The United States is working on a postwar road map that envisions a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority ultimately taking over the Gaza Strip and becoming a credible partner for Israel for negotiation of a two-state solution.
One proposal being considered is to empower remaining members of the PA security forces in Gaza to form the “nucleus” of a broader postwar peacekeeping force, according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity last week.
Israel opposes the plan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that only the Israel Defense Forces can be trusted to demilitarize Gaza and has vowed to block any attempt to reinstall the PA in the Palestinian enclave.
Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to curb Israel’s military campaign that has killed over 19,000 people in the Gaza Strip, by Palestinian count. A surprise Oct. 7 attack by Hamas took over 1,200 lives in Israel.
The U.S. plan faces two immediate challenges — getting the Israelis on board and the Palestinians ready.
The PA at present lacks the credible mandate that would be needed for it to participate in deciding the security and future of Gaza. A wartime opinion poll published last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows an overwhelming majority of Palestinians reject PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, with nearly 90% saying he must resign. Prior polls show that most Palestinians believe the PA is corrupt.
“Abbas is very weak,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was involved in U.S. Middle East peace negotiations during the Reagan, Clinton and both Bush administrations.
Miller told VOA that Abbas is perceived to be an “Israeli subcontractor” when it comes to security.
Since being established under the 1994 Cairo Agreement, PA security forces have operated in pockets of roughly 40% of the West Bank and have been essential in keeping order amid raids by Israel Defense Forces and expansionist activities by Israeli settlers.
Israel controls the rest of the West Bank and restricts movement of people and goods through the territory. It has maintained a blockade on Gaza since 2007 following Hamas’ victory in the Gaza 2006 legislative elections.
The United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority has since 2007 been providing PA security forces in the West Bank with training, funding, weapons and other assistance. However, PA security forces in Gaza have been largely dormant following the PA’s expulsion after Hamas won.
“The United States should support some members of the Palestinian Authority security forces from the West Bank coming into Gaza, while also attempting to rehabilitate existing security personnel there,” said Middle East political analyst Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib.
Key to this is distinguishing between personnel that simply work under the Hamas government because it is the only employer in town, and those with direct links and ideological affiliation to the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, Alkhatib told VOA.
He noted lessons learned in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. enacted de-Ba’athification policies and disbanded the Iraqi army to flush out remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime and prevent them from holding positions in the new Iraq.
“This contributed greatly to the ensuing chaos and civil war,” Alkhatib said.
Like the Ba’ath Party, Hamas has for years been the dominant political force in Gazan society, providing public services and maintaining law and order pre-Oct. 7.
Separating professionals from militants and then using their experience, expertise and local contacts will be key to stabilizing postwar Gaza, he said. The local population will be more likely to cooperate with them than with foreign forces being “parachuted in.”
Various international custodianship proposals have been floated, including the deployment of an international peacekeeping force from NATO countries as suggested by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert. Or the deployment of Arab missions to reconstitute PA security forces and rebuild Palestinian state apparatus.
“I don’t think we’re at the stage right now where we can endorse one particular option or another,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told VOA during a news briefing Tuesday.
He stressed that the PA must reform itself to be “credibly involved” in postwar governance of Gaza. The last Palestinian legislative elections were held in 2006 and brought Hamas to power in Gaza. The last presidential elections, won by Abbas, were held in 2005.
Palestinian activists have long pushed for internal reform. According to a policy paper by the Palestinian think tank Al Shabaka, the Palestinian national movement is “in an acute state of crisis, and the Palestinian political system and institutions are incapable of bringing the Palestinian people closer to realize their rights.”
Even with a stronger mandate, the PA is keen to avoid the perception of reclaiming Gaza by riding on the bloodshed. In a recent interview, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said he would be open to ruling Gaza alongside Hamas as a “junior partner,” prompting Netanyahu to claim that he is vindicated in his opposition to allowing the PA to control the territory after the war.
The day after
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that parts of Gaza are close to being able to transition to a “day after” status but other parts will likely continue to face intensive fighting.
Israel began aerial bombardment on Oct. 9, followed by ground invasion on Oct. 27. The U.S. has pressed the Netanyahu war Cabinet to make its campaign more surgical, but heavy warfare is expected to last for at least another few weeks, if not months.
The Biden administration has worked on a postwar plan since the conflict’s early weeks.
“At some point, what would make the most sense would be for an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Oct. 31 to American lawmakers.