What will happen to Gaza after the war?
THE THOUGHTS forced, the fake bonhomie. In recent years the Manama Dialogue, an annual security pow-wow in Bahrain, has focused on the threat posed by Iran and its regional proxies. Arab and Western officials found much to agree on. “It was just necessary to blame Iran [be] proposal,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, on a panel at the start of this year’s dialogue. “Today it’s going to be a little more difficult.”
Of course it was. The room listened attentively as Brett McGurk, Middle East adviser to President Joe Biden, offered his country’s perspective on Israel’s war in Gaza, now in its seventh year. his week. But the coffee break conversation that followed was terrifying. More than once Mr McGurk said Gaza would not receive a “significant increase in humanitarian relief” once Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, released around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages it had kidnapped on October 7 .
The humanitarian crisis affecting 2.2m people in Gaza is very strong. Food, clean water and medicine are in short supply and patients are dying in hospitals that have run out of fuel. The southern half of the enclave is bursting at the seams, displaced to twice its pre-war population following an influx of displaced Palestinians, while the north appears to have been uncultivated for years.
But America’s ambassador to the region seemed unmoved. “The responsibility here is on Hamas. This is the way,” he said. The idea that aid to Gazan civilians depended on a hostile treaty did not go down well with a largely Arab audience. “They have entertained the whole population,” one attendee said (the White House later said Mr. McGurk’s comments were “grossly misinterpreted”).
That was not the only point of contention. After two days of talking to officials about the plan for Gaza after the war, the inevitable conclusion is that there is no plan. The devastated fort needs outside help to provide security, reconstruction and basic services. But no one – not Israel, not America, not Arab states or Palestinian leaders – wants to take responsibility for it.
America hopes that Arab states will contribute troops to a peacekeeping force after the war, a proposal that is also supported by some Israeli officials. But the idea has not found much support among the Arabs themselves. Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, seemed to dismiss him completely at the conference. “Let me be very clear,” he said. “There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza. None. We are not going to be seen as the enemy.”
The trust is understandable. Arab officials do not want to clean up Israel’s mess and help it by policing their fellow Arabs. But they also do not want to see Israel take over the enclave, and they admit, at least in private discussions, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is currently too weak to gain full control of Gaza. If none of these options are true or desirable, it is not clear what is.
In the long term, Mr McGurk said a “resurgent Palestinian Authority” should resume control (it ruled Gaza until Hamas seized power in 2007). For that to happen, however, two unlikely developments would be necessary. First it would be a genuine Israeli effort to reach a two-state solution: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says he will not return to Gaza without one. But Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has spent his career trying to undermine that two-state solution (and he doesn’t like the PA return to Gaza either).
The second is a massive effort to achieve the “revival”. PA Mr. McGurk spoke on it. Mr Abbas, who is 88 years old, was elected in 2005 to a four year term. Still in power, he has been in office longer than most Gazans have lived. He is a disinterested sclerotic boss; both he and his assistants, some of whom are also able to follow him, are widely seen as corrupt. No one can explain how his government could be restored.
Even before the war, the wealthy Gulf states were growing tired of checkbook diplomacy. They may be reluctant to fund reconstruction in Gaza, which will cost billions of dollars. “They have already rebuilt Gaza several times before,” said one Western diplomat in the region. “If it’s not part of a serious peace process, they won’t pay.”
Then there is Hamas itself. Their leaders, and many of its fighters, appear to have fled to southern Gaza, an area where Israel has yet to deploy ground troops. For now, they seem to have enough food and fuel to survive on the web of tunnels under Gaza. Civilians are suffering under the Israeli siege. They don’t have managers. “They are not under pressure at all,” said an adviser to Israel’s national security council. “On the other hand, it helps Hamas, because they use it to build international pressure for a ceasefire. “
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas official, said in a television interview last month that Hamas was not responsible for protecting civilians in Gaza. The tunnels under the strip, he said, are only there to protect Hamas; the UN and Israel should protect citizens. Other Hamas leaders have taken advantage of the UN for not sending enough food and medicine. They made Gaza miserable by carrying out the massacre in Israel last month, but they want someone else to deal with what happened.
For almost two decades, Gaza has been an unresolved problem. Israel and Egypt were happy to leave it under blockade after Hamas took over. Despite making occasional breaks with Palestinian unity, Mr. Abbas had no desire to go back to Gaza, and Hamas was content to hold on to an empty fortress. Everyone wanted to preserve the status quo.
That status quo was broken on the morning of October 7. The problem has become much bigger, and the solutions are far away. Optimists hope that the Gaza war will provide the opportunity to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More likely, however, it will end with Gaza being another of the failed states in the Middle East, broken but not rebuilt.■