JERUSALEM (AP) — When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked who would govern the Gaza Strip following Israel’s devastating war against Hamas, he said a return of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority made “the most sense.”
What he failed to mention is that the Palestinian Authority, weak and deeply unpopular with its own people, has already said it has no interest in assuming power if it is helped by Israel.
Blinken’s comments Tuesday reflected what some analysts see as the questionable assumptions and short-term thinking that have guided American and Israeli policymakers since Israel declared war in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 cross-border attack in which its militants killed more than 1,400 people and took roughly 240 others hostage.
With strong American backing, Israel has defined two clear goals: bringing home all of the hostages and destroying Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has governed Gaza since ousting the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Even if these hard-to-achieve goals are realized, neither Israel nor the U.S. appears to have given much thought to what would come next for Gaza. Officials have floated several ideas — each with seemingly slim odds of success — while acknowledging that no one has a plan for the territory once the war ends.
“Everybody is united that Hamas can’t be there,” Israeli Cabinet Minister Ron Dermer, a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters over the weekend. Beyond that, he said, “there’s a lot of ideas that are out there, but it’s premature to discuss it now.”
Speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing, Blinken said there could be no return to Hamas rule of Gaza. He also ruled out a permanent Israeli occupation of the territory, which Israel also says it doesn’t want.
“At some point, what would make the most sense is for an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza,” he said.
He said this might take some time and require support from other countries in the region. He then repeated President Joe Biden’s stated goal of reviving attempts to forge a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
For both Israelis and Palestinians, this seems out of the question.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has governed semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Hamas expelled his forces from Gaza, is already deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public.
Opinion polls show that his administration is widely seen as corrupt and, because of his security coordination with Israel, as a subcontractor who has helped entrench Israeli control in the West Bank. Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to restart a diplomatic process, further weakening Abbas.
During a meeting with Blinken in Jordan in mid-October, Abbas made it clear that he couldn’t take over a war-battered Gaza on the heels of Israel’s invasion, especially in the absence of a long-term diplomatic solution, according to two Palestinian officials with direct knowledge of the talks.
“I will not return on top of an Israeli tank,” they quoted Abbas as telling Blinken. He demanded control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — “in the context of establishing a Palestinian state.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a closed diplomatic meeting.
Tahani Mustafa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank, said the Palestinian Authority isn’t capable of governing Gaza, even if it wanted to do so.
She said the authority, established 30 years ago with the goal of leading the Palestinians to independence, has been reduced to a “service provider” — incapable of providing basic services or security to its people in the shadow of Israel’s overall control of the territory.
“It’s devoid of any political substance,” she said. This lack of a political horizon is “what’s pushing Palestinians to armed resistance: the feeling that there’s no hope beyond this nihilistic, suicidal form of resistance,” she said.
Even before the war, Netanyahu opposed Palestinian independence. It is hard to imagine that any Israeli government would be willing to cede land to the Palestinians in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks out of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005.
Israeli officials have floated their own proposals for the future of Gaza in recent weeks, none of which include Palestinian independence.
Among them are calls for the creation of a “buffer zone” in northern Gaza meant to keep Palestinians far from the Israeli border. This scenario would do little to address the territory’s long-term status.
A paper released by Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, which conducts research for the government, looked at a number of long-term scenarios, none of which included Palestinian statehood.
Instead, it described a return of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to Gaza as the worst option — saying it would give an “unprecedented victory to the Palestinian national movement, a victory that would cost the lives of thousands of Israeli civilians and soldiers and not guarantee Israel’s security.”
Likewise, it said the possibility of cultivating an alternative leadership in Gaza suffered from major shortcomings — including a lack of deterrence and the risk of renewed violence.
Its preferred option was a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza into neighboring Egypt — a scenario that the Palestinians and Egypt have ruled out and that could destroy Israel’s fragile relations with Egypt.
The ministry has no decision-making authority, and Netanyahu’s office played down the document as a “concept paper” and said that no decisions had been made.
Such thinking reflects what many see as a deep misunderstanding of the Palestinians and their history with Israel.
Israel and the U.S., for instance, have repeatedly compared Hamas to the Islamic State group. While the brutal slayings on Oct. 7, which included beheadings and burning people alive, were reminiscent of IS tactics, the groups’ ideologies are different.
IS was heavily made up of foreign fighters enlisted to join what they believed was a global jihad against the West. In contrast, Hamas has limited its focus to battling Israel, albeit through a violent ideology that calls for the destruction of Israel.
“The U.S. has never understood Palestinians,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former peace negotiator.
She said successive American administrations haven’t thought through Gaza’s future. She called for a long-term vision that would offer the Palestinians freedom and create a true political and economic connection between the West Bank and Gaza — which are on opposite sides of Israel.
“I don’t think they fully understood that no matter what is done to Hamas, there’s going to be yet another version of resistance that springs up,” she said. “People want to be free and they’re going to resist in order to become free.”
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