If the Israeli military achieves its stated objective of getting Hamas out of the Gaza Strip, it leaves the area leaderless. Who could take control once the fighting ends?
28 October 2023// DW
Israel has mobilized around 350,000 reservists. Some of those troops are standing ready at the border of Lebanon. Others are waiting at the edge of the Gaza Strip, ready to take part in a ground offensive into the Palestinian territory.
The objective of the much-discussed invasion of Gaza, in whatever form that might eventually take, is the destruction of the Hamas militant group, designated a terror organization by Germany, the European Union and the US, among others.
There’s no alternative to a ground offensive, said Michael Milshtein, a former member of Israel’s military intelligence and now a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Hamas was always very clear in its goals — promoting jihad and erasing Israel,” he told DW.
Nonetheless, there is one question that keeps coming up. How would Gaza be ruled if Israel achieves its desired goal, given that Hamas currently governs the territory? The Israelis have not given any official answer to this question. It is also unclear as to whether it will be possible to eliminate Hamas completely.
One thing is clear, though, according to Milshtein. A power vacuum must not be allowed to emerge. Withdrawing quickly would do that, he said, “leaving behind a vacuum which will be filled by anarchy and radical Islamist groups.”
The situation in Afghanistan is an example of this. There, the extremist “Islamic State” group has managed to use the weakness of state institutions 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 Milshtein, 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’s possible the country could do so again. 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 colonize 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 the Middle East, with whom it has been trying to normalize relations. “That’s why I think such a move is unlikely,” said Stetter.
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 earlier this month.