority in Gaza produced by the Israeli military’s forcible expulsion of Hamas that, in the process, killed thousands of Palestinian citizens, would be viewed as legitimate by the population in Gaza. And it is unlikely to envision, at any time in the foreseeable future, elections in Gaza that might help determine the leadership preferences of the Gazan population. The moves by several Arab states to normalize relations with Israel without extracting significant Israeli concessions for the Palestinians have served to undermine the PA further. In recent years, Hamas has gained influence in the West Bank, whereas the PA has not appeared to gain adherents in Gaza.

The PA’s crisis of political legitimacy has prompted some experts and international diplomats to suggest that, for an interim period at least, the United Nations might assume a limited and circumscribed mandate for governing Gaza. A precedent exists for UN-backed interim governance, for example, in Kosovo. In Libya, the United Nations supports a governing body based in Tripoli – one of two rival administrations contending for power over the country. It is possible to envision that a group of Arab and outside powers and institutions, including the United States, the European Union (EU), or a smaller grouping of European powers, in concert with the United Nations, could jointly develop a plan to transfer control of Gaza to a UN-backed body and, ultimately, the Palestinian Authority. Whether a joint force could be assembled to secure Gaza during the transition and which countries, if any, would be willing to contribute troops and/or security forces is likely to be the subject of considerable discussion among major stakeholders.

International discussions of a post-Hamas governing authority in Gaza cannot be divorced from the circumstances under which Hamas might be displaced. Removing Hamas’ military and administrative infrastructure from Gaza does not eliminate the ideological fervor for Hamas that has taken root there and which has a level of support among not only Palestinians in Gaza but also in the West Bank and throughout the broader Arab world. An Israeli defeat of Hamas in Gaza will not necessarily remove all Hamas fighters or activists from the territory, and some will remain active underground. It is likely that Hamas fighters who remain in the territory, coupled with supporters among the Gaza population, will conduct a long-term insurgency against any successor governing authority there. Any force or authority, possibly including a restored PA administration in Gaza, faces the prospect of an unending battle with Hamas for control of Gaza and for the future of the Palestinian people more generally. It is likely that, if elections are held in Gaza at some point, Hamas members, or independents loyal to Hamas, might compete and win seats in any governing or legislative body there. Based on its charter and its history, Hamas and other hardliners are sure to oppose any concessions to Israel that a restored PA authority might support in future final status negotiations with Israel.

Yet, if Hamas is defeated by Israel, some enduring benefits might accrue to the Gazan and broader Palestinian population, to Israel, and to the region. An ousted Hamas, even if it remains active as an insurgent group, will likely have difficulty receiving weapons from Iran or other willing suppliers. Its rocket and other arms manufacturing capabilities will be under pressure of discovery and dismantlement by a successor governing authority, although, as previous long-running conflicts have demonstrated, putting a terrorist or insurgent group’s arms beyond use is a massive challenge. Divisions within Hamas are likely to widen if it is ousted as the governing authority in Gaza – some Hamas leaders who have been amenable to possible negotiations on a final status agreement with Israel might be strengthened. Accordingly, Hamas’ militant hardliners who have repeatedly refused to consider recognizing Israel could be marginalized. Still, a forcible removal of Hamas from power by Israel puts Gaza and its population into uncharted territory. A post-Hamas situation in Gaza is likely to consume significant attention from U.S., European, UN, Arab, and other global diplomats for years, perhaps decades to come.