Israel pressing ahead with creation of militias to run post-war Gaza

Criminal groups and smuggling rings could be used as Israeli proxies, sources say

Palestinians search the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli strikes on Rafah, southern Gaza. AFP
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Israel is pressing ahead with plans to create and arm local militias in the Gaza Strip to hold postwar sway over the coastal territory and rival its archenemy Hamas, The National has learnt.

Sources briefed on the process told The National that Israel also wanted the militias to oversee the distribution of humanitarian assistance to prevent Hamas fighters and loyalists from receiving them.

Most importantly in the long term, it wants the militias to take up law enforcement duties in the tiny but densely populated enclave after the war ends, replacing or augmenting the existing police force, according to the sources.

“The scheme is partially designed to push Gaza into civil strife, with Hamas and militiamen fighting it out,” said one of the sources. “It’s a repeat of the rivalries between Palestinian factions, which has weakened the Palestinians and denied them speaking with one voice.”

Israel has already carved up the Gaza Strip into security zones, sources say, as a prelude to the assignment of security duties to the proposed militias in each of them.

They said Israel was looking to criminal groups that had, among other things, run smuggling rings in Gaza for the nucleus of the proposed militias.

These include groups who masterminded and ran smuggling through a network of tunnels that ran under the border with Egypt.

Authorities in Egypt destroyed most of these tunnels in recent years as its security forces fought an insurgency by militants in the north-east region of the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Gaza.

The creation of militias to run Gaza’s day-to-day affairs, including matters of internal security, could spare Israel direct involvement in the enclave. The Israeli government didn't respond to The National's request for comment on the plans.

It also allows Israel to focus on securing its border with the territory to prevent a repeat of Hamas’s attack on southern Israel on October 7, when it killed about 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages back to Gaza.

The attack drew a devastating response from Israel, whose bombardment of Gaza killed more than 32,400 Palestinians, displaced most of its 2.3 million residents and created a grave humanitarian crisis.

The Israeli plan faces significant challenges given the considerable support Hamas continues to wield among Gazans and its iron-fist rule over the territory since 2007.

Hamas is known to have routinely put Palestinians suspected of spying or contacting Israel’s security agencies on secret overnight trials that mostly issued a guilty verdict. Executions are also carried out away from the public eye.

Tribal sources in Gaza told The National that Israel approached the largest tribes to work with the country on the security of the enclave during and after the war, but the tribes rejected the proposals.

Residents of northern Gaza have created what they call “popular committees” or “tribal committees” to help secure aid convoys. “We are ensuring the delivery of aid to warehouses,” a member of a tribal committee told The National.

Most committee members are not affiliated with factions and each area “has a special committee formed in it now, and they communicate with each other through their members”, he said.

"The committees were established to facilitate the arrival of aid to the people and were formed with the knowledge of Israel, international organisations, and in partnership with the security forces affiliated with Hamas in Gaza," said Hassan Ziad, a committee member.

The Israeli plan, meanwhile, reportedly drawn up by its Shin Bet internal security service, was never officially announced. Earlier this month, a group representing Gaza's tribes and clans said they “are not an alternative to any Palestinian political system”.

Gaza's tribal system is a crucial part of the enclave's social fabric and provided the enclave’s residents with an alternative to Israeli courts, police and other authorities during Israel's occupation of the territory from 1967 to 2005.

Israel’s plan to create militias in Gaza also appears to be a substitute for “day-after” scenarios for the governance and security of Gaza that have been put forward by its main ally and backer the US and mostly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly stated his resolve to dismantle Hamas’s governance and military capabilities but is also opposed to a return by the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, from which Fatah, the dominant faction within the PA, was expelled by Hamas after a brief civil war in 2007.

He has also has rejected suggestions that Israeli troops should make a full withdrawal from Gaza, saying Israel will have an indefinite overall security role there. He has also spoken about relying on local Gaza “administrations” to run the enclave, but without saying where they could come from or who they would report to.

The creation of local militias beholden to Israel and doing Israel’s bidding is not without precedent.

Following its 1978 invasion of Lebanon, Israel turned a mainly Christian splinter group of the Lebanese military into a militia called the South Lebanon Army to help its troops police a border enclave in southern Lebanon after it pushed Palestinians guerrillas out of the area.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from the enclave in 2000.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 1:13 PM