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What Comes Next in Gaza? Here Are Some Options — and the Best Solution

An Israeli military convoy moves inside the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen from Israel, June 17, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Discussions about the future of Gaza are being conducted in isolation, without comparative discourse, and the political dimension is causing opinions to harden rather than remain open and flexible.

Thus, for example, the head of the INSS Institute wrote on May 29 that, “An alternative civil address in Gaza [is] the need of the hour” and opened with the words, “There is no time,” while Gabi Siboni from the Mishgav Institute said on May 24 that, “We need to enter the Strip and take control of all humanitarian aid in Gaza.” And so on.

There are several alternatives for the future of Gaza, and in this article I will present five of them. A choice will be made through a comparative discussion of their costs and benefits. Constructive strategic planning creates maximum flexibility for decision makers, and optimal conduct would be to implement close alternatives that all serve Israel’s strategic goals.

Before presenting the options, we must define the Israeli goals and interests according to which they will be examined. I propose that Israel’s goals and interests should be prioritized thus:

  1. Destroying Hamas’s military capability: This is the key strategic need. Israel’s long-term position in the region depends on its delivering the clear message that anyone who carries out a criminal attack like that of October 7 will, at the very least, lose their military capabilities and their ability to harm Israel for a very long time.
  2. Abolition of Hamas control in Gaza: Following on from the first consideration, Israel must strive to ensure that any party — especially a terrorist organization — that carries out murderous attacks against Israel will lose its rule and its leaders will lose their lives. Between the statement that it is impossible to eliminate an idea, especially a radical one, and the statement that the existence of Hamas in any form, including a civilian one, should be protested, there are many shades of possibility, a significant one of which should be the abolition of Hamas control.
  3. Relations with the United States: Every alternative should take into account the strategic need to maintain good relations with the United States over time. This is a complex consideration against the background of American domestic politics. There can be disagreements, even difficult ones, with the American administration, but Israeli insistence on its positions should be part of a healthy relationship between the countries despite occasional extreme asymmetry. An Israel that pleases the Americans time and time again will lose its position in the United States. With that said, however, it is important to respect American global interests and help to promote them.
  4. The return of the abductees: This is an important issue, but as it is not an existential necessity, it does not meet the same level of importance as the previous considerations. The return of the abductees is a matter of moral and value considerations but not strategic ones. The reality is that there is no scope for a comprehensive deal with Hamas because Sinwar’s personal fate depends on his holding the hostages. He will continue to hold them as long as possible until he has another survival option. Efforts to return the abductees through operational means or through local deals should be continued in every way.
  5. The issue of the northern front and dealings with Iran: This consideration is also complex. Hezbollah has said it will not stop firing on the north and will not allow the return of the displaced residents without the cessation of fighting in Gaza. But for Israel, the cessation of fighting in Gaza without the achievement of its objectives against Hamas would represent serious damage to its deterrence against it and against Iran. This is an impasse that can be resolved with either a wider-scale war, which would severely damage Hezbollah’s capabilities; or an informal arrangement that Hassan Nasrallah can present as an achievement or as a “non-cessation” of the fighting while the war in Gaza continues. Because of this impasse, this consideration has been relegated to a relatively low place, though in principle it is more fundamental.
  6. Approaching the moderate regional countries, with an emphasis on Saudi Arabia: The war in Gaza, the escalation with Iran, and the incessant Houthi attacks, only strengthen the region’s understanding of the need to join forces with Israel. While the delay in implementation stems from public opinion and American interests, it seems that it will eventually continue, and Israel’s continued military achievements against Hamas strengthen the likelihood that it will come to fruition. This consideration, therefore, has less influence on the choice between the alternatives.
  7. The issue of Israel’s legitimacy: In this area there is a gap. While in the short and medium term Israel’s legitimacy is under pressure from international institutions, in the long term, the gap — if not the abyss — between the false and politicized accusations against Israel and the actual situation on the ground will be revealed. Although the war is creating negative images, it is one of the “cleanest” wars in history in terms of the proportion of combatants to civilians killed and the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza. Therefore, despite the need to continue to fight resolutely and place the blame for the consequences on Hamas, in choosing alternatives, this is a less influential concern.

There are second-order considerations. These include resources (the economic cost of each option); legal (Israel’s obligations towards Gaza within the framework of international law and how they are realized); and social (the impact on each option on national resilience, though in my view this is included in each consideration). It would be better for these considerations to affect the means of carrying out the preferred option and less the actual choice.

Now that the seven main considerations have been defined, the five alternatives can be defined and examined:

  1. The Hamas alternative: In this option, the fighting in Gaza stops and the IDF withdraws from it in exchange for the release of the abductees and the cessation of fighting in the north. A militarily weakened Hamas returns to control the Strip. This option is being promoted by some of the families of abductees and several opposition elements to the government, and the American administration may also support it for internal political reasons. In examining this choice against the balance of considerations, it is clear that while it might achieve the release of the abductees and the cessation of fighting in the north and might be perceived as a good move in terms of relations with the United States, it would substantially harm Israel’s core strategic need to destroy Hamas’s military capacity and abolish its control in Gaza. The notion that this option would lead to a comprehensive solution to the issue of the abductees and the Hezbollah challenge is questionable. It is more likely that the fighting would resume under less favorable conditions for Israel.
  2. The revitalized Palestinian Authority alternative: In parallel with continued military damage to the military capabilities of Hamas and its government, a governmental and security alternative would be built that would include a revitalized Palestinian Authority with the integration of local elements and the backing and involvement of a coalition of Arab and Western countries. This “nation-building” alternative is being promoted by the United States and European countries in apparent collaboration with Arab countries, as well as by elements in Israel who give too much weight to the official American position. This option promotes American and possibly regional considerations (it is too early to say whether the Arab position is real or the artificial product of American pressure), but there is a big question mark over how much it would be able to provide a real answer to the core considerations of harming Hamas and preventing its re-establishment. It also provides no broad response to the issues of the abductees and the challenge in the north.
  3. The military-civilian alternative: In this option, Israel continues to hit the Hamas organization, both in its military capabilities and in its governance, until it is sufficiently weakened to allow local Palestinian elements to replace it on the ground, with considerable regional and international backing. This alternative is being promoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and is reflected in key components of the cabinet’s decisions. This option provides a good answer to the core considerations of harming Hamas, and might even be tacitly accepted by the Americans and Arab and international actors. It does not, however, provide a solution to the problems of freeing the abductees and the fighting in the north.
  4. The “chaos” alternative: Here, Israel continues to strike at the Hamas organization, both in its military capabilities and in its governance, and at the same time allows local, regional, and international parties to create governmental alternatives on the ground that may mature into a comprehensive governmental alternative. This option was given expression in the opinion that called (at least at the beginning of the war) for the “Somalization” of Gaza, meaning a kind of supervised, partially independent nation-building. This alternative would allow Israel to define what would not happen, and others to decide what is possible. It provides a good answer to Israel’s core considerations in terms of Hamas, but would be difficult for the Americans and the regional and international actors to digest. It also does not solve the problems of the abductees and the north.
  5. The sovereignty alternative: Israel imposes a total military government on Gaza, applies its full military and security control over the Strip, and perhaps occupies and even annexes parts of it. This option is being promoted by the right wing of the government. While it provides a good answer to the core considerations in terms of Hamas and might even bring gains on the issue of the abductees, it would make relations with the United States as well as other considerations very difficult.

The alternatives for the future of Gaza clearly entail a complex discussion. It is likely possible to move between alternatives and merge them according to developments. As of today, the option that best balances Israel’s considerations is the military-civilian one. The most problematic are the Hamas option and the sovereignty option. It is appropriate and correct to continue a complex comparative discussion on Israel’s considerations and the alternatives to achieve them and to avoid perceptual and political attachment to any one of them. 

Col. (res.) Shay Shabtai is a senior researcher at the BESA Center and an expert in national security, strategic planning, and strategic communication. He is a cyber security strategist and a consultant to leading companies in Israel. A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.

The post What Comes Next in Gaza? Here Are Some Options — and the Best Solution first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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