Haunted by a chaotic post-Saddam Iraq, the U.S. is scrambling to plan for Gaza after Hamas, even as Israel’s victory over the militant group is far from complete (or certain). But even if Hamas is eradicated, no Palestinian power seems ready to fill the vacuum.
Israel, for its part, has kept its cards close to its chest—perhaps fearing that promising Gazans a better future might be construed as a reward for Hamas’ 10/7 massacre of 1,200 Israelis—and is instead insisting that its military will continue policing Gaza until a Palestinian government it can trust takes over.
Washington and its Arab allies—except for Qatar, which has thrown its weight behind Hamas and been working hard to restore the status quo—are not certain on how to proceed after Hamas.
A revitalized Palestinian Authority (PA) that governs Gaza, on the way to a two-state solution, is how President Joe Biden imagines the future, though no one in Washington seems sure how to revitalize a clinically dead PA, whose boss, Mahmoud Abbas, is 88, deeply unpopular, and has waning influence even over Palestinians in the West Bank.
Instead, Washington should unshackle itself from delusions of a functional PA and start laying the diplomatic foundation for an Arab force, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to manage the Gaza transition with diplomatic and financial support from Saudi Arabia and other like-minded states.
Extremists are likely to pose a persistent threat in postwar Gaza; Abbas’ PA has shown that is something it cannot handle. It has allowed large pockets of the West Bank to become strongholds of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups. In July, Abbas visited Jenin for the first time in 20 years, after Israel had operated against militants’ strongholds. Abbas’ senior officials were booed and chased out. In the West Bank, Nablus too has become notoriously lawless, allowing for the rise of a new radical militia, the Lion’s Den.
As Abbas’ rule has shrunk, his corruption has expanded. In Nov. 2022, the Palestinian president took a dozen family members, including his grandchildren, on an official trip to watch the World Cup in Doha, angering Palestinians, the majority of whom live on foreign aid handouts.
Yet Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Abbas, during a visit to Ramallah last week, that America “remains committed to advancing tangible steps for a Palestinian state,” a statement that confirmed a Palestinian, and general Arab, belief that it is incumbent on America, not the Palestinians, to build a Palestinian state.
The Biden administration has also floated the idea of an international force that can steady Gaza the day after Hamas.
Past experience, however, shows that a UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon stood helpless, watching Hezbollah violate all articles of UNSC Resolution 1701, which called for the group’s removal from the border area. Unless the UN’s Rules of Engagement include using lethal force against locals—an unlikely mandate—policing Gaza will remain a problem.
American or European troops will not fare better. Their deployment will attract jihadis, especially those sponsored by Iran, to sow death and destruction in the strip. Iraq was an example:
While U.S. troops policed Iraq to give its politicians space to reconstitute their state after Saddam, Iran grasped the opportunity to attack American forces, helping turn a transitional period into a bloody war (with ample help from Sunni extremists). Instead of building a new Iraq from scratch, America stabilized Iraq and quickly ran for the exits, putting a band-aid on the problem as U.S. troops departed.
An Arab force might have better chances in policing post-Hamas Gaza. Such an endeavor was tried in 1976, when the Arab League deployed the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) to stabilize war-torn Lebanon. The force was ultimately dominated by the Syrian government in Damascus, which used the ADF to serve its own objectives, at the expense of Lebanon’s interests.
Should the Arab League try an ADF repeat in Gaza, the command should be put in the hands of the UAE, whose military is among the most capable in the region. The Arab force can help develop and stand up a local security force that can win Israeli trust.
The UAE has been the most trustworthy peace partner of Israel among all six Arab nations that have normalized relations with the Jewish state since 1979. The UAE has also shown superiority in building an efficient bureaucracy that has been the envy of many countries, in the region, and around the world.
What the UAE needs for such an endeavor in Gaza is global and regional cover. Enter Washington and Riyadh, two capitals that can impress on the PA to bestow whatever legitimacy it still has on the new Gazan local government and security force.
If successful, the Gaza experiment can be replicated in the West Bank and the two Palestinian territories can be connected when Israel sees that Palestinians have ceased to pose any security threat against its citizens or interests.
The faster the reconstituted Palestinian government and security force win Israeli trust, the closer Palestinians get to independence. Negotiations between two sides that enjoy mutual trust will make the settlement real and durable, unlike past deals.