Who will rule Gaza once the war is over? Israel, so far, hasn’t provided an answer. The country’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been clear that his aim is to wipe out Hamas. He said this week that Israel will claim responsibility for security in Gaza for an “indefinite period,” in order to stop Hamas from rearming and establish long-term security. But Israel is unlikely to have the stomach to stay in Gaza as casualties mount. So who will step into this vacuum?
One possible solution is for the Palestinian Authority to take over as the ruling body in Gaza. The PA governed over the Palestinian territories following the 1994 Oslo Accords and resulting peace treaty until they lost to Hamas in the 2006 elections. The conflict that followed the elections resulted in two separate authorities: the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
If the Palestinian Authority were to return to govern Gaza, it would be perceived as an Israeli-backed pawn
The advantage of restoring the PA is that Palestinians will once again be united under one leadership. The PA is also more moderate than Hamas and has established a reasonably effective cooperative relationship with Israel on economic and security issues.
As a result, the West Bank has enjoyed lower unemployment and higher quality of life than Palestinians in Gaza — despite ongoing tensions and violent exchanges between Palestinians and far-right Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The West Bank is, however, not free from terrorist groups who also coordinate their attacks with Hamas.
The downside — and sticking point — is that the PA is deeply unpopular among Palestinians. A recent poll found that if elections were held just before the war, 24 percent would vote for Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniya. Only 12 percent would vote for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA. Abbas is eighty-seven years old, ill and extremely distrusted. He is unlikely to be able to act as the effective leader needed at a time of reconstruction efforts and recovery from the war.
The same poll also found that Marwan Barghouti, who is incarcerated in an Israeli prison for terrorism offences, is the most popular candidate. He would have received 32 percent of votes. A poll from 2022 showed that if the choice were between Haniya and Barghouti, the latter would have got over 60 percent of votes.
Although Barghouti is the more popular choice, Israel would, understandably, be reluctant to release the arch-terrorist who was the driving force behind the second intifada thirty-five years ago, and who is currently serving five consecutive life sentences for murders. If the PA was led by him, it’s also unlikely to be moderate, meaning Israel would fail to achieve the security it needs. Apart from Barghouti, though, there is no clear leader to replace Abbas, whose exit from Palestinian politics is sure to start a power struggle between different factions.
There’s another problem with the PA taking over: if it were to return to govern Gaza, it would be perceived as an Israeli-backed pawn, undermining its legitimacy even further. As such, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to keep the various Palestinian terror organizations still in existence under control.
Another option for who should rule Gaza was presented by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Von der Leyen stressed this week that the strip must no longer be ruled by Hamas and that there should not be a long-term Israeli military presence in the territory. A possible interim plan, she said, could involve a multinational peacekeeping force in charge of security, while the day-to-day governing is carried out by local officials not linked to Hamas. Such officials already operate in Gaza and receive their paycheck from the PA.
Although peacekeeping forces can be effective in other regions, Gaza presents unique challenges. Forces may struggle to disarm militant groups, such as Palestine Islamic Jihad, who will seek to stockpile weapons after the war, with significant help from Iran. Stopping these groups requires complex intelligence and highly trained forces capable of seizing shipments of arms at sea and preventing underground smuggling. Peacekeepers will also be needed to stop terrorists from firing missiles into Israel. As the international peacekeeping force based in Lebanon, Unifil has shown by failing to stop similar attacks launched by Hezbollah against Israel, this is no easy task.
The truth is that there are no easy options for Israel or Gaza. The PA under Abbas does not have enough public legitimacy to sign a peace agreement, even if Abbas were to agree to one — which is unlikely. The best case scenario is a reasonable level of stability and security for Palestinians and Israelis. A change of leadership in Israel would also help matters: from a coalition with members of the extreme-right who have inflamed the conflict to a coalition of moderate parties and a prime minister who enjoys the public’s trust. Israel is clearly focused on wiping out Hamas. But Netanyahu is far less clear about what he thinks should step in to take its place.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.