Israel’s war in Gaza is raising questions over how the coastal enclave should be managed once the fighting is over, exposing a growing divide between U.S. and Israeli officials on the issue.
Several U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said Israel should not occupy Gaza and the strip must be run by Palestinians.
That has contrasted with Israel’s messaging.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to hold Gaza for an “indefinite period” once the dust settles, though he has not clarified what exactly that would mean for Palestinians.
The post-conflict management of Gaza is also dependent on the outcome of the war and whether Israel fulfills its mission to eradicate Palestinian militant group Hamas — along with how much destruction is inflicted to that end.
“The military operation itself may go on for a very, very long time [and] depending upon what form it takes and how successful it is, there are different possibilities,” said Ian Lesser, the vice president of German Marshall Fund U.S.
“In the worst case, it could be that Israel is dealing with an ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operation that is essentially open-ended,” he added. “So it could be a long time until we even see some kind of new phase.”
Israel held Gaza from 1967 to 2005, when it withdrew following a major Palestinian uprising.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, but the U.S.-designated terrorist group is now fighting for its survival after it launched a surprise attack on southern Israel Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, according to Israel’s revised figures.
Both Israel and the U.S. agree that Hamas cannot be returned to power in Gaza, but the messaging on what happens next is muddied.
Blinken said there may need to be a transition period at the end of the war, but that it was “imperative that the Palestinian people be central to governance in Gaza.”
“We’re very clear on no reoccupation, just as we’re very clear on no displacement of the Palestinian population,” he said at a press event this week. “We need to see and get to, in effect, unity of governance when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank, and ultimately to a Palestinian state.”
On Friday, Blinken also reiterated that the U.S. is against the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and any efforts to reduce its territory. He also said Gaza must not be used as a terrorist base ever again.
But Israel is still reeling from the Oct. 7 attacks and officials are pushing to take whatever steps necessary to protect their people, both during and after the war.
Netanyahu told ABC this week that he is committed to ensuring Israel cannot suffer the fate of Oct. 7 again, promising a “new security reality for the citizens of Israel.”
“For an indefinite period, [Israel] will have the overall security responsibility because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t have it,” he said. “When we don’t have that security responsibility, what we have is the eruption of Hamas terror on a scale that we couldn’t imagine.”
While Netanyahu later clarified he does not seek to reoccupy Gaza, he said at a meeting on Friday that Israel would have total security control of the coastal enclave after the war, according to Israeli media.
It’s unclear what that will look like, whether it would mean an Israeli presence along the border of Gaza or involve control within the territory itself.
White House national security council spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday the U.S. was having “active discussions” with Israel about the issue but declined to speak on Israel’s specific intentions.
While Israel has resisted a global pressure campaign calling for a ceasefire, it remains susceptible to pressure from the U.S., its key security partner. Israel agreed to officially implement four-hour humanitarian pauses each day after pressure from the Biden administration.
Paul Fritz, a professor of political science at Hofstra University who specializes in international conflict, said he views the ongoing dialogue as bargaining between allies with different objectives.
“There are definitely some significant rifts between the U.S. and Israel, along with other states in the international system, but the sort of quiet diplomacy that’s going on might be bearing some fruit,” he said.
“Any movement in that way could ultimately be helpful because these are [small issues] compared to the big political questions that are regarding what to do after the war.”
The war in Gaza is dividing the U.S. into pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel camps, and any Israeli occupation after the fighting would only widen those divisions. Occupation could also spark more anger against Israel, including among those still supportive of its retaliatory war.
In the Senate, progressives like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have not joined calls for a ceasefire, but they have issued statements opposing any potential occupation.
“Palestinians have a right to determine their own future,” Warren posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Israeli military occupation of Gaza undermines efforts to build two independent states that advance respect for every human being.”
Rather than occupation, the U.S. has backed the idea of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, also taking over the Gaza Strip.
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told PBS the government is open to governing Gaza only in the event of a comprehensive solution that creates a Palestinian state.
“We are not going to go to Gaza on an Israeli military tank,” he said. “We are going to go to Gaza as part of a solution that deals with the question of Palestine, that deals with occupation.”
But there’s no guarantee that Palestinian people accept the PA as a governing body, given its own issues with corruption, ineffectiveness and being perceived as too passive toward Israel, experts told The Hill.
Will Wechsler, the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, said it was “unrealistic” to go back to the PA in the event that Israel defeats Hamas.
He said they are struggling to do “the practical work to govern” in areas of the West Bank they currently control.
Wechsler said the PA can still play an “important role” in the transition process, which could involve an international peacekeeping force.
“It’s going to be a real challenge and this is the most positive scenario,” Wechsler added.
The war has also brought a renewed focus on a two-state solution — in which Israel and Palestine would exist in separate countries side-by-side — which many see as the only path toward lasting peace.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told Reuters there must be a “serious negotiation for a two-state solution” with the involvement of the U.S. and other interested parties.
Blinken said at a press briefing on Friday that the tragedy of Oct. 7 “reinforces us in our conviction and our commitment to durable and lasting peace” through a two-state solution.
However, Hamas represents a swath of the Palestinian population that rejects the idea of existing peacefully alongside Israel, and even if the militant group is defeated in the war, the ideology will live on in some form.
The war is already taking a massive death toll, with more than 11,000 Palestinians killed so far, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. That has spurred fears that more Palestinians will be radicalized after the war, continuing the cycle of violence.
“That’s the real danger,” said Fritz from Hofstra University. “For Israel, for the Palestinians, that they’re going to be driven in this way.”