February 28, 2024

IntelBrief: Major Stakeholders Are Deeply Divided on Post-war Gaza

AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Weekend talks in Paris outlined revised terms for a temporary Gaza ceasefire and hostage release but did not clarify how the enclave would be administered long-term.
  • Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week released a plan for post-war Gaza that is deeply at odds with principles articulated by the United States, its allies, and the Arab states.
  • Despite Israeli opposition, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) appears to be gearing up to resume its role in governing the Gaza Strip.
  • Major Persian Gulf and other Arab states refuse any role in post-war Gaza unless Israel accepts PA rule in the enclave after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdraw.

The United States, its European allies, and the Arab states are working to wind down the Israel-Hamas war, beginning with a long but still temporary ceasefire, accompanied by Hamas’ return of all hostages and an Israeli release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners. Talks last weekend in Paris among the United States, Egypt, and Qatar, joined by Israel’s chiefs of intelligence, revived stalled ceasefire talks and reportedly reached agreement on a truce framework. As of yesterday, there were still mixed signals, with President Biden saying that a ceasefire could be reached by next Monday, and Hamas saying that it had yet to see "any new proposals" that would move the talks forward. Israel’s government has repeatedly balked at any formula that would enable Hamas to remain an organized political and military entity in the Gaza Strip. However, it is not clear whether a deal is imminent. The Paris talks took on urgency earlier this month as Israel threatened to extend its offensive into the city of Rafah, on the Egypt - Gaza border, if Hamas did not release all Israeli and foreign hostages before the Muslim holy period of Ramadan– expected to begin March 10. An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians have sought shelter in Rafah to avoid fighting in areas to its north, and they now live under increasingly dire humanitarian conditions. The United States has pointedly opposed an Israeli offensive in Rafah unless Israel developed a cohesive plan to relocate Palestinian civilians and avoid interfering with the flow of humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip. Yet most observers acknowledge that there is nowhere for civilians to go, with many warning that an Israeli offensive into Rafah will be a humanitarian nightmare, resulting in massive civilian deaths and suffering.

If negotiations on a ceasefire have been challenging, obtaining agreement on post-war security and governance arrangements in Gaza will be exponentially more difficult. On February 23, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented his first formal "day after" plan for the Gaza Strip, and his roadmap diverges greatly from that envisioned by the United States, its European allies, the major Arab states, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA). His plan insists Israel keep security control over all land west of Jordan, including the West Bank and Gaza, and conditions reconstruction of the Gaza Strip on the enclave’s total demilitarization. The plan appears intended to prevent any chance for an independent Palestinian state to be established, although it does not explicitly rule out a “two-state solution” at some future stage. Since the October 7 Mideast crisis erupted, U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that a two-state solution has been a bedrock U.S. Middle East policy position for decades and that outcome is a requirement for preventing repeated Israeli-Palestinian warfare.

More immediately, the Netanyahu plan proposes replacing Hamas’ administrative control of Gaza with local representatives "who are not affiliated with terrorist countries or groups and are not financially supported by them," setting demilitarization and “deradicalization” as goals to be achieved in the medium term. The proposal for the administration of Gaza directly contradicts calls by U.S., European, and Arab leaders for a “reformed” or “revitalized” PA to resume the control over Gaza that it had before Hamas forcibly expelled members of Fatah, the faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that dominates the PA, from Gaza in 2007. U.S. officials say they want to see the PA govern both Gaza and the West Bank as a step toward Palestinian statehood. Several major Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), say they will not play any role in helping secure postwar Gaza or donate funds to rebuild the Gaza Strip unless Palestinians run the territory, and in particular, the PA. Saudi Arabia has also made clear to U.S. officials that it will not normalize relations with Israel - a step that was under serious consideration before October 7 – unless the formation of a Palestinian state is clearly in sight. For its part, the PA swiftly denounced Netanyahu’s plan as “colonialist and racist,” saying it would amount to Israeli reoccupation of Gaza. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintained control of access to the territory.

Despite Israeli opposition, the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, appears to be preparing to govern the territory after IDF operations wind down. On February 14, Abbas, for the first time since the crisis began, publicly urged Hamas on a course of action, calling on the group to quickly agree to a ceasefire and hostage release deal to head off an IDF offensive on Rafah. He stated: “We call on the Hamas movement to quickly complete a prisoner deal, to spare our Palestinian people from the calamity of another catastrophic event with dire consequences, no less dangerous than the Nakba of 1948 (a reference to Palestinian displacement upon the establishment of Israel).”  Seeking to advance U.S. policy to return the PA to authority in Gaza, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised Abbas’ comments, saying that not enough members of the international community have been directing their calls at Hamas and were exclusively placing the burden on Israel. In addition to articulating his positions, Abbas has sought to obtain backing from Arab leaders. On February 11, Abbas visited Doha, meeting with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on a potential ceasefire in Gaza and a possible reconciliation between Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas. However, previous efforts by Qatar, Egypt, and other Arab powers to pressure Hamas to end its armed campaign against Israel and reunify the Palestinian national movement have proved unsuccessful. It is also not clear that Israel would allow any role for even moderate Hamas leaders in a restructured PA or a post-Hamas government in Gaza, which carries with it its associated risks, including Hamas as a political spoiler.

As it prepares to return to its pre-2007 role in Gaza, the PA is struggling financially, potentially hindering its ability to expand its operations to Gaza if called on to do so. U.S. reduction in aid, coupled with the suspension of Israeli tax revenues remittance to the PA after the October 7 Hamas attack, have put the PA "on the verge of financial collapse," according to a senior Palestinian official. Without increased revenue, the PA would be unable to maintain its current duties in the West Bank, let alone take on a larger role in Gaza. One revenue stream was resolved in late January when the Israeli government approved a plan by hardline Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to remit tax revenues due to the PA, some of which would come from an escrow account held by Norway. Despite U.S. pressure, Smotrich had withheld the funds for months on the grounds that the PA pays families of Palestinians who have killed Israelis “reward money.” However, direct U.S. funding for the PA remains blocked by a 2018 U.S. law (“Taylor Force Act”) that prohibits direct aid to the PA until it stops payments to families of Palestinians who have committed violence against Israelis. According to a press report, U.S. officials are urging allies to give more funding to the PA to compensate for the closed U.S. funding stream. If an agreement is reached under which the PA returns to Gaza as the governing authority, it is likely that wealthy Gulf donors such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and others will provide new revenue sources to the PA, in addition to furnishing funds to rebuild the devastated enclave. Even though PA funding remains precarious, the key obstacle to expanded PA authority is not necessarily funding but instead the Israeli government’s opposition to its political role in Gaza. Neither the United States, European powers, nor major Arab stakeholders has yet identified a formula to overcome the firm opposition of the Netanyahu government to a post-war role for the PA in the Gaza Strip. Yet, political changes in Israel are possible, if not likely, once IDF operations in Gaza end, potentially paving the way for an alteration in Israel’s position on PA rule in Gaza.