Biden administration officials and lawmakers support Israel’s plans to strike hard at Hamas but they worry their ally has no clear plan for who will govern Gaza if and when the militants are driven out, according to sources familiar with the matter, members of Congress and former U.S. officials.
Israel has vowed to “destroy” Hamas, an organization that has been entrenched in Gaza for decades and in power since 2006, but the Israeli government has yet to outline what it envisions for the densely populated enclave after the military operation ends.
Israel does not appear to have a plan or strategy for what will follow its military offensive, said Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. “That’s obviously a big problem, as we learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Moulton, who served in Iraq as a Marine.
“You have to have a plan for the day after and fundamentally it has to be a political plan,” he said.
Even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds marathon crisis talks this week with Israel and other regional governments to avoid a humanitarian calamity in Gaza, Blinken and other officials are also exploring what will come next for Gaza if Hamas is no longer in charge.
“Whenever we are coming out of this we need a future for the Palestinians that is viable. One lesson of this whole thing is, that’s going to be a necessity,” Derek Chollet, counselor to the secretary of state, told NBC News.
Chollet said Blinken raised the issue of how Gaza will be governed in talks on Tuesday with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories.
“Part of the conversation Blinken is having today with President Abbas is what is the future of Gaza without Hamas and what does that mean for the Palestinian Authority and their role?” Chollet said Tuesday.
On Capitol Hill, preliminary discussions have begun about Gaza’s political future, congressional aides said.
The Biden administration has vowed unwavering support for Israel after it suffered a surprise attack from Hamas over its southern border on Oct. 7 that left 1,400 dead, mostly civilians, and an estimated 200 captive. But officials also worry about the effects of a massive Israeli bombardment and an expected ground offensive into Gaza on Palestinian civilians, and how a rising civilian death toll could blow up any international effort to rebuild Gaza without Hamas in control.
Asked about what will come next in Gaza if Hamas is rooted out, an Israeli official said: “At this point, Israel is focused on establishing a humanitarian zone for civilians in Gaza and on destroying Hamas’ military capabilities.”
Other Israeli officials contacted by NBC News declined to comment on the record or did not respond.
Israel remains in a state of shock from the Hamas assault, which shattered the country’s sense of security, and is preoccupied with the immediate task of striking at their adversaries, former U.S. officials said.
“There’s an imperative for Israel to kill the leadership, to destroy the stockpiles of weapons, munitions, explosives, to destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible,” said John Brennan, the former director of the CIA who served in the Middle East during his career at the agency. “But the day after, it’s hard to envision.”
President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Sunday that the administration was trying to examine how Gaza would be governed in the future.
“These are important long-term questions to begin asking and grappling with today. We believe that Israel is grappling with them, we are talking to them about them,” Sullivan told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I’m not going to share the details of those private conversations. But what I will say is, right now, the focus of the Israeli operation is on that terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.”
Biden has said that it would be “a big mistake” for Israel to occupy Gaza again.
The president said he believed Hamas should be eliminated entirely “but there … needs to be a path to a Palestinian state,” he told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired on Sunday.
Given the deep uncertainty about how the Israeli military offensive against Hamas unfolds and how the region reacts, it’s almost impossible to draft a plan for Gaza at the moment, some former officials and experts said.
The elements of any plan for Gaza would likely involve a transition period under U.N. or international authority; an important role for the Palestinian Authority; removing Hamas’ weapons arsenal under the supervision of a third party; strong support from Egypt; elections; major international funding especially from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states for the rebuilding of Gaza; and a new peace process designed to forge a two-state solution, said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior State Department official who focused on Middle East policy.
Such a scenario would mean “the sun, the moon and the stars aligning over a period of months and years,” Miller said. Talking about a new political future for Gaza is like talking “about a galaxy far, far away” given the unpredictable factors at work and the daunting political obstacles, he said.
Jason Greenblatt, former White House special envoy to the Middle East in the Trump administration, said that “the goal should be that once the terrorists are gone, to rebuild Gaza and once and for all try to implement plans that many well-meaning nations have already tried: rebuild Gaza and make it look like it deserves to look.”
“It’s a seaside city,” he added. “It could be incredible.”
David Friedman, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration, said the endgame for Gaza would be if representatives of the Arab League “were willing to step up and kind of pursue some sort of a trusteeship for Gaza for some finite period of time, in a manner that appeals to the Gazans themselves” to form institutions for self-governance.
For Palestinians, the immediate threat posed by Israel’s air raids on Gaza and its order for more than a million civilians to leave northern Gaza make it impossible to contemplate any future political arrangements, much less consider proposals from governments that they believe have abandoned them, said Yousef Munayyer, senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank.
The first and most urgent step needed now is a ceasefire, followed by diplomacy, Munayyer said.
The assumptions behind Israeli military action in Gaza were flawed and merely repeating past failures, he said.
After Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Israelis “calculated that the costs of maintaining a physical military presence on the ground were too high. So, we’ve been through this before,” Munayyer said.
He said that “there is no vision for the day after, because it doesn’t exist.”
Hamas emerged in a power vacuum in Gaza, and militancy would continue to spread as long as the underlying political issues were left unaddressed, he said.
The U.S. approach in recent years has been to focus on reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, an idea launched under the Trump administration, as a way of setting the conditions for an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Munayyer said that has proved to be a grave mistake.
“What we are seeing today, on the ground, is the price that we are paying for ignoring the urgency of dealing with this issue,” he said. “And there was a great degree of hubris on the part of American policymakers who thought that that was OK. That [the U.S.] could go on with our objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, without really paying attention to this issue.”
Despite the current crisis, the Biden administration remains committed to salvaging negotiations for a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an idea that Hamas and its Iranian patrons strongly oppose.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he has spoken at length to Secretary of State Blinken about what could come next for Gaza. “We talked about that a lot,” said the senator, who was part of a congressional delegation due to visit the region.
The Israelis believe that destroying Hamas makes a deal with the Palestinians and peace more likely, not less likely, Graham said in an interview.
“You have a radicalized population and you have to deal with that. But the conditions for change become better when Hamas goes away,” he said. “And I do believe that Israel understands there is no normalization with Saudi Arabia without something significant for the Palestinians.”
Graham said there would need to be a role for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank but was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas, but it would have to be “reformed.”
“The PA is the only game in town. But they need to be reformed. Giving a bunch of money to the same old people is probably a waste. It’s time for a new generation of Palestinian leadership,” he said. But he added that that scenario is “a work in progress” and “it depends on how these military operations end.”
Since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel has launched several military operations in the enclave against Hamas, mostly recently in 2021. But Israel will have to re-examine its past assumptions to break the cycle of conflict, said Gershon Baskin, the Middle East director for International Communities Organization, a U.K.-based group dedicated to protecting human rights and building peace.
“If there’s a chance of a new tomorrow, with a Gaza that might be able to live in peace with Israel, it has to be a Gaza which is open and developed, where people have work and a chance at a better life, and a future. And it has to be based on the ground rules that Israel can no longer occupy the Palestinian people and expect to live in peace,” said Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 after he was held by Hamas for five years.
“We have been living with a conceptual delusion that we can have it all and have peace. We can’t lock 2.5 million people in a cage in Gaza and expect for them not to rebel against us.”