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People search through buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 27 2023 in Khan Yunis. Picture: AHMAD HASABALLAH/GETTY IMAGES
People search through buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 27 2023 in Khan Yunis. Picture: AHMAD HASABALLAH/GETTY IMAGES

Washington — As Israeli forces intensify their assault against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, diplomats in Washington, the UN, the Middle East and beyond have started weighing the options for the “day after” if the Palestinian militant group is ousted — and the challenges they see ahead are daunting.

Discussions include the deployment of a multinational force to post-conflict Gaza, an interim Palestinian-led administration that would exclude Hamas politicians, a stopgap security and governance role for neighbouring Arab states and temporary UN supervision of the territory, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The process is still at what another US source terms an informal “idea-floating stage”. Key questions include whether Israel can destroy Hamas as it has vowed and whether the US, its Western allies and Arab governments would commit military personnel to stand between Israel and the Palestinians, overcoming a long reluctance to do so.

The White House said on Wednesday there were “no plans or intentions” to put US troops on the ground in Gaza.

As the debate gains momentum, Gaza health authorities say more than 9,000 people have been killed in the 40km strip of land, home to 2.3-million Palestinians. More than half of Gaza’s population is already displaced, crammed hospitals lacking electricity and medicine are turning away the injured and gravediggers are running out of cemetery places.

It is also unclear whether the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank while Hamas rules Gaza, would be able or willing to take control. US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Tuesday held out the prospects for a “revitalised” PA, but President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration has been plagued by accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

Any entity that seeks to exert authority in post-war Gaza would also have to contend with the impression among Palestinians that it is beholden to Israel. Its offensive against Hamas has been mounted in retaliation for a devastating October 7 rampage in which militants killed 1,400 people in southern Israel and took more than 200 hostages.

Even if Hamas’ leadership is toppled, it would be all but impossible to eradicate pro-militant sentiment from the Gaza population, raising the threat of new attacks, including suicide bombings, against whomever assumes power.

“If the Israelis succeed in crushing Hamas, I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to get a governing structure in there that is going to be legitimate and functional,” said Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator.

“The ‘day after’ exercises right now strike me as fantastical,” Miller said.

The discussions have increased as Israel expands its air, land and sea assault on Gaza, but they have also been driven by what US officials see as Israel's failure so far to articulate an endgame.

Gaza rebuild

There is a growing realisation that massive amounts of international aid will be needed to rebuild Gaza, and such an infusion would be nearly impossible to secure from Western governments with Hamas still in charge.

Moments before departing on Thursday on a trip to Israel and Jordan, Blinken said his meetings in the region would not only deal with “concrete steps” to minimise the harm to civilians in Gaza but also broach issues of post-war planning.

“We’re focused on the day of. We also need to be focused on the day after,” Blinken told reporters. The foundation for a lasting peace, he said, is a path towards eventual Palestinian statehood, a goal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long resisted.

Lessons learnt

US officials have said privately that they and their Israeli counterparts have talked about learning the lessons from Washington’s missteps in its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the lack of preparations for what followed.

Among the options that US officials have discussed is creation of a multinational force to maintain order. Its composition could include some mix of European or Arab countries, though no government has openly expressed interest in joining such a force.

US President Joe Biden, who ended Washington’s two-decade military presence in Afghanistan in 2021, would be unlikely to want to get entangled in direct military action in a new foreign conflict as he seeks re-election in 2024.

Some policy analysts have also floated the idea of deploying to Gaza a UN-backed force — either a formal UN peacekeeping force, as it does on the Israel-Lebanon border, or a multinational force with UN approval.

But diplomats say there have been no discussions at the UN about such a move, which would require agreement among the 15 members of the UN Security Council.

Such missions often face major hurdles. In October 2022, Haiti asked for international help to fight violent gangs. A year later the UN Security Council authorised a foreign security mission, delayed by a struggle to find a country willing to lead it. Kenya stepped up, but Haiti is still waiting for the mission to arrive.

Complicating matters, Israel would likely oppose any UN security role, especially after Israeli officials castigated UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres for saying the Hamas attack on October 7 “did not happen in a vacuum.”

Israel expects a long war but says it has no interest in re-occupying Gaza.

Regional umbrella

Outside experts, some known at times to have the ear of US policymakers, are weighing in on what a post-war Gaza might look like.

If Hamas can be stripped of its “veto power” and Gaza is demilitarised, “that could open the way for establishment of an interim administration with a technocratic Palestinian-led government that operates under some kind of international and/or regional umbrella,” said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator and White House adviser.

The details, he said, would require complex US-led engagement with the Palestinian Authority and other major players with interests in stabilising the Middle East.

However, to make this work, Israel must limit the time frame for its military presence in Gaza or else any new governing body could lack legitimacy in the eyes of its people, said Ross.

An article authored by Ross and two of his colleagues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, proposed that once Israel withdraws, security in Gaza be provided by a “consortium of the five Arab states who have reached peace agreements with Israel — Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.”

But there is some scepticism that such an arrangement could be struck.

“Arab states aren't going to put boots on the ground to kill Palestinians,” said former negotiator Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.


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