For years, Israel assiduously avoided an all-out military confrontation with Hamas, estimating that it was safer to have a contained Palestinian power controlling Gaza than no power at all. To that end, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nation’s security establishment sought to limit the threat posed by the group via periodic strikes in a cycle that became so routine the Israelis simply called it “mowing the grass.”
Now, in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas that killed more than 1,500 people and upended that strategy, Israel is looking to tear Hamas out of Gaza root and branch in what most expect will be a long and bloody ground invasion. Over the last week, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have called up more than 300,000 reservists, amassed troops along the border, launched an air campaign, and conducted localized raids that have killed at least three Hamas leaders. On Thursday, Netanyahu met with troops in southern Israel. “At the end of this,” says Mark Regev, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu, Hamas’ “military machine will be dismantled and its political structure will be smashed.”
Israel’s declaration of total war against Hamas is understandable after the worst slaughter of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. Israel’s leaders reason that if Hamas is not defeated decisively, the message to hostile powers in the Middle East will be that terror tactics work. But war breeds chaos and chaos breeds unforeseen consequences. The hard question now being quietly raised by officials in Israel, the region, and the U.S. is: After Hamas, then what?
The Israelis have yet to articulate a vision or strategy for what a post-Hamas Gaza would look like. “It’s too early to talk about this as far as we’re concerned,” a senior Israeli official tells TIME. “The focus is on fighting and winning the war right now. What happens the day after, in any case, will take quite a while.”
But by creating a power vacuum in Gaza, Israel risks unleashing a wave of instability and disorder that could have far-reaching impact. Radicalized Palestinians could launch a sustained, asymmetric war against IDF troops in Gaza and civilians in Israel. Outside militant groups could use post-war chaos in Gaza to recruit and grow. Regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia could isolate Israel amid the upheaval while enemies like Syria and Iran could be emboldened to ignite new proxy attacks. “The time to be thinking about the day after is not when you get there,” says Dennis Ross, a former Mideast peace negotiator who served in multiple U.S. administrations. “It’s before you get there.”
Amid the scenes of destruction unfolding in Gaza, it is not hard to imagine what the day after a declared Israeli victory could look like. The streets of Gaza City, Jabalia, and Khan Younis reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians killed in the Israeli campaign. Even more Palestinians displaced from their homes and suffering a human catastrophe that few in the west can contemplate.
What comes next?
Perhaps out of that grim reality Israel could strike an accommodation with the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority to take control over the Gaza Strip in cooperation with the Israeli military to ensure Hamas can never create a military wing again. But that scenario is unlikely. The Palestinian Authority is unpopular in the West Bank, where corruption and dysfunction have fueled anger and dissatisfaction. It has a lousy track record in Gaza where it ruled briefly from 2005 to 2007 before being ousted by Hamas in elections. It would hardly help the Palestinian Authority to ride into Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks.
Then there is the possibility that Hamas could return to Gaza as soon as Israeli tanks pull out. No matter the result of the coming Israeli war, it’s far from clear that the population in Gaza would be willing to move on from Hamas, which is more than a political party or a military wing. It’s a social movement, spawned in the late 1980s as the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. “The only attractive movement right now is Hamas,” says Ghaith al-Omari, a former PA official now at the Washington Institute. “You can destroy all of its physical infrastructure, but it’s very hard to destroy the idea.”
Even worse for Israel, from a security standpoint, would be that Gaza becomes so volatile it would be impossible for a single ruling entity to take hold. That could create a vacuum that leads to pockets of territorial rule by extremist forces, whether it be ISIS or one of its affiliates based in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, another Islamist or Salafi Jihadist movement, or a new iteration of Hamas, either in name or in spirit. “What are the environments in which extremists thrive?” says Khaled Elgindy, a former Palestinian Authority negotiator. “Power vacuums.” The new Gaza, in other words, could generate even more Islamist extremism.
Those unpleasant scenarios leave another painful possibility: that Israel may feel the need to stay in Gaza for years. Israel ruled over the coastal enclave from 1967 until 2005 and going back in for a sustained occupation would require the ongoing presence of IDF troops in Gaza, who would be vulnerable to ambushes. It would foment more Palestinian resentment toward Israel, spawning a new generation of combatants. It would risk triggering wider regional instability and potentially drawing America into a war. And it would trap Israel in a profound moral and military crisis. Any hope for the eventual resurrection of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement would be foreclosed. The deal would likely go from dead to dead and buried. Little surprise President Joe Biden has already warned Israel against reoccupation.
The lack of realistic scenarios is starting to produce unrealistic ones. Some Americans and Israelis are floating the idea of an international trusteeship that would govern the Gaza Strip on an interim basis until a permanent solution is reached, a kind of return to the “mandate” system that predated the creation of Israel. The United Nations would serve as a steward to direct a massive infusion of cash for humanitarian relief and rebuilding the battered Gaza cities flattened from uncountable rounds of artillery. After a period of physical reconstruction, the peace-keeping force would oversee elections in which Palestinians could choose their new leaders. But while the idea sounds good on paper, few people think it’s possible. “This is fantasy,” says Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian and former PLO peace negotiator in the 1990s. “These people are living in an alternative reality.”
That Israel hasn’t articulated an endgame worries those with even a cursory sense of recent history in the Middle East. One need look no further than the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is the fear of a slippery slope,” al-Omari says. “You break it, you own it.” That’s why longtime diplomats argue that military might alone is unlikely to solve Israel’s problems in Gaza. It will also need statecraft. “You can’t treat the use of force as an end in itself,” says Ross. “There has to be a focus on what is the political result of this.”
Unfortunately, few see hope for a positive outcome from a sustained victory by Israel over Hamas. “We don’t have better and bad scenarios, or better and bad options,” says Avi Isaacharoff, a veteran Israeli journalist and Middle East analyst who co-created the series Fauda. “What we’re facing is somewhere in between the bad, the worse, and the worst.”