Why getting rid of Hamas in Gaza is just the start

Israel’s assault on the terror group will leave a power vacuum in the territory and a job that nobody seems to want

Israeli military advance into Gaza
Israeli military vehicle advances into Gaza during the current ground offensive against Hamas Credit: ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES/REUTERS

In a part of the world that has long defied peacemakers, they are questions that bring deep furrows to diplomats’ brows. If Israel clears Hamas from the Gaza Strip, what kind of government will replace it? Will it be accepted by the 2.5 million Gazans who live there – and who will be its muscle if Hamas strikes back?

The favoured candidate for the job in the United States and the United Nations is the Palestinian Authority, or PA, which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Last week, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, said that a “hopefully reinvigorated” PA was “the best-case scenario”.

First, however, there is the small matter of Gaza’s citizens to bear in mind. While some Gazans are now turning against Hamas because of the chaos inflicted following the terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct 7, not many want the PA to simply take over.

“The PA has got no popularity in Gaza now,” one man told The Telegraph last week. “If they rule Gaza, we will definitely have a civil war.”

“This is our Gaza, and its people are the ones who must choose their rulers,” added another man. “Not Israel, not the US, not the West.”

Battles rage within Gaza as seen from its southern border with Israel Credit: FADEL SENNA/AFP

That the PA is the brightest hope speaks volumes about the challenges ahead.

The group has long been seen as ineffectual and corrupt, which was why Gazans first voted Hamas’s religious zealots into power in elections in 2006.

Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is 86 and suffering heart problems, making him hardly match-fit for such a demanding governance task. The PA also realises the disastrous implications of “going to Gaza on an Israeli military tank”, as its prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, bluntly put it last week. The PA, he insists, will only get involved if progress is made on the much knottier question of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, also opposes PA involvement, pointing out that ministers such as Mr Shtayyah have refused to condemn last month’s Hamas attacks.

Even if the PA does assume political control of Gaza, there is the separate question of security control. The PA’s security forces have long struggled to impose their writ even in the West Bank, where they are theoretically in charge. One option, therefore, is for a coalition of Arab nations such as Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to provide troops for Gaza.

Formidable insurgency

However, such forces could find themselves as unwelcome as British and American soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hamas will portray any new Gaza overlords as Israeli collaborators, and could create a formidable insurgency. “The Arab forces may find themselves dealing with a hotbed of insurrection,” says Colonel Tim Collins, a veteran of Britain’s Iraq campaign.

Should Gaza continue to be used as a launch-pad for Hamas terror attacks, Israel may not stand idly by, adds Shalom Ben Hanan, a former Israeli intelligence officer and fellow at Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

“There probably will be an insurgency, and it will be a challenge to keep our own army out of the area if there are security issues,” he said. “There will no be no way Israel will accept terrorist organisations springing up again in Gaza, let alone have a repeat of last month’s massacres.”

Not everyone fears Gaza will become Helmand-on-the-Med. Itamar Yaar, a former deputy head of Israel’s national security council, says that while the current Israeli military operation will not “get rid of every last Kalashnikov”, any insurgency should be manageable. “It won’t be rice and flowers all the way, but with the US pushing all the players, I think things can be brought under control.”

It will not be just a question of physical force, however. Mr Ben Hanan points out that as well as around 30,000 fighters, Hamas has around 70,000 officials and activists on its payroll, whose ideology will have to be challenged “like the Nazis in Germany” post-war.

Part of that may involve curbing the UN’s role in Gaza, where Israelis say it has failed to act as a neutral presence. Of particular Israeli concern is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA. Israeli advocacy groups have long accused it of letting anti-Semitic material be taught in its schools and they complain that some of its 30,000 staff support Hamas. The agency disputes the claims.

An unfit partner

“Whatever the arrangements are for a post-Hamas Gaza, Israel will argue that the UN has not proved itself a fit partner,” said one Israeli official.

Like every other aspect of Gaza’s future, though, that remains nothing more than wishful thinking at the moment. And, as past attempts at peace have proved all too often, neither side ever gets exactly what it wants. To borrow Mr Guterres’s words, an arrangement that leaves no side entirely happy, and which stands a high risk of failure, may be the “best case scenario” anyone can hope for.

On one matter, though, there is a rare consensus. Nobody wants Israel to be in charge of Gaza again. Not Israel’s Arab neighbours, not the wider international community – and not Israel itself, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Most of Mr Netanyahu’s government are keen, in the long term, to let someone else have a crack at what they deem a thankless task.

In the meantime Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel should retain overall security control after the war “with the ability to go in whenever we want in order to kill terrorists”.

“There will be no Hamas. There will be no civilian authority that educates their children to hate Israel, to kill Israelis, to destroy the state of Israel. There can’t be an authority there that pays the families of murderers. There needs to be something else there,” he said.