TEL AVIV — Israel doesn’t want to end up deciding who rules Gaza after Hamas but is liaising closely with its allies on the future of the coastal enclave, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told POLITICO on Thursday.
For now, it seems easier to answer the question of who won’t govern the coastal enclave after the war, rather than who will. Israel insists it won’t stay on as an occupier, and Ophir Falk, Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, also dismissively shook his head when asked about a role for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority or the U.N.
“I think the worst thing that could happen is for Israel to say who governs, but we can say who’s not going to govern, and it is not going to be Hamas,” he noted emphatically.
Given Israel won’t pick the successor to Hamas, Falk argued a diplomatic approach would be needed to help settle what comes next.
“We are talking with our partners and allies, and obviously have been from day one, although I would say there was a little bit of talk at the start, and there has been a lot more talk after people realized we are going to finish off Hamas,” he said. “Whoever comes after Hamas will know what happened to Hamas,” he added, meaning the war will act as a cautionary tale.
Still, not all suggestions from allies are going down well. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently secured agreement in principle from the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, to take over Gaza but only if there are serious talks about a two-state solution. This would be a highly significant move because Hamas battled Fatah for control of Gaza in 2007 that effectively split Palestinian political structures in two, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah predominating in the West Bank.
Falk gave short shrift to the idea of a return of the Palestinian Authority, arguing it had failed to denounce “to this day the worst atrocities of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” adding “not only have they been unable to denounce the burning of babies and the beheading of children, but there are also some [PA] ministers who even take pride in what Hamas did on October 7.”
Falk said Gaza must be demilitarized and deradicalized once Hamas has been crushed, but echoed his boss, Netanyahu, in insisting Israel had no intention of turning the clock back to before 2005 when Israel occupied Gaza, now home to more than 2 million Palestinians.
Netanyahu has said Israel should resume some kind of military control over the territory for “an indefinite period” to ensure there can be no rekindling of a Hamas threat but he says he isn’t planning to reoccupy Gaza. In a recent interview with America’s ABC News, Netanyahu omitted to say who he thinks should govern the enclave, but he said Israel would “have the overall security responsibility” for Gaza indefinitely.
“We do have an intention and a duty to make sure there’s no threat from Gaza,” Falk stressed.
Falk was critical of the U.N., faulting it for not stepping up in south Gaza, where Israel has encouraged Palestinians to flee from the north of the enclave, where the fighting in the most intense. “I think it’s very unfortunate the U.N. has been able to muster only something like 15 tents in the south in the safe zone,” he said.
U.N. agencies have been reluctant to help establish a safe zone in Gaza’s south. Just hours after the POLITICO’s interview with Falk, the U.N.’s top humanitarian chiefs issued a statement saying that they wouldn’t assist “without the agreement of all the parties” and added that “without the right conditions, concentrating civilians in such zones in the context of active hostilities can raise the risk of attack and additional harm.” They said almost 1.6 million Gazans are currently displaced.
Falk says Israel has no option but to crush Hamas. “These people murdered kids in front of their parents and murdered parents in front of their kids. They raped women, they murdered women. They burned babies alive, they beheaded children,” he said. “Never again is now, I mean, we’ve been saying for 75 years, never again. Well, this is it now. Never again, never again, he added.
But he insisted Israel isn’t getting enough credit in trying to reduce civilian casualties. “We seek to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible. Because it’s the right thing to do morally, ethically. I mean, that’s the way we raise our kids. That’s the way I was raised by my father, a Holocaust survivor,” he added.
By contrast, he says, Hamas seeks to maximize civilian casualties. “They don’t only target our civilians but hide behind their’s using them as human shields. Hamas sees them as a tool of war. It is their modus operandi,” he said. A counter-terrorism expert, Falk dismissed skeptics who say Hamas can’t be defeated because its ideology can’t be suppressed. “Terrorism and terrorist organization can be defeated. There are many examples, including the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Shining Path in Peru, and maybe the best example is ISIS,” he says.
He praised the Israel Defense Forces for what he described as an “unprecedented military campaign,” adding many people “were concerned that we couldn’t beat them, we couldn’t destroy them — not everybody was convinced here and overseas that it is a doable thing. We are proving it is,” he says.
Falk has two sons fighting on the frontlines in Gaza.
Like other Israeli officials, he worried a second front might be opened against Israel by Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite movement. But he assessed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would make a different calculation from Yahya Sinwar, Hamas leader in Gaza.
“As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, Sinwar is a little Hitler sitting in the bunker in Gaza. He doesn’t care about the civilians, and like Hitler, thinks that if they don’t terrorize Israel, they don’t deserve to live. Nasrallah wants to murder Jews just like Sinwar, but I hope he does have some kind of concern about Lebanon, but the jury is still out on that. If Nasrallah does wage war against Israel it would be his biggest mistake ever,” Falk said.