May 13, 2024

IntelBrief: Post-War Plans for Gaza Start to Converge

AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Various plans under discussion between U.S. and regional officials for the governance and security of post-war Gaza contain similar themes and principles.
  • Major Arab states appear willing to contribute personnel to an interim post-war security force and governing body if a clear pathway to an independent Palestinian state is established.
  • A key hurdle to developing a plan for post-war Gaza is Israel’s insistence on continued military access to the enclave and its resistance to a role for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA).
  • Other key questions include whether a post-war Gaza authority would be authorized by the United Nations and whether U.S. troops would participate.

Israel’s ongoing offensive against Hamas in Gaza has thus far defied U.S. and regional diplomatic efforts to wind down the conflict through a ceasefire accompanied by Hamas’ release of remaining Israeli hostages. As part of their efforts to de-escalate the war, U.S. officials confirmed in early May they are in active discussions with major Arab partners to outline a plan to govern and secure Gaza after Israel’s combat operations there end. U.S. and Arab leaders intend that their proposals could be applied whether Israel proceeds to attack the remaining Hamas stronghold in the south Gaza city of Rafah. Reports indicate discussions of postwar governance and security in Gaza are gathering momentum as initial Arab opposition to participating in an international or regional postwar security force in Gaza has apparently softened.

Diplomats from U.S. partner countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and several Gulf states indicate that early reticence about being accused of riding into Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks and getting sucked into an insurgency has waned in favor of demonstrating a commitment to the peace process and assisting suffering Palestinians in Gaza. According to a variety of accounts, several Arab nations - all security and political partners of the United States - have begun to adopt or respond favorably to proposals for a multinational peacekeeping force for Gaza, and possibly the West Bank as well.

Senior Arab officials raised the issue of postwar governance in Gaza with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his meetings in Cairo in March, as well as his subsequent visit to the region in late April, as Arab leaders seek to form a broad “vision” to address the Mideast crisis. At a conference in Riyadh in early May, Arab foreign ministers largely offered ambiguous replies to questions about participating in a postwar Gaza peacekeeping mission, generally laying out conditions that, if met by Israel, the United States, and other parties, might permit them to move forward on the idea.

As postwar planning evolves, key questions emerge, including which Arab states might be willing to contribute to a Gaza security force, and the terms under which that force might serve. At a Washington seminar on May 8, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for the Middle East Daniel Shapiro confirmed U.S officials are “in discussions with Arab partners” on an interim security mission in Gaza, which he indicated would “bridge the gap” until the PA is ready to assume authority there. He also indicated the Arab states most likely to contribute to a security force were those that have normalized relations with Israel, including Egypt, Jordan, and the “Abraham Accords” states including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco.

Saudi participation in postwar Gaza apparently will hinge on a broader agreement U.S. officials are attempting to engineer in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel and the United States would extend the Kingdom additional security guarantees. However, that pact also hinges on the same conditions the Kingdom and other Arab leaders have attached to participating in a postwar Gaza security force – that a clear pathway to an independent Palestinian state is established. For several months, Arab leaders have insisted the West and Israel take “irreversible” steps towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a U.S. and broader Western recognition of a Palestinian state and support for its full United Nations membership as part of the postwar planning process – not an outcome.

The movement of Arab leaders toward accepting a security commitment to Gaza appears to reflect their agreement with U.S. officials that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needs to be presented with an alternative to keeping Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip indefinitely. DASD Shapiro noted in this May 8 discussion session that U.S. officials have told their Israeli counterparts that Israel cannot leave behind in Gaza a “Mogadishu-style” chaotic situation. Israel agrees with U.S. and Arab leaders that Israel should not re-occupy Gaza. Still, Netanyahu insists that Israel should retain indefinitely the right to conduct raids or other incursions into Gaza in response to identified security threats – a demand that Arab leaders oppose.

One regional diplomat said Arab consideration of participating in a postwar peacekeeping operation is predicated on satisfying Israeli security concerns, stating: “We know that Israel has security concerns about [a Palestinian state], so this is saying that ‘we are ready to help.” On the other hand, many experts and regional officials assess that the Arab states will require that U.S. troops participate in any multilateral Gaza security force. This demand might be difficult for U.S. leaders to meet. In his May 8 appearance, DASD Shapiro stated, “U.S. policy is for no ‘boots on the ground’ in Gaza,” but added that other forms of U.S. support for the multilateral force would be considered.

Yet, several other questions, particularly about Israeli policy, will cloud any effort to forge an early agreement on security and governance in Gaza. All of the postwar proposals exchanged between U.S. and Arab officials envision the PA assuming security and governance responsibility for Gaza after an interim period of unspecified length. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing governing coalition have ruled out a return of the PA to rule in Gaza. The Israeli coalition purportedly sees a return of the PA to Gaza as paving the way for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The Israeli position on the PA is not only a main stumbling block to developing a postwar plan for Gaza but is also fueling a widening policy rift with the United States, Israel’s main backer. DASD Shapiro and other U.S. officials have said they see no viable alternative to re-establishing the PA as the governing authority in Gaza, although they recognize the PA is not ready to assume authority there. U.S. and global officials have acknowledged the PA is rife with official corruption and, in part because it has not held elections for its leadership post of president since 2005, lacks legitimacy. In addition, even though Hamas’ military capability in Gaza has been diminished, its commitment to armed struggle against Israel remains popular not only in Gaza but also among West Bank Palestinians, and there has been little movement in talks to unify Hamas with the PA’s core Fatah faction. Following years of effort by Arab states, including Egypt and Qatar, China brokered talks between Fatah and Hamas officials in late April, but the discussions made little progress.

Another unresolved issue is the terms of the mandate under which an interim security and governing authority for Gaza might operate. Some Arab diplomats have told journalists that any Gaza peacekeeping force would have to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, and be deployed for a defined interim period that would give the PA time to develop their own “capable” security forces. DASD Shapiro, in his Washington appearance on May 8, raised a potential alternative, in which a multilateral force might deploy in Gaza based on a request by Israel, as the UN-recognized occupying authority for Gaza, or by request of another party. According to DASD Shapiro, any U.N. or other mandate would have to address the size and mission of an interim security force, as well as Israel’s demand to be able to continue to operate against threats in Gaza. However, Israeli criticism of the stances of many U.N. bodies on Israeli policy, including on its offensive in Gaza, might complicate U.S. or other efforts to engineer a formal U.N. mandate for postwar governance and security in Gaza. Still, the many public official statements of parameters, requirements, and objections to participating in a Gaza peacekeeping mission are overshadowed by the clear evidence of major stakeholders’ convergence toward a postwar roadmap for Gaza.