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The Israeli view on the 'day after' in Gaza

While it is difficult at this point to see a clear end to the war in Gaza, it is clear that it must be brought to an end.

Published in: Al-Majalla, 3 January 2024

Between 2008 and October 2023, a pattern was established in the relationship between Israel and its enemies in Gaza, headed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

In 2005, under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and dismantled the Israeli settlements. In 2006, elections were held under the pressure of the Bush Administration in the Palestinian Authority, which ended in a Hamas victory.

In 2007, Hamas violently took control over the Gaza Strip and expelled the Palestinian Authority. In 2008, in response to rocket launches from the Gaza Strip into southwestern Israel, Israel launched its first retaliatory military action against Hamas, dubbed Cast Lead.

This was followed by a quiet period interrupted yet again by rocket launches from the Gaza Strip, to which Israel retaliated in 2012 with another military campaign under the title Pillar of Defense.

And so, a cycle of violence was established as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad — supported mainly by Iran — built their military capabilities and increased the range of their rockets, and Israel expanded its military responses.

Full-scale war not favoured

In Israel, a debate took place on whether the extent of Israel’s response was adequate or whether a full-scale military campaign against Hamas should be launched. By that time, Benjamin Netanyahu had returned to power in Israel, and his tendency, supported by most of the military, was to refrain from a full-scale war against Hamas.

This policy rested on three foundations. The realisation that a full-scale war would exact a high price of Israeli casualties as well as Palestinian casualties and large-scale destruction in Gaza, and the understanding that by toppling the Hamas government, Israel would remain in control of the Gaza Strip and another two million Palestinians.

Israel's tendency has been against launching a full-scale war against Hamas because of the realisation that it would exact a high price of Israeli casualties. But this thinking was broken by Hamas's terrorist attack of 7 October.

This pattern was broken by Hamas's massive and atrocious terrorist attack of 7 October 2023, which caused the loss of more than a thousand Israeli military and civilian lives, the abduction of more than 240 Israelis into Gaza, and massive destruction along the Israel-Gaza border.

This called for the launching of a full-scale war by Israel. The Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, publicly set ambitious war aims: The destruction of Hamas as a military and a governing force and the release of the hostages.

Israel began the war with massive shelling and bombing in preparation for the land manoeuvre that was designed to achieve the war aims.

New fronts open up

The scene was shortly thereafter complicated by several of Iran's proxies joining the war, with Hezbollah launching a war of attrition along the Israeli-Lebanese border, the Houthis in Yemen trying to impose a naval blockade on shipping to the Israeli port in Eilat and launching ballistic missiles at Israel's direction, and other pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria joining the fray in a limited way.

Now, three months later, Israel has practically achieved control of the north and Gaza City and is now focusing its military efforts on the southern part of the Strip.

The Israeli assault has inflicted heavy losses on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, significantly damaging their military infrastructure above and below ground. Gaza's civilian infrastructure has also been devastated, and more than a million residents in the north have been displaced to the south.

On its part, Israel has sustained more than 100 military casualties in the ground invasion and a large number of wounded soldiers. On top of that, more than 120,000 Israeli residents living in the border areas with Gaza and Lebanon have also been displaced.

Israel has come under massive international criticism for its war on Gaza, which has sparked an unprecedented wave of antisemitism around the world.

Israel has sustained more than 100 military casualties and a large number of wounded soldiers. On top of that, more than 120,000 Israeli residents living in the border areas with Gaza and Lebanon have also been displaced.

Critical juncture

At this point, Israel, the region and the international community are faced with two important questions: How to bring the war to an end, and how to deal with the Gaza Strip in the aftermath.

There are no easy answers to either question.

Concerning ending the war, both major belligerents —  namely Israel and Hamas' military leadership — display no intention of ending the war anytime soon.

Hamas' military leader, Yahya Sinwar — probably underground in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, seems to be banking on Israeli fatigue, Israeli domestic strife or international pressure.

For obvious reasons, Netanyahu and the military leadership need a sufficient achievement that would enable them to declare some sort of victory in their war aims.

The original ambitious war aims have been, in fact, modified. The Israeli leadership understands that the complete destruction of Hamas as a military and governing force in Gaza will take a long time and will continue to exact a high cost. It now understands that there may be a discrepancy between their military and diplomatic clock.

Israel is now completing the second phase of the war after destroying Hamas in the northern and central parts of the Gaza Strip and is now focusing on the southern part.

But at some point, possibly by the end of January, a third phase would begin in which the massive land operation will come to an end. The IDF will then encircle the southern part of Gaza and launch raids to complete the mission.

A third phase, possibly by the end of January, would begin in which the massive land operation will come to an end. 

The 'day after'

This raises the question of the 'day after', which has been the subject of extensive discussion among policymakers and analysts in the region and internationally.

There seems to be a tendency, expressed most prominently by Vice President Kamala Harris, that at the war's end, an international force provided by the international community, as well as some Arab countries, will take charge of the Gaza Strip; that a local administration should gradually be built, and at some point, a reformed Palestinian Authority would be handed the responsibility over the Gaza Strip.

According to the same outlook, Israel would be expected to restart negotiations with the reformed Palestinian Authority on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the prospect of the two-state solution put back on the table. This element would be a prerequisite for such Arab states as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to reconstruct the Gaza Strip and consolidate the new administration.

Israeli political dynamics

So far, the Netanyahu government refuses to discuss the 'day after' for the abovementioned components. Here, it is important to understand the current structure and dynamics of Israeli politics.

After winning the November 2022 elections, Netanyahu formed the most right-wing coalition in Israel's history. The two most radical right-wing coalition partners are the Religious Zionism list, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, and Jewish Power, headed by Itamar Ben Gevir.

Both these men and their parties and movements, representing the messianic fringe in Israeli politics, are entirely opposed to the two-state solution and envisage, in some way or another, ongoing Israeli control over the whole of "the Land of Israel".

They are opposed to any mention of the Palestinian Authority being brought back to Gaza, let alone a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the ultimate aim of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu is determined to stay in power by keeping his coalition of 64 together. The shock of 7 October led Netanyahu to agree to establish a war cabinet joined by Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot, and Gideon Sa'ar. Their participation is temporary.

Consequently, there are three fora managing the war on Israel's behalf: The war cabinet (in which power is shared with the representatives of the opposition), the political-security cabinet representing the original Netanyahu cabinet and coalition, and the plenary of the cabinet.

During the last week of December, Gantz and company demanded to discuss the day after in the war cabinet. Netanyahu decided to avoid such discussion under pressure from Smotrich and Ben-Gevir, who are not represented in that forum.

He announced that there would be no discussion on the 'day after', but then under repeated pressure — apparently also by the US — he agreed to have such a discussion in the war cabinet, to be continued in the larger security-political cabinet.

At different points in time, Netanyahu has made statements about Gaza's future that are not in line with most scenarios of the 'day after' that are being discussed internationally.

Netanyahu has made statements about Gaza's future that are not in line with most scenarios of the 'day after' that are being discussed internationally.

Hamas popularity a real obstacle

On top of the domestic constraints in Israel, there are real obstacles standing in the way of ending the war and planning a durable 'day after'. Thus, if Hamas' military capabilities are not fully destroyed and if it retains a presence in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, it is likely to disrupt the functioning of any alternative authority.

Also, Hamas is clearly trying to translate the popularity it acquired after 7 October into political dividends, such as joining the PLO and possibly taking it over. Needless to say, it would be unthinkable for Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian entity of which Hamas is part, but it is also too difficult to envisage a situation whereby Hamas is completely out of the picture.

To sum up, it is difficult at this point to see a clear end to the war in Gaza and it would be an enormous challenge for all concerned to come up with an effective plan for the 'day after'.

And yet, such obstacles must be overcome, and the crisis must be brought to an end. And when that happens, the construction of a new regional architecture is imperative.

For the Arabic version of this article, click here.

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