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Israel-Hamas war: 5 scenarios for Gaza's future

October 28, 2023

If the Israeli military achieves its stated objective of getting Hamas out of the Gaza Strip, it leaves the area leaderless. Who could take control once the fighting ends?

Israeli soldiers and tanks near the Gaza Strip.
Israeli soldiers have been in a state of readiness for a ground offensive into GazaImage: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Israel has mobilized around 350,000 reservists. Some of those troops are standing ready at the border of Lebanon. Others are waiting at the edge of the Gaza Strip, ready to take part in a ground offensive into the Palestinian territory.

The objective of the much-discussed invasion of Gaza, in whatever form that might eventually take, is the destruction of the Hamas militant group, designated a terror organization by Germany, the European Union and the US, among others. 

There's no alternative to a ground offensive, said Michael Milshtein, a former member of Israel's military intelligence and now a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"Hamas was always very clear in its goals — promoting jihad and erasing Israel," he told DW.

Nonetheless, there is one question that keeps coming up. How would Gaza be ruled if Israel achieves its desired goal, given that Hamas currently governs the territory? The Israelis have not given any official answer to this question. It is also unclear as to whether it will be possible to eliminate Hamas completely.

One thing is clear, though, according to Milshtein. A power vacuum must not be allowed to emerge. Withdrawing quickly would do that, he said, "leaving behind a vacuum which will be filled by anarchy and radical Islamist groups."

The situation in Afghanistan is an example of this. There, the extremist "Islamic State" group has managed to use the weakness of state institutions after the Taliban took over for its own purposes. The same extremist group has also taken advantage of the lack of state control in the Sahel region.

Iran, which supports the Hamas group and other militias in the region, might also benefit from such a power vacuum in Gaza and find new allies or partners inside the Gaza Strip.

So, how would order be brought about in the Gaza Strip after this conflict ends? There are several options, according to Milshtein, but each one presents challenges. Stephan Stetter, a professor of international politics at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich, sees it similarly.

Scenario 1: Israel takes control of the Gaza Strip

Up until 2005, Israel had controlled the Gaza Strip militarily, and it's possible the country could do so again. But such a step could also provoke new militant attacks. It would also have a problematic impact on the regional balance of powers, Stetter told DW.

"There are voices in Israel who are suggesting that Israel colonize the Gaza Strip again," he said. "And that would be grist to the mill for all those who want to fuel and continue this Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Additionally, according to international humanitarian law, an occupying power has responsibilities to the population it is occupying. "Israel would then have to take on this task itself. Financially, that would exceed the country's abilities," Stetter said.

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip.
Taking over the Gaza Strip would make Israel a 'jail warden,' Foreign Affairs magazine wroteImage: Mohammed Dahman/AP/picture alliance

Israel would not be able to reoccupy the Gaza Strip in the face of opposition from its Western allies, including the US, either. Such a move would also negatively impact Israel's relationship with other countries in the Middle East, with whom it has been trying to normalize relations. "That's why I think such a move is unlikely," said Stetter.

This scenario would pose another challenge: Israel would have to seal itself off from the Gaza Strip even more. "Israel would make itself a jail warden, presiding indefinitely over an immense prison camp [to which Gaza has long been compared]," the magazine Foreign Affairs wrote earlier this month.

Scenario 2: Palestinian Authority takes over Gaza's administration

Another alternative would involve the Palestinian Authority returning to Gaza and taking control there, but this idea has a weakness, according to Milshtein.

The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and dominated by the Fatah party, administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But in reality, it only controls a small part of the occupied West Bank. Most of the area is actually under Israel's control.

"We should remember how weak and unpopular Abu Mazen is," Milshtein pointed out, using the popular nickname for Abbas.

The Palestinian Authority and the party that runs it, Fatah, is unpopular among locals in the occupied West Bank. Civilians have protested against it in the past, accusing it of corruption, poor leadership and democratic illegitimacy.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas addresses during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Under pressure: Mahmoud Abbas is not a popular figure among PalestiniansImage: Palestinian Presidency /Handout/AA/picture alliance

The last elections were held here in 2005, and Abbas has been in charge ever since. And he remains unpopular on all sides: While he has been criticized in the West for making antisemitic statements and not putting enough distance between himself and Hamas, local Palestinians criticize him for not being tough and decisive enough about the occupying power Israel.

The Palestinian Authority could play an important role in the Gaza Strip's future, said Stetter, but there's another factor to consider, one that could further undermine its legitimacy.

"If the Palestinian Authority were to move into the Gaza Strip after an Israeli victory over Hamas, it could be seen by some as a war profiteer who seized power on the backs of the war victims," he explained. 

Scenario 3: Palestinian civilian administration

A better option, albeit more difficult, would be a mixed Palestinian civilian authority, said Milshtein. An authority like this could be made up of different representatives of Palestinian society, including, for example, local mayors. It would also likely have close ties to the Palestinian Authority.

A leadership model like this could potentially be supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US.

"It is likely this new order won't be stable for a long time and will face a lot of challenges, but it is much better than all the other bad alternatives," Milshtein told DW.

Scenario 4: UN-led administration

Theoretically, the United Nations can take over a former conflict zone after one party to the conflict is defeated, Stetter said, referring to earlier examples from Kosovo and East Timor.

"But that's not realistic in the Gaza Strip," he noted. "It would be far harder in this case, if not impossible because this conflict is so much the focus of global public opinion. Having Western states potentially play a strong role here is also likely to be seen very critically."

Stetter added that getting a UN mandate on such a matter would also be difficult.

Scenario 5: Administration run by Arab states

Stetter would prefer a different scenario that envisages other Arab states taking the lead in the Gaza Strip, together with the Palestinian Authority.

"This could actually be in the interests of some Arab states, especially those who have strong reservations about the [political group] Muslim Brotherhood," he said. Hamas is seen as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose.

At the moment, the rhetoric coming out of those countries has focused on solidarity with Palestinians, Palestinian suffering and possible war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. The civilian populations in those Arab countries have expressed the same sentiments. Nonetheless, Stetter pointed out, "a defeat of Hamas will not be viewed unfavorably in Riyadh and Cairo."

Gaza: Emergency responders struggle as supplies run low

Above all, a scenario like this would mean that Palestinians might be able to be convinced that their interests would be represented and not just pushed aside. However, according to Stetter, that would require "some unity forces involved, as well as cooperation with the West and the UN."

Besides political support, financial support will also be needed so that any such model can survive economically. Stetter argued that such a model would not only offer Palestinians better prospects but also mean more security for Israel.

Unfortunately, the current ongoing conflict means it is unclear whether other Arab states, even those with diplomatic contacts with Israel, would be willing to invest political capital in such a plan. Experts said such a model would only be possible in the medium term.

This story was originally written in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East