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Israel will smash Hamas. What then?

One month after the start of the Gaza war, far too many outstanding issues remain unresolved.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed and injured in one of the deadliest regional wars since the foundation of the Jewish State in 1948.

Currently, the Israeli army is digging ever deeper into Gaza Strip with the declared goal of ending Hamas’ rule in the small coastal strip that is home to more than two million Palestinians. But so far, according to Palestinian sources, including Hamas officials and the Gaza-based Ministry of Health, most of the 10,000 Palestinians killed since the start of the conflict are innocent women and children.

These casualty figures have been questioned by Israelis who say Hamas cannot be trusted with providing reliable statistics because the Islamist group has a vested interest in inflating the numbers to win international sympathy and denigrate Israel.

Regardless, Israelis insist the conflict could last for many more months, even years. They argue that eliminating Hamas, the stated objective of the Israeli government, is not as simple as it seems. Hamas, they say, has tens of thousands of militia men hiding within a vast network of well-equipped underground tunnels that include air-conditioned bunkers and stores of food, water and fuel that could last for many months.

This ‘underground city’ was built following Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. In the Middle East at least, according to Israeli military experts, this is the largest underground facility of its kind. In addition, Hamas has deep-rooted popular support that allows it to run a vast network of education, health and social services. These include schools, colleges and universities that Hamas has controlled for the past 15 years.

A second question, for which nobody has an answer, is, who will take charge of Gaza when Hamas is finally brought down. The US says the ideal solution would be the restoration of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that Hamas expelled from Gaza in 2007. What remains of that Palestinian Authority is now based in the West Bank, where it shares control of the area with occupying Israeli forces.

Neither the PA, nor the current Israeli government led by the hardcore right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is enthusiastic about returning to Gaza. Each has its own reasons. Israelis say the PA cannot be trusted to fight Hamas and prevent future terrorist attacks. They point out that there has been an upsurge of violence in the West Bank, emanating from areas under PA control.

For its part, the PA say if it does ever return to Gaza, it must be within the wider context of establishing an independent Palestinian State that includes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Neighbouring Arab countries, specifically Egypt and Jordan, are just as reluctant to play any role in a new Gaza administration that replaces Hamas. For these countries, any such future role of helping to administer Gaza amounts to a massive headache. They would have the responsibility of looking after hundreds of thousands of refugees, including surviving extremists, as well as overseeing the rebuilding of devastated areas.

Palestinians have long and bitter memories of how their fellow Arabs, such as the Saudis and other oil-rich neighbours, promised and failed to deliver billions of dollars in aid. At every annual summit of Arab countries, hundreds of millions of dollars are ritually promised for the Palestinians, but very little has ever materialised.

One exception so far has been Qatar which, in coordination with Israel, has been giving cash grants to impoverished Palestinian families in Gaza. These are small amounts, totalling no more than  $100 per family every month. But even these are not regular payments.

With no end in sight of the Gaza war, and with no answer as to who will replace Hamas, Israel may find itself returning to its old role of an occupying power in Gaza. This is a prospect that appals both the Israeli public and US President Joe Biden, who made it clear earlier this week that he is opposed to any Israeli re-occupation of Gaza. “The President still believes that a reoccupation of Gaza by Israeli forces is not good. It’s not good for Israel; not good for the Israeli people,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declared on CNN earlier this week.

Among Israelis, there is an emerging consensus that it would be unwise to manage the affairs of two million angry Palestinians. Even Netanyahu agrees that Israel should not be re-cast as an occupying power in Gaza, while stressing that there can be no return to the pre-October 7 era, when Hamas had full military control, including the ability to launch random ground, rocket and military attacks against Israeli targets.

Adding to these ambiguities is the future of the 241 Israeli hostages still held by Hamas – ranging from 10-month-old babies to 85-year-olds. Israel says one of its aims is to liberate the hostages but, at the same time, Netanyahu is not willing to pay the price of releasing more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. 

What the US has suggested is a series of temporary ceasefires in return for the release of the hostages. “There will be a ceasefire for that purpose,” Netanyahu told ABC News on Monday.

As casualties on both sides continue to mount, there are no immediate solutions in sight. Both Israelis and Palestinians agree that the October 7 attacks represent a turning point from which there is no going back. For the Israelis, it will take decades — if ever — to recover from what has been described as ‘Israel’s 9/11’. Even shell-shocked members of the Israeli peace camp, who persistently argued for an honourable deal and territorial concessions to the Palestinians, seem to have experienced a change of heart. 

For the time being, they have withdrawn their backing to making any gesture to their Palestinian neighbours.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, they have paid a huge price that includes the destruction of Gaza and the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands. For them, this is a second Nakba, reviving memories of the 1948 disaster when Palestinian families lost their lives, homes and properties following the establishment of the Jewish State.

(The writer is a former Foreign Editor, Deccan Herald, a former Middle East correspondent of the London Observer, and the author of ‘Bullets and Bylines’)

(Published 10 November 2023, 18:37 IST)

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