Rapid U.S. Action Could Break the Cycle of Violence in Gaza

Mounting civilian casualties and growing worldwide frustration with Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza have placed the U.S. government in a difficult position. Washington backs Israel in its offensive against the Islamist group to degrade its military capabilities and prevent another serious attack against Israeli territories and civilians. However, the Biden administration is no longer convinced that Hamas can be fully eradicated militarily. Instead, U.S. officials are interested in a pause in fighting that could lead to a formal end of the war, starting with a hostage exchange deal that plants the seeds for new political and administrative arrangements in Gaza.

While cease-fire talks in Cairo have seemingly stalled due to Hamas’s unrealistic demands and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence, the Biden administration appears determined to use the current crisis as a basis for a long-term arrangement that includes the recognition of a Palestinian state.

There is concern about the fate of Hamas and what remains of its governance, control, and militant assets after hostilities end. Scenes from Gaza of areas vacated by Israel Defense Forces ground troops, particularly in the northern part of the coastal enclave, have shown several instances of Hamas reappearing in supposedly cleared zones, demonstrating the group’s potential for surviving the war.

The risk of going back to business as usual after this war terrifies me. I am originally from Gaza. I have lost more than 31 of my family members who were killed by IDF airstrikes in Gaza City and Rafah. Both of my childhood homes are gone. My immediate and extended family are all homeless, having had to regularly flee in pursuit of safety. This personal dimension is precisely why I’ve been desperately seeking pragmatic ideas, outlined below, that address humanitarian aid provision and the stabilization of post-war Gaza through new security arrangements. This is not an intellectual or analytical issue for me. It is an existential one that threatens the survival of what remains of my family in the Gaza Strip and the preservation of the territory that I once called home.

While the Biden administration and the United Kingdom are reportedly exploring options for recognizing a Palestinian state, such recognition is unlikely to change much on the ground. What is needed now, more than ever, is an effort to use Gaza as a model for Palestinian statehood and sovereignty.

There is a unique opportunity now, before the implementation of a cease-fire agreement, no matter how long a pause in fighting lasts, to force Hamas to agree to steps that are more likely to result in a path forward. Such a path would allow for Gaza’s redevelopment and political transformation as part of an incoming Palestinian state. Doing so will require applying maximum pressure on Qatar, which is Hamas’s sole political ally capable of making the group moderate its demands during hostage and cease-fire negotiations.

After all, Qatar is not only negotiating on behalf of Hamas but is also hosting the group’s senior political leadership and was the group’s financial lifeline before the Oct. 7 massacre. Additionally, Al Jazeera Arabic has for years been the primary media platform for promoting Hamas’s narratives and bolstering the group’s propaganda which entrenched Hamas’s control over Gaza.

The U.S. must exert its influence over Qatar, including by leveraging the presence of the Al Udeid Air Base and threatening to move the facility (to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia), which has provided the oil sheikdom with stability. The base has shielded Qatar from threats by its neighbors, who were irritated with Doha’s policies and pro-Islamist interventions around the Middle East. Al Udeid has also ensured that the small country stood a chance against future Iranian aggression or bullying since both share the world’s largest natural gas field.

Qatar’s foreign policy is partially built upon the stability that it has from U.S. protection and backing. A threat to this cornerstone of the country’s U.S.-dependent security architecture is far more dangerous than abandoning Hamas, which is increasingly becoming a geopolitical headache.

Most importantly, the pending Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations is an immensely valuable and rare opportunity to pressure the Israeli government into worthwhile concessions that can incentivize the Palestinian leadership and public to adopt a new roadmap going forward. Such a new path must either force Hamas to change its political stance or risk becoming irrelevant and marginalized in the Palestinian national movement for self-determination and statehood.

Unfortunately, given the likelihood that such a deal could take some time, the most pressing need right now is to address the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis brought upon by the continued fighting and the widespread destruction that has befallen Gaza. Not only is the aid being brought into Gaza inadequate, but the distribution of such aid has failed to reach large segments of the displaced and isolated population, particularly in the north.

Because the international community had to scramble overnight to figure out how to bring in supplies and aid through Egypt instead of Israel, which blocked any aid going in for the first month of the war, the current framework has not been able to allow for the entry of vast categories of goods and materials that are necessary. The present system of truck convoys and centralized delivery and distribution through a single entry port—Rafah in the south—and to a limited number of locations is unsustainable and inherently inadequate.

The expansion of the war to Rafah, home to most of the strip’s displaced civilians, risks catastrophic consequences for people who are trapped and inhumanely squeezed between the Israeli military forces and tightly sealed Egyptian borders. One of the primary failures of Israel’s military operation is that it has outsourced dealing with the humanitarian consequences of its assault to the international community and NGOs when it could have played a productive role by providing and delivering needed aid itself.

Creative and daring steps are needed to mitigate human suffering, especially if a cease-fire agreement falls apart, the war persists for more months, or if Israel proceeds with a full invasion of Rafah, which is the last safe haven for most of Gaza’s displaced civilians. Here are five pragmatic options that should be rapidly implemented:

1. Humanitarian clusters in the North: Displaced civilians from the northern parts of Gaza must be given the option to return to what remains of their homes. The IDF—with U.N., Arab, and international support—could help set up humanitarian clusters, which should be safe zones that are dispersed across multiple parts of northern Gaza, particularly in open areas outside major urban centers and especially near the Mediterranean coast. Clusters should have a combination of temporary housing units, tents, field hospitals, food and aid distribution centers, bathrooms, electric-charging stations, and makeshift support centers with social, psychological, and other logistical and administrative services and support. 

2. Provisional seaport: The Israeli government has explicitly stated that it would allow for the establishment of a maritime corridor that connects Gaza with Cyprus. This would entail Israeli inspections of Gaza-bound ships with aid and humanitarian supplies to dock on Gaza’s shores if a capable partner could receive the cargo. France has expressed willingness to send a temporary naval hospital that could dock on Gaza’s shores. The details of how this would be implemented are still unclear.

In the past, Turkey offered to send power-generation ships to Gaza, just as they have offered the same to Ukraine after Russia’s attacks destroyed a significant portion of Kyiv’s electrical grid. The most suitable location for a provisional seaport in Gaza, which can be next to a series of humanitarian clusters, is the coast adjacent to the Al Zahra area, south of Gaza City. If this were to happen, it would be a transformative leap in the quantity and quality of aid delivered to Gaza’s desperate civilian population.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) can be an especially helpful and viable partner in quickly implementing and managing such a seaport, given the country’s vast expertise in managing ports through the state-owned DP World corporation.

3. Dispersed airdrops and designated airdrop zones: Because of the damaged infrastructure throughout Gaza and due to logistical and distribution problems, airdrops can improve aid and food accessibility across the Gaza Strip, particularly in the north. Dispersed airdrops increase the chances of civilians quickly retrieving food and aid parcels instead of relying on trucks that are easier to intercept, loot, or rob en route to distribution sites.

Although airdrops are less efficient than land or naval corridors, they are effective in reaching isolated populations. In building upon the humanitarian clusters model, airdrops can also be done in specific areas that are secured and afforded protection to ensure that food and aid supplies are quickly distributed to needy civilians. The Jordanian, French, and Dutch air forces have already conducted a few small airdrops over northern Gaza, in full coordination and cooperation with the IDF.

The U.S. and the World Food Program can play a vital role in these large-scale airdrops. Additionally, the UAE, which hosts a massive U.N. Humanitarian Response Depot and has suitable aerial assets and effective diplomatic relations with Israel, can also be a key partner in carrying out food airdrops over northern Gaza which is currently facing famine-like conditions.

 4. Interim Egyptian and Jordanian security and police support forces: Hamas elements are starting to reemerge in parts of the strip that the IDF has vacated, and a future Hamas-run Gaza must be avoided. To that end, Egypt and Jordan could be considered as viable partners in providing an interim security solution.

These two countries are uniquely positioned to enter the Gaza Strip and provide provisional security support services to help stabilize the coastal enclave and help secure humanitarian aid and enable the gradual reconstruction of Gaza, opening the strip to international NGOs, private enterprise, and foreign governments. These interim forces can enter Gaza now, even while the war is going on, and be confined to specific areas that the Israeli military has vacated throughout Gaza.

Egypt and Jordan are severely debt-ridden nations that have effective military and security forces and could be offered significant financial incentives to make their participation worthwhile. Notably, both share cultural ties to the Palestinians. Importantly, such forces should not fulfill a counterterrorism role on behalf of Israel.

To ensure that Egyptian and Jordanian peacekeepers are not viewed as subcontractors for the IDF, their focus must be exclusively on providing security that prevents chaos in areas where the IDF withdraws, ensuring that Gaza has an opportunity for a stable future. Ultimately, their presence will prevent Hamas from reconstituting and reasserting its executive and administrative control. Through a political agreement that Qatar can help arrange with Hamas, these forces can operate without fear of becoming targets for Hamas’s militants.

If the Islamist group is pressured by Qatar into making a decision to allow the entry of this interim force as part of Hamas’s potential political rehabilitation, including abandoning violence, most of Hamas’s members will adhere to this arrangement. While getting Hamas to accept this force could be difficult, the group has a strategic incentive to survive politically and remain relevant even if that means giving up control over Gaza. The U.S. can provide funding and other forms of support to Egyptian and Jordanian security and police forces entering Gaza. 

5. A new professional Gaza security and police force: While the Egyptians and Jordanians can help in a provisional capacity to secure Gaza and ensure that humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts are carried out in cleared zones, the U.S.—in cooperation with Arab and international partners—must quickly support the establishment of a new Palestinian-staffed and internationally monitored security force for Gaza. Such a force will focus largely on controlling areas that are vacated by the IDF to secure various parts of the strip while ensuring that control of such zones does not fall back to a reconstituted Hamas government.

The United States Security Coordinator (USSC) based out of Jerusalem can play a pivotal role, as it already has with training Palestinian Authority forces. To reduce friction with the Netanyahu government, control and jurisdiction of such a force should not be under the Palestinian Authority. Instead, it should fall to other parties such as the Arab League, the European Union, and elements of the United Nations.

The initial core of recruits would come from the West Bank. However, for this force to be sustainably welcomed and accepted by Gazans, it must be constituted by Palestinians from Gaza, who should play a central role in their own policing and security. Egypt and Jordan can play a positive role in slowly introducing this new force to areas around Gaza to ensure it is not perceived as coming on the backs of Israeli tanks. Most importantly, West Bank recruits must not be politically affiliated with Fatah to minimize the inflaming of past grievances from the Hamas-Fatah conflict.

Stabilizing the Gaza Strip and relieving some of the unspeakable misery and pain that Gazans are experiencing are fundamental to ensuring that floated and existing “day after” plans have a chance of being implemented.

Gaza should not be a citadel of Hamas and Palestinian resistance. Instead, it should become a blueprint for a Palestinian state that ultimately has jurisdiction over both Gaza and the West Bank. Despite its small size, Gaza has enormous potential to become a hub of Palestinian economic, cultural, and democratic development. The coastal enclave sits by a promising gas field that could finance its future growth and evolution, for example. Furthermore, Gaza overlooks the Mediterranean and could become a Palestinian gateway to the rest of the world through maritime corridors. The strip could even have an airport, as it once did.

A recent proposal by Jerome Segal in Foreign Policy argued that a “Gaza-first” model should be adopted when it comes to recognizing Palestinian statehood and sovereignty. He rightly acknowledges Palestinian trepidation about “Gaza first” turning into a “Gaza last” scenario in which progress towards Palestinian statehood stops in the coastal enclave due to Israeli intransigence or other obstacles.

However, this may be the only path forward in which trust between the Palestinians and Israelis, especially after the horrendous Oct.7 attacks, is gradually rebuilt and reestablished. This is especially necessary after the failures of the Oslo peace process, the expansion of Israeli settlements, Hamas’s violent terror in Gaza, and Netanyahu’s insistence that the formation of a Palestinian state is an inherent threat to Israel’s secure future.

Amid the unprecedented death and destruction in Gaza, pragmatic steps could sow the seeds for an entirely different and better future that gives hope to an utterly hopeless and battered population. The U.S. must quickly use its power and leverage to pressure the relevant parties into taking rapid and meaningful action to secure the release of the Israeli hostages and end the war in a way that initiates such a transformation in Gaza.

Failure to reverse the unfolding catastrophe in the strip will ensure the continuity of violent extremism, whether carried out by Hamas or an even deadlier mutation that feeds off the misery and hopelessness of the Gaza’s civilians.

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