Israel–Palestine conflict: Five scenarios for Gaza's future
If the Israeli military achieves its stated objective of eliminating Hamas from the Gaza Strip, it leaves the area leaderless. Who could take control once the fighting ends?
Israel has mobilised around 350,000 reservists. Some of those troops are on the side bordering Lebanon. Others are part of the Gaza Strip incursion, the ground offensive into the Palestinian territory.
The stated objective of the ongoing invasion of Gaza is the destruction of the Hamas militant group, designated a terror organisation by the European Union, the US, the UK, France, Germany and several other countries.
There's no alternative to a ground offensive, said Michael Milshtein, a former member of Israel's military intelligence, now a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
One question keeps coming up. How would Gaza be ruled if Israel achieves its desired goal, given that Hamas currently governs the territory? The Israelis have indicated they would take over administration. However, it is also unclear whether it will be possible to actually eliminate Hamas completely.
One thing is clear — a power vacuum must not be allowed to emerge.
The situation in Afghanistan is an example of this. There, the extremist Islamic State group has managed to use the weakness of state institutions to its advantage, after the Taliban took over for its own purposes. The same extremist group has also taken advantage of the lack of state control in the Sahel region.
Iran, which supports the Hamas group and other militias in the region, might also benefit from such a power vacuum in Gaza and find new allies or partners inside the Gaza Strip.
So, how would order be brought about in the Gaza Strip after this conflict ends? There are several options, according to Michael Milshtein, a former member of Israel's military intelligence, now a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, but each one presents challenges. Stephan Stetter, a professor of international politics at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich, sees it similarly.
Scenario 1: Israel takes control of the Gaza Strip
Up until 2005, Israel had controlled the Gaza Strip militarily, and it is possible that the country could do so again, as Benjamin Netanyahu's stated intent is. But such a step could also provoke new militant attacks. It would also have a problematic impact on the regional balance of powers, Stetter told DW.
"There are voices in Israel who are suggesting that Israel colonise the Gaza Strip again," he said. "And that would be grist to the mill for all those who want to fuel and continue this Israeli–Palestinian conflict."
Additionally, according to international humanitarian law, an occupying power has responsibilities to the population it is occupying. "Israel would then have to take on this task itself. Financially, that would exceed the country's abilities," Stetter said.
Israel would not be able to reoccupy the Gaza Strip in the face of opposition from its Western allies, including the US, either. Such a move would also negatively impact Israel's relationship with other countries in West Asia with whom it has been trying to normalise relations.
This scenario would pose another challenge: Israel would have to seal itself off from the Gaza Strip even more. "Israel would make itself a jail warden, presiding indefinitely over an immense prison camp (to which Gaza has long been compared)," the magazine Foreign Affairs wrote this month.
Scenario 2: The Palestinian Authority takes over Gaza
Another alternative would involve the Palestinian Authority returning to Gaza and taking control there, but this idea has a weakness, according to Milshtein.
The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and dominated by the Fatah party, administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But in reality, it only controls a small part of the occupied West Bank. Most of the area is actually under Israel's control.
"We should remember how weak and unpopular Abu Mazen is," Milshtein pointed out, using the popular nickname for Abbas.
The Palestinian Authority and the party that runs it, Fatah, are unpopular among locals in the occupied West Bank. Civilians have protested against it in the past, accusing it of corruption, poor leadership and democratic illegitimacy.
The last elections were held here in 2005, and Abbas has been in charge ever since. And he remains unpopular on all sides: While he has been criticised in the West for making anti-Semitic statements and not putting enough distance between himself and Hamas, local Palestinians criticise him for not being tough and decisive enough about the occupying power Israel.
The Palestinian Authority could play an important role in the Gaza Strip's future, said Stetter, but there's another factor to consider too, one that could further undermine its legitimacy.
"If the Palestinian Authority were to move into the Gaza Strip after an Israeli victory over Hamas, it could be seen by some as a war profiteer who seized power on the backs of the war victims," he explained.
Scenario 3: A Palestinian civilian administration
A better option, albeit more difficult, would be a mixed Palestinian civilian authority, said Milshtein. An authority like this could be made up of different representatives of Palestinian society, including, for example, local mayors. It would also likely have close ties to the Palestinian Authority.
A leadership model like this could potentially be supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US.
"It is likely this new order won't be stable for a long time and will face a lot of challenges, but it is much better than all the other bad alternatives," Milshtein told DW.
Scenario 4: A United Nations-led administration
Theoretically, the United Nations can take over a former conflict zone after one party to the conflict is defeated, Stetter said, referring to earlier examples from Kosovo and East Timor.
"But that's not realistic in the Gaza Strip," he noted. "It would be far harder in this case, if not impossible because this conflict is so much the focus of global public opinion. Having Western states potentially play a strong role here is also likely to be seen very critically."
Stetter added that getting a UN mandate on such a matter would also be difficult.
Scenario 5: An administration run by Arab states
Stetter would prefer a different scenario: one that envisages other Arab states taking the lead in the Gaza Strip, together with the Palestinian Authority.
"This could actually be in the interests of some Arab states, especially those who have strong reservations about the [political group] Muslim Brotherhood," he argued. Hamas is seen as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose.
At the moment, the rhetoric coming out of those countries has focused on solidarity with Palestinians, Palestinian suffering and possible war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. The civilian populations in those Arab countries have expressed the same sentiments. Nonetheless, Stetter pointed out, "a defeat of Hamas will not be viewed unfavorably in Riyadh and Cairo".
Above all, a scenario like this would mean that Palestinians might be able to be convinced that their interests would be represented and not just pushed aside. However, according to Steffen, that would require "some unity forces involved, as well as cooperation with the West and the UN".
Besides political support, financial support will also be needed so that any such model can survive economically. The expert argued that such a model would not only offer Palestinians better prospects but also mean more security for Israel.
Unfortunately, the current ongoing conflict means it is unclear whether other Arab states, even those with diplomatic contacts with Israel, would be willing to invest political capital in such a plan. Experts said such a model would only be possible in the medium term.