Gaza's postwar future comes into focus as Israeli offensive rages on

Israel wants a new buffer zone inside the enclave but US views this as a non-starter

Israeli strikes destroyed residential buildings in the Qatari-funded Hamad city in Gaza on Saturday. Reuters
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With the war in Gaza about to enter its third month, discussions are intensifying about what will happen in the enclave once the bombs eventually stop falling.

At the weekend, an Israeli official suggested the country could try to create a buffer zone within the Palestinian territory that would stop militants from getting into Israel again.

“In the framework of the post-conflict relationships, Israel will have to have a security envelope,” Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“We can never again allow terrorists to cross the border and butcher our people the way they did on October 7,” he added, referring to the Hamas attack on southern Israel that saw militants kill about 1,200 people and take about 240 hostages.

The idea of a buffer zone being carved out in the Gaza Strip appears to be a non-starter for the US, Israel's top benefactor.

Any encroachment into the territory, which is only 40km long, would further squeeze its 2.3 million residents. US Vice President Kamala Harris said there could be no shrinkage.

“No forcible displacement, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory, and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism,” Ms Harris said in Dubai during a visit to the Cop28 summit.

A senior Israeli security source told Reuters the buffer zone could extend to about 2km into Gaza.

The US is taking a leading role in shaping the parameters of a future Gaza Strip, and President Joe Biden's administration is growing increasingly critical of Israel's offensive that has killed more than 15,500 people, according to local authorities.

Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” Ms Harris said.

Arab countries, too, have been vocal about what they see as unacceptable for Gaza's future.

Egyptian officials who receive regular briefings on closed talks about Gaza's postwar future have described to The National tense negotiations and conflicting proposals that could take months to reconcile.

Held in Doha, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, the closed-door negotiations have involved representatives of Israel, the US, Egypt, Qatar and, indirectly, Hamas.

At times, the Palestinian Authority attended as talks touched on the future control of Gaza, which Hamas has ruled since 2007.

The US wants the Palestinian Authority, led by 88-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 but who has refused to hold an election since, to be revamped to control Gaza.

“The Palestinian Authority must be revitalised, driven by the will of the Palestinian people, which will allow them to benefit from the rule of law and a transparent, responsive government,” Ms Harris said.

Mr Abbas is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual, and any attempt for him to govern the Gaza Strip in addition to the occupied West Bank could discourage Arab states from investing in Gaza's recovery.

“[Mr] Abbas is now 18 years into a four-year term. The odds of him being able to regain real control over the Gaza Strip is very, very low,” said Jonathan Schanzer, who wrote a book on the 2021 Gaza conflict and is senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington.

“The Arab states are not going to want to invest in Gaza if [Abbas is] in charge.”

Israel has objected to the Palestinian Authority ruling Gaza and insists on leading postwar security, effectively reoccupying the enclave it withdrew from in 2005 after 38 years.

“You won't have a situation in the future where you can have Hamas terrorists on the border,” Mr Regev said.

“There will have to be security arrangements on the ground to prevent that from happening. That is not Israel taking territory from Gaza. On the contrary, that is creating security zones, where you have a special situation on the ground which limits the ability of people to enter Israel to kill our people.”

Mr Schanzer told The National that another crucial security consideration for Israel in Gaza is the elimination of smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Rafah that are resupply routes for Hamas.

Gaza's reconstruction is also under discussion.

Entire neighbourhoods have been flattened, 1.8 million people have been displaced and infrastructure will take years to restore.

Egyptian officials said Qatar, which has long hosted some of Hamas’s political leaders and which helps bankroll the group, would lead a multinational effort to rebuild Gaza.

But Israel is increasingly frustrated with Qatar. Shortly after the collapse of the Qatar-backed truce last week, Israeli officials pulled their Mossad negotiators from Doha and the Israeli military simultaneously bombed Qatar-funded residences in Gaza's Hamad city, named after Qatar's former emir.

Officials cautioned that talk of reconstruction and the obliteration of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities could be wishful thinking.

“It’s impossible to completely finish off Hamas, imagine that it cannot rise again or that it would stand on the side and silently watch,” one of the Egyptian officials told The National.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned that it could take 10 years for Israel to succeed in its stated goal of eradicating Hamas.

Renewed misery in Gaza as Israel recommences air strikes – in pictures

Updated: December 04, 2023, 10:00 AM