Why Gaza Won’t End Up Like East Timor or Kosovo

Once the present operation against Hamas is completed, Israel plans to maintain “overall security responsibility” over Gaza for the indefinite future, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ABC News. This would likely require a continued presence of Israeli forces in Gaza, raids against suspected Hamas installations, control over the population’s movements, and isolation of the territory from the outside world.

In short, Israel would protect its security interests with an iron fist. Yet, it would disown the responsibilities that would normally flow from this exercise of control—making it armed occupation by another name. Those responsibilities include the duties to care for the population that has fallen under foreign military authority and arrange for governance of the territory.

“We don’t want to govern Gaza,” Israel’s foreign affairs minister, Eli Cohen, has told the Wall Street Journal. “We just want to protect our people.” This is a kind of novel concept of “occupation lite,” which externalizes the costs, risks, and burdens of occupation, beyond the steps needed to preserve Israel’s security.

In support of its security objectives, Israel would likely retain the power to deny humanitarian access for deliveries of food and medicine, or to turn off the tap for water, energy, and other life-sustaining supplies. Humanitarian agencies might find this objectionable, but in the interest of being able to reach the local population in desperate need, they would presumably consent to operate under these conditions.

Israel would also disown responsibility for the vast reconstruction effort necessary to restore Gaza’s destroyed civilian infrastructure, homes and businesses. Instead, it would expect international donors, in particular the EU and its members, along with Arab states and perhaps China, to queue up once more for the privilege.

The U.S. government believes that Israel must not return to the role of occupying power. Instead, feverish planning work is going on, trying to find a way to square the circle, enforcing Israel’s security interests while also avoiding a permanent state of armed occupation. But unless it is embedded in a credible peace process promising to finally resolve the Palestinian issue, this effort is doomed.

Washington is proposing that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, which runs the West Bank, should extend its authority to Gaza once the conflict ends. However, team Abbas is hardly credible. Its administration of the West Bank is notoriously ineffective and beset by corruption. Fatah has a weak standing in the polls and postponed elections indefinitely in 2021. Its general silence during the present, dramatic crisis is likely to have dented its credibility further, especially in Gaza.

Moreover, having been violently displaced from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, the Palestinian Authority under Fatah hardly seems to offer a guarantee against the resurgence of radicalism in the territory. Accordingly, Israel has already confronted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with its opposition to this option.

The Palestinian Authority is also playing hard to get. If Israel remained in charge of hard security, the Palestinian Authority would likely be seen as little more than an Israeli or American enforcement agent. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told the Guardian that “to have the Palestinian Authority go to Gaza and run the affairs of Gaza without a political solution for the West Bank” would be “as if [the] Palestinian Authority is going aboard an F-16 or an Israeli tank.”

Abbas has suggested that the Palestinian Authority might return to Gaza, but only if there is a clear road to a settlement for the West Bank, Gaza, and also East Jerusalem.

An alternative, or an additional step, would be to deploy an international governance mission. That mission would combine peacekeeping with steps to supervise local government and build more reliable structures of self-government over time. The examples of East Timor and Kosovo are often invoked in this context. Both were major international deployments drawing on hundreds of civilian administrators and thousands of soldiers.

It is unlikely that Western powers will put themselves forward as potential peacekeepers. They would instantly turn into veritable magnets for jihadist spoilers. Heavily armed U.S. forces withdrew ignominiously from Lebanon in 1983, when terrorists killed 241 Marines, and from Somalia a decade later after 18 service members died in the Black Hawk Down Incident.

Members of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference might also be rather hesitant. With Israel claiming the right to intervene militarily whenever it deems necessary, and likely to maintain a military presence in the territory, an Arab force could only aim at supporting an international governance mission while keeping civil order in Gaza. Again, this role would bring it perilously close to appearing to act as Israel’s surrogate in keeping the territory and its population under control while keeping it in a permanent state of hopelessness and limbo.

In addition, international administration is no panacea. While it is meant to foster indigenous structures of governance, it often hinders their establishment. International governance tends to relieve emerging local leaders from accountability for inefficiency and corruption. Any failing of governance will be blamed on the international mission, rather than the newly empowered elite.

Moreover, an international governance mission would presumably supervise the actions of the emerging local authorities, whether led by Fatah or others, correcting and at times overruling their actions. This would strengthen the sense of foreign control, or disguised occupation, among the population and foster resistance in the mid-term.

The attempt to construct fresh institutions and fill them with genuine democratic leaders under international tutelage may also be criticized as the kind of illusion that fueled similar, ultimately futile and in retrospect naive attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who, after all, can ensure that Palestinians in Gaza would not opt for the ideological successors to Hamas instead of a tame Palestinian Authority some years down the line, especially if a new militant organization appears to be the only body representing their demands for genuine Palestinian statehood with some energy?

There is a critical difference between Gaza on one hand and East Timor and Kosovo on the other. The operation in East Timor was launched after Indonesian troops ransacked the territory in 1999, after the population opted for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum. Around 1,400 Eastern Timorese were killed, with half a million violently displaced.

The United Nations provided an international governance mission supported by 1,600 international police personnel and 9,000 troops. Over a period of two and a half years, the mission provided reassurance and stability for the terrorized population, while preparations were made for eventual independence in May 2022.

In Gaza, too, an international presence might well be welcomed initially. Its would presumably spell the end of Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has already cost around 15,000 mainly civilian lives and resulted in the destruction of much of the civilian infrastructure. But a welcome may not last long.

In East Timor, the aim of the mission was clear: preparing the territory for independence within an agreed, short period. In Gaza, the situation would look quite different. Unless it is tied to implementing a peace settlement including full statehood, international administration would lead nowhere. It would become yet another symbol of the disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people and be seen as a tool to maintain the status quo forever more.

This kind of risk became clear a few years into the international operation in Kosovo. The international civil mission was supported by a large, NATO-led military presence. In the wake of the Kosovo War, NATO was widely seen by Kosovo’s mainly ethnic Albanian population as its heroic savior from Serbian repression.

The U.N. mandate for the operation left the eventual status of Kosovo open, focusing instead on building capacity for local self-government. However, as the mission progressed, the population became restless, demanding commencement of final status negotiations.

By 2004, despite the status of NATO troops in the country as liberating heroes, violent riots demanding independence erupted. This forced the U.N. to launch talks on final status. The U.N. mediator in the end concluded that the population would not accept any outcome other than independence, despite fierce resistance by Serbia. To this day, Kosovo’s status remains contested and attempts to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo have stalled, leading to military tensions dampened by the forever continuing NATO presence.

In short, international administration can only work if it is clear from the outset that it serves to move a territory to the political status desired by its population, as was the case in East Timor and, eventually, Kosovo. Where there is no clear and irreversible direction of travel toward that status, the mission itself will be seen as a tool to frustrate the wishes of the population, triggering unrest and violent protest in favor of change. And where there is no prospect of a status settlement, the mission will take on the mantle of armed occupation after a time.

The risk that the mission is seen as tainted from the outset by the local population is even more pronounced in this instance. Even after the vast destruction and loss of life brought about by Israel, the operation would still be visibly confined by requirements imposed by an Israel intent on enforcing its security interests in the territory for the indefinite future. Israel’s strategy of externalizing the tasks and costs of maintaining a virtual international occupation, while keeping a firm hold of security control, therefore cannot succeed.

While formally opposing continued occupation, the United States is at risk of serving Israel’s doomed strategy by bringing together external actors to help facilitate that strategy. But international governance, however well-intentioned, will quickly take on the mantle of occupation. And continued occupation, in whatever guise, will breed continued violence aiming to overcome it. The only difference is the hypothetical international mission would become its target alongside Israel.

The only way out of this dilemma is to be serious about embedding arrangements for post-war Gaza in a clear path toward a settlement of the Palestine issue, once and for all. In fact, all relevant actors other than Israel’s present leadership seem to accept that there is no chance for post-conflict governance in Gaza unless there is a clear and credible path toward a comprehensive settlement.

Abbas has made cooperation on governance in Gaza dependent on a settlement. So have the potentially force-contributing Arab states. If they are wise, the Western governments expected to pay, once more, billions for rehabilitation and reconstruction, will do the same before they reach for their checkbooks.

Blinken has now started to repeat this mantra in his more recent visits to Middle Eastern capitals, seeking to shore up regional support for the emerging U.S. post-conflict design. Yet, in view of the disappointing experience of the past three-quarters of a century, the challenge is to make the prospect of a settlement a real one.

In fact, despite the traumatic outrage of Oct. 7 and the massive amount of violence unleashed in response, there could now finally be a chance for a settlement. Miraculously, the key Arab states have not disowned the Abraham Accords, and even Saudi Arabia is still (for now) holding out the possibility of an accord with Israel.

This leaves in place the first key piece in the puzzle—the recognition by all that Israel has a right to exist. Even Iran might be impelled not to obstruct a regional settlement, if China can be brought to support a grand settlement.

Addressing Palestine would be a key element of that process, but it would be a broader design, offering economic integration and common security for the Middle East as a whole, including Israel. This will require an amazing degree of coordination among diverse sets of actors, through a large group of states convened by the United States in cooperation with the U.N.

The question is whether, after the trauma of Oct. 7, Israel will find the courage to engage in a process as complex and challenging as this one, perhaps after a change in government. But the truth is that the Palestine issue will not go away. It cannot be resolved through security control over millions of Palestinians for the indefinite future.

If this present tragic episode is not to become the breeding ground for yet more endless violence, this is in fact the moment to embrace a grand design for peace for the entire region.

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