This piece is based on my presentation to a private group looking beyond the kinetic operations of current Middle East crisis.
The Day After
“As a rule, there are no military solutions to political problems. Solutions are always combined. The use of military force is both part of policy and a pursuance of policy.”
Major General Yoav Har-Evan; Head of Israel Defense Forces Operations Directorate
On 07 October 2023, Hamas launched a devastating attack on Israeli towns close to Gaza border killing over fourteen hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians including women and children. Israelis were shocked at the stunning intelligence and military failure as well as the unprecedented carnage. It was a forgone conclusion that Israel will react with the unprecedented vengeance. Hamas was surprised by poor response of Israeli security forces and went on a killing spree and even brought back over two hundred Israelis as hostages. This unexpected success may prove to be the end of Hamas as an organized political and military entity. Jury is still out on whether this incident will jump start a moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process or prove to be a fatal blow to two state solution.
Israel unleashed its fire power without any restraints and after two weeks of bombing, Gaza looks like a post-apocalyptic zombie land. Of the nine thousand dead, half are children and that is a new blood-soaked record for the Middel East that is used to carnage. Israel started ground operation from the north while at the same time cutting off Gaza into half by surrounding Gaza City. The first step is to gain control of the above ground battlefield and then think about what to do with the underground battlefield. It looks that their goal is to finish Hamas fighters in northern half and blowing up underground tunnels before launching similar exercise in the south with the goal of completing high velocity kinetic operations in six to eight weeks. There is no intention of going in the tunnels to fight Hamas fighters as it entails high casualties. For Hamas fighters there are only two options. One is to drop weapon and mingle in the civilian population and live to fight another day or fight to death with no quarter given or asked. Presence of Israeli hostages in the tunnels poses another challenge as using smoke, chemicals, or water to flood the tunnels means certain death of hostages along with Hamas fighters.
The free pass given to Israel by United States and European Union (EU) has an expiration date as large-scale civilian carnage cannot be ignored. Large scale protests in United States and European cities are putting pressure on the governments to allow humanitarian pauses if not a ceasefire. This also unleashed anti-Jewish sentiments and violent acts against Jews all over the world. Modern conflict is not limited only to the battlefield but beamed in real time to the living rooms of a global audience and public opinion becomes an extension of the conflict. Israel cannot ignore public relations disaster despite a united nation at home and support from US and western governments.
Gaza is a densely populated area where 2.3 million Gazans live in a territory that is about thirty miles long and ten miles wide. Out of 1.1 million Gazans living north of Gaza City, 800’000 have moved to south after incursion of Israeli troops. Israel will allow several hours windows for civilian evacuation route along the main north-south Gaza highway from north to south and then reverse it when operations start in south. However, the small geographic size and very high population density puts limits to such exercise, and more than a half million Gazans will be in the middle of the inferno at any given time. Israel will also allow intermittent humanitarian convoys into Gaza from Egypt and coordinate with Jordan for even airdrop of humanitarian supplies. These measures are essential for public relations. Civilian casualties have probably peaked in the first phase, and it is estimated that it will be markedly reduced in the second phase. However, large scale damage is already done with a new generation of Palestinians filled with anger and hatred that will unleash the next round.
Kinetic operations are the easy part and will be completed in few weeks with less than few dozen dozen fatal Israeli casualties. In view of unprecedented carnage of Israel citizens, society is willing to absorb military casualties as high as about a thousand. War is a business of uncertainty and unexpected events not even initiated by the adversary can change the course. In 1997, midair collision of two Israeli transport helicopters killed 73 soldiers. This national trauma generated a groundswell of anti-war sentiment in Israeli society that resulted in Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
Heavy work will be required when kinetic operations are completed as there is no clear path ahead. In view of un-precedented Israeli carnage, Israel entered the conflict without serious debate about exit strategy. Kinetic operations had to be initiated quickly mainly to restore morale of Israeli public. All other considerations took the back seat.
Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) is a policy group consisting of former high-ranking officials of Israel Defense Forces (IDF), external intelligence agency Mossad, domestic intelligence Shin Bet, police, and National Security Council. In a 2019 report about Gaza, CIS warned that Israel’s policy was misguided, rejected the idea that military shock and awe can restore deterrence and warned that ‘a military-only approach may lead to the reoccupation of the Gaza strip and to Israel’s retaking control over its two million residents with no exit strategy in sight.’ In 2023, Isarel is looking at that stark reality.
Israel is looking at several options for Gaza after kinetic operations are completed. Each option has its own set of benefits and risks. More importantly despite complete military control, Israel will not be able to dictate the policy options but must incorporate alternate views from United States, European Union, Palestinian stake holders and regional Arab countries especially old hands Egypt and Jordan and new kids on the block United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
Some Israeli hawks around Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu floated the idea of pushing Gaza residents into Sinai on the pretext of protecting civilians while military operations are ongoing but after ceasefire prevent return of large segment of population. This was wishful thinking that they can pull another 1948 or 1967 forgetting that the world has changed. This was vetoed by Egypt as it was not prepared to become second Jordan or Lebanon. Egypt completely closed its side of the Rafah crossing not allowing any Gazans to enter Egypt. Recently, it opened the crossing for exit of only those holding foreign passports and a very small number of injured Gazans. In addition, most Gazans despite living a nightmare have decided that they will not be refugees a second time in another place and decided to stay put.
Israel is now looking for handing over responsibility of Gaza to someone else but there are no takers. This option includes severing Israel’s connection with Gaza completely and end responsibility of energy and water supply and imports through Israeli crossings. This will end Isarel’s responsibility, but the problem is that no one wants to take responsibility at this stage. One option is to dust off an old plan of handing Gaza over to Palestinian Authority (PA). West Bank based PA sent a thank you note declining a ride on Israeli tanks to go and take over Gaza. West Bank based power brokers may try to extract concessions for their own rise to power in return for joining the Gaza takeover plan. These are the back room deals of an eastern bazar where those with the sharpest tongues and longest knives usually survive.
A more likely arrangement may be where former head of Gaza security services for PA Muhammad Dahlan will be a key player. He has been living in Abu Dhabi since Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. It is hoped that he can reconstitute his power base as Hamas will be severely degraded to pose any challenge. In the dystopian world, 50’000 PA civil servants in Gaza booted out by Hamas in 2007 were still receiving salaries from PA while sitting in homes. These civil servants can be incorporated in the new set up. Dahlan will try to sell this to Gazans by promising to bring aid from his UAE patrons and a second helping hand from Saudi Arabia to improve the life of ordinary people. The daily life of Gazans has been completely upended and they may see this as a respite from a never-ending nightmare of violence. There is a deep legitimacy and possible succession crisis for 88 years old PA President Mahmoud Abbas. This option will bring forward succession conflict between various contenders of power. (This internal power struggle of PA leaders is analyzed in a separate risk analysis paper).
All these options will take several months and during this time, Israel will need complete military control of Gaza. Unites States has given its warning to Israel that it will not provide cover for prolonged military control of Gaza. This concern is prompting hectic back room deals involving United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
One option is that after completion of kinetic operations, Israeli troops withdraw and seal off their side of the border with Gaza completely severing all connections. A multinational force under United Nations mainly from Muslim countries is deployed announcing that it is being deployed to protect Gazans to gain approval from the public of countries contributing to the contingent. Saudi Arabia has an infrastructure that was put in place during Yemen war but now moribund. This can be used with troops from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco and possibly Turkey. Gaza is a small geographic place thirty miles long and ten miles in its widest stretch and only a small number of troops, probably less than five thousand, can perform the task.
An interim set up consisting of different segments of Gazan society is put in place to start the rehabilitation process. United States, European Union, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar can contribute towards reconstruction of the strip. The linchpin of this option is demilitarization of Gaza that is the most difficult part. If Israeli kinetic operations remove large number of military cadres of Hamas and Qatar and Turkey convince political leadership of Hamas for the way forward, then it can be tried. Qatar may try to sell the damaged goods of moderate political cadre of Hamas but today in the bazaar there are no customers for that damaged product. (The Byzantine intrigues of Arab neighbors and Iran are discussed in a separate risk analysis paper).
In the absence of demilitarization, no one will be willing to put their troops in the harm way caught between cycles of violence between Hamas and Israel. Though not perfect but everyone including Israel, some segments of Palestinian population, Arab neighbors, United States and EU can live with this option. However, this is just a temporary stopgap measure that can give temporary relief to Gazans. In the long run, removal of military threat to Israel from Gaza will make any Israeli concession to Palestinians more difficult as experience of West Bank provides an ample proof of this risk.
From Palestinian perspective, in addition to immediate humanitarian needs, this crisis has serious long-term repercussions for their national goal of self-determination. Emotions and sentiments aside, a minimum consensus about legitimacy of Palestinian leadership in Gaza and West Bank cannot be postponed any further. Palestinians need to revisit the whole paradigm of their self-determination struggle including political, diplomatic, and military aspects. In the absence of this, there is clear and present danger of fracture of Palestinian society in Gaza and West Bank into warring factions. Angry and frustrated youth with no trust in their leadership and no hope for future of a life of some semblance of normalcy will take the course taken by many such disaffected youth across the Muslim world where they wreak vengeance on their own society. Killing fields of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are too numerous and obvious to ignore.
The attention of the world is on conflict but we all very well know that the attention span of the world is usually very short, and it will move on. If anyone has any doubt then they can simply recall only the carnage of the last two decades in the Middel East where over a million have perished in the killing fields of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In the end, Isarel must come to terms with the Palestinian question and cannot continue business as usual. If they think Gaza is bad, then wait until the West Bank explodes as all the ingredients of a different type of violent cycle are in place. The price of inaction of leaders is paid by the young with their blood. All leading security personnel who have fought Isarel’s war are clear in their assessment that if this problem is not solved in due time, Israel will become a binational state and ceased to be a Jewish state or become an apartheid state. Once the dust settles, a polarized Israeli society will engage in this debate and the outcome of that debate will determine the destiny of Israel. Two people must share the land and find the way to do it. None will get what it wants but must live with what it gets. In the absence of it, both parties will continue to mourn their dead with no guarantee that tomorrow will be better than today.
“We are the only people on earth asked to guarantee the security of our occupier … while Israel is the only country that calls for defense from its victims”.
Palestinian intellectual Hanan Ashrawi
For report of Commanders for Israel Security report on Gaza, see,
05 November 2023