Israel says it will maintain ‘overall security responsibility’ for Gaza. What might that look like?
JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t elaborate when he said this week that Israel would maintain indefinite “overall security responsibility” in Gaza once it removes Hamas from power in response to a deadly Oct. 7 cross-border raid by the Islamic militant group.
Experience suggests that any Israeli security role will be seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as a form of military occupation. This could complicate any plans to hand governing responsibility to the Palestinian Authority or friendly Arab states, and risk bogging Israel down in a war of attrition.
Even if Israel succeeds in ending Hamas’ 16-year rule in Gaza and dismantling much of its militant infrastructure, the presence of Israeli forces is likely to fuel an insurgency, as it did from 1967 to 2005. That period saw two Palestinian uprisings and the rise of Hamas.
Benny Gantz, of Israel’s three-member War Cabinet, acknowledged Wednesday that there’s still no long-term plan for Gaza. He said any plan would have to address Israel’s security needs.
“We can come up with any mechanism we think is appropriate, but Hamas will not be part of it,” he told reporters. “We need to replace the Hamas regime and ensure security superiority for us.”
Here’s a look at what a lingering Israeli security role might look like and the opposition it would inevitably generate.
In the 1967 Mideast war, Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians want for a future state. Israel annexed east Jerusalem, home to the Old City and its sensitive religious sites — a move not recognized by the international community — and considers the entire city its capital.
The military directly governed the West Bank and Gaza for decades, denying basic rights to millions of Palestinians. Soldiers staffed checkpoints and carried out regular arrest raids targeting militants and other Palestinians opposed to Israeli rule.
Israel also built Jewish settlements in all three areas. Palestinians and most of the international community consider these settlements illegal.
After two decades of outright military rule, Palestinians rose up in the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s. That was also when Hamas first emerged as a political movement with an armed wing, challenging the secular Palestine Liberation Organization’s leadership of the national struggle.
THE WEST BANK MODEL
Interim peace deals in the mid-1990s known as the Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority as an autonomy government in the West Bank and Gaza meant to lead the way toward an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Several peace initiatives by a string of American presidents failed. The Palestinian Authority lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007.
That has left the Palestinian Authority in charge of roughly 40 percent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Its powers are largely administrative, though it maintains a police force. Israel wields overall security control.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is deeply unpopular, in large part because his forces cooperate with Israel on security even as Palestinian hopes for statehood have all but disappeared. Many Palestinians view the PA as the subcontractor of a never-ending occupation.
Israel keeps tens of thousands of soldiers deployed across the West Bank. They provide security for more than 500,000 Jewish settlers and carry out nightly arrest raids, often sparking deadly gunbattles with militants.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the Palestinian Authority could return to Gaza after the war. That could further unravel Abbas’ legitimacy among his own people, unless it were linked to concrete steps toward Palestinian statehood.
Arab leaders, even those closely tied to Israel, will likely face similar backlash if they step in to help it control Gaza.
THE GAZA MODEL
What about an over-the-horizon presence, with moderate Palestinians maintaining security inside Gaza and with Israel intervening only when it deems absolutely necessary?
That’s been tried as well.
In 2005, in the wake of a second and far more violent intifada, Israel withdrew soldiers and over 8,000 settlers from Gaza. The PA administered the territory, but Israel continued to control its airspace, coastline and all but one border crossing.
Hamas won Palestinian elections the next year, leading to an international boycott and a severe financial crisis. Months of unrest boiled over in June 2007, when Hamas drove out forces loyal to Abbas in a week of street battles.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza, severely restricting trade and travel in what Israel said was an effort to contain Hamas. Palestinians and rights groups considered it a form of collective punishment. It caused widespread misery among the enclave’s 2.3 million residents.
Israel, like most Western countries, considers Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas has never recognized Israel’s existence and is committed to its destruction through armed struggle.
But over 16 years that saw four wars, the two entered into various undeclared cease-fires in which Israel eased the blockade in return for Hamas halting rocket attacks and reining in more radical armed groups.
For Israel, the arrangement was far from ideal but preferable to other options and bought yearslong periods of relative calm.
THE LEBANON MODEL
In 1978 and then again in 1982, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in a battle against Palestinian militants.
That led to an 18-year occupation enforced through local ally the South Lebanon Army, which received arms and training from Israel.
In 1982, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was founded with Iranian backing with the objective of pushing Israeli forces out of the country. It carried out attacks on both the SLA and Israeli troops, eventually leading to Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
The SLA quickly collapsed, creating a vacuum that was filled by Hezbollah. In 2006, the group battled Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war.
Today, Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon. With an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles, it’s considered a major threat by Israel.
Israel has sent mixed messages about evolving plans for Gaza.
Leaders say they don’t want to reoccupy Gaza. They also say troops need freedom to operate inside Gaza long after heavy fighting subsides.
“On the question of the operation’s length — there are no limitations,” Gantz said Wednesday.
That could mean leaving troops stationed inside the territory or along the border.
Some officials have discussed a buffer zone to keep Palestinians away from the border. Others, including the US, have called for the Palestinian Authority’s return.
In another twist, Gantz suggested any future arrangement for Gaza be contingent on calming Israel’s northern front with Hezbollah and the West Bank, where troops regularly battle Palestinian militants.
“Once the Gaza area is safe, and the northern area will be safe, and the Judea and Samaria region will calm down – we will settle down and review an alternative mechanism for Gaza,” said Gantz, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “I do not know what it will be.”