The Gaza war inches toward the day before ‘the day after’

Smoke is seen rising over northern Gaza as an Israeli military vehicle patrols the border on Tuesday. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
Smoke is seen rising over northern Gaza as an Israeli military vehicle patrols the border on Tuesday. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

American and Israeli officials appear to see an inflection point approaching in the Gaza war. The next stage could include a revived hostage-release negotiation with Hamas and an accompanying cease-fire lasting as long as several weeks, followed by a gradual pullback by Israeli troops, especially in northern Gaza.

Top Israeli officials have insisted that the war will last “months” longer, but that’s partly to keep Hamas off guard. Israel’s leaders know they need to transition to a new stage in the conflict, not least to allow reservists to leave the front lines and return to their jobs.

Israeli planning is still fuzzy, but officials appear to agree with the Biden administration on the basics: A postwar Gaza where Hamas cannot impose its political will, while other Palestinians, probably drawn from the Palestinian Authority, take responsibility for governance; and a peacekeeping force that has support from key moderate Arab states. The transitional body will be, in effect, a “Gaza reconstruction authority”.

The Biden administration has been pushing Israel to move into this less-kinetic stage as soon as possible, ideally before year-end, to avoid more civilian casualties. The State Department has prepared a roughly 20-page document outlining basic steps and options for the post-conflict phase. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted some of this pressure, and some Israeli officials speak of a transition in January or later, but there’s a clear recognition that a new phase is coming.

Think of what’s ahead as the day before “the day after”. Fighting will continue, especially in southern Gaza. But as Hamas’s power is broken, U.S. and Israeli officials expect that Palestinians will step into new governance and security roles — with support from moderate Arab governments that hate Hamas almost as much as Israel does, even though they don’t say so out loud.

The situation on the Gaza battlefield is far from resolved. Israeli commanders believe that, in northern Gaza, Hamas’s command-and-control structure has been splintered. Though units fight on, they are not able to communicate effectively with the top Hamas political and military leaders, Yehiya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, who are hunkered down in the south, probably near Khan Younis.

Killing Sinwar and Deif is one of Israel’s primary war aims. But that task is complicated by the likelihood that the two leaders have surrounded themselves with some of the remaining Israeli hostages. This presents the same dilemma — between pulverizing Hamas and saving hostage lives — that has complicated Israeli military planning since the war began with Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack.

Israeli and U.S. officials appear to be seeking a renewed dialogue with Hamas, through Qatar, to free as many as possible of the more than 100 Israeli hostages remaining in Gaza. Israeli officials are considering an extended cease-fire, perhaps lasting two weeks, to allow Hamas to gather these hostages and deliver them to safety. It’s possible that Israel would also pledge to pull its forces back and conduct standoff operations, especially in the north, after this cease-fire ended. Israel wants the freedom to de-escalate in stages, as conditions allow.

U.S. and Israeli officials agree that urgent steps to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza are essential — not least to reduce the scorching international criticism of Israel and its superpower patron for a Palestinian civilian death toll that’s nearing 20,000. Israeli officials fear that disease could spread in Gaza, though officials believe that a cholera outbreak has been checked.

Israeli officials hoped several weeks ago that a huge camp at Al-Mawasi, just north of the Egyptian border, could accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the north. But now that southern Gaza has become the hottest battle zone in the war, this plan might be untenable. Israeli officials are now thinking of creating what one calls “humanitarian islands” in northern Gaza to draw Palestinians fleeing the violence.

One problem that hasn’t been solved — indeed, it hasn’t even been discussed in detail — is the composition of the security force that would maintain order in Gaza once Israeli troops begin to pull back. Israeli commandos might stage raids back into the center of Gaza when they receive intelligence about high-value targets. But that wouldn’t protect Palestinian civilians from gangs and looters who are already filling the security vacuum.

The security force, initially, might be composed primarily of Palestinians who aren’t affiliated with Hamas and are willing to cooperate with the Israeli troops still ringing the border. Ideally, this policing force would be bolstered by foreign troops, operating under a U.N. mandate. In the chaos of postwar Gaza, there will be a need for disciplined, experienced troops whose rules of engagement allow them to use military power if needed.

Israel’s initial insistence that it would eliminate Hamas probably is at an inflection point, too. After more than 70 days of hard fighting, Israel estimates that it has killed about 8,500 Hamas fighters. That’s out of an initial force the CIA estimated at 20,000 to 25,000. Whatever the precise numbers, a battered Hamas will likely survive, perhaps in hiding.

Over the longer term, when “the day after” finally arrives, U.S. and Israeli officials are both hoping that Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, can play a key role — providing money, leadership and legitimacy for the Gaza reconstruction effort.

Both countries have reasons to help midwife a reborn Gaza: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS, has been seeking an opportunity to show visionary leadership in the Arab world. Normalizing relations with Israel and, at the same time, championing a well-governed Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank would be visionary, indeed. One official hopes MBS will add Gaza to his Vision 2030 agenda.

The UAE would bring special skills to the table, as well. As the earliest Arab country to embrace the Abraham Accords, it’s trusted by Israelis. UAE companies such as Emaar have experience managing vast the construction projects that Gaza will require. And the UAE for more than 10 years has sheltered Muhammad Dahlan, a Palestinian wheeler-dealer who was the dominant political power in Gaza until the PA was displaced by Hamas in 2006.

President Biden and Netanyahu have had an often-contentious relationship, and the friction has been obvious as Washington has increased its pressure to move into a new phase of the war. But a senior Biden administration noted that, contrary to my earlier reporting, Netanyahu had been a “cool head” in resisting calls within the Israeli war cabinet for a preemptive strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the first days after Hamas terrorist attack.

As the trauma of Oct. 7 eases slightly, it’s time for Israel to move toward a phase of this war where Palestinian civilians are less vulnerable to attack, more Israeli hostages can be released and planning can begin for what will be a massive rebuilding of the shattered landscape in Gaza — and the larger political order in the Middle East.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin”.

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