Israeli forces appear poised to enter Gaza after several days of targeted air and rocket strikes. Mobilization is nearly complete as Israelis return to their units, and Israeli officials have warned the United Nations to evacuate parts of the Gaza Strip.
The question that looms, however, is what happens after the assault. It is a given that hundreds if not thousands of Gazans will die, as will scores of Israelis, and many hostages. While the Israel Defense Forces do more than perhaps any other army on Earth to avoid civilian casualties, civilian deaths are inevitable in a place as dense as Gaza and against an enemy that openly uses civilians as shields. Hamas further forfeits its rights under the Geneva Conventions by itself refusing to abide by the laws of war.
While Israel will likely seek to kill or capture Hamas leaders and commanders, what happens to the group’s rank-and-file? Many renounce Hamas and say they had no choice but to join the group. This has parallels to the de-Baathification debate in Iraq. But those making such arguments in both Gaza and Iraq made moral compromises for material gain. In Iraq, the reintegration of Baathists sparked renewed insurgency.
This means that Hamas members will need to leave en masse. There is already precedent for transfers of such populations among Arab states, most prominently the Black September expulsion of PLO members by Jordan in 1970.
So where would Hamas members go? To seek shelter in Turkey would be destabilizing, given how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan weaponizes Arab terrorists and Islamist radicals as mercenaries in his campaign to ethnically cleanse Kurds and Armenians. Iran is certainly a possibility, though the Iranian government would be loath to accept them. It would signal Tehran’s own defeat, and ordinary Iranians disgusted by their leaders and by terrorism in general would be horrified to see Hamas treated as anything but the criminals they are. Qatar, already home to thousands of Afghan refugees, might be the best destination, given the land available and Qatar’s long sponsorship of the group. Qatari leadership would have the opportunity to demonstrate its motivation is more to help Palestinians than kill Jews. At present, this is unclear.
That still leaves the fate of the Gaza Strip in question. Theoretically, Israel could take possession. After all, under terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian return to the Strip was conditional upon a renunciation of terror. Israel, though, has no desire to administer more than a million Palestinians hostile to it.
The most likely plan, then, is to reinstall the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice erred gravely by allowing Hamas — or any group with a militia — to contest the 2006 Palestinian elections. That act established a dynamic by which groups would seek legitimacy through the ballot box, but impose their will by bullet if unsuccessful. Indeed, this is what occurred in 2007, when Hamas staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority.
The problem with this solution is that no one trusts the Palestinian Authority. For Palestinians, it is the face of corruption. Its leader Mahmoud Abbas is an 87-year-old chain-smoker whose greatest legacy is the size of his family members’ bank accounts. The greatest objection Abbas might have had to the October 7 attack was the description that it was the greatest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — Abbas is a lifelong Holocaust-denier.
Egypt wants nothing to do with the Gaza Strip, a territory they once controlled. It has now become a cesspool of radicalism that President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi would rather avoid. Certainly, the UN should have no role. Its involvement might mean channeling money through Iran-based charities and essentially rewarding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for murder.
Perhaps Saudi guarantees will be sought. Saudi investment helped lift Lebanon out of civil war. Would Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman step in to reconstruct and reorder Gaza?
But Lebanon ultimately failed. Saudi Arabia threw in the towel against nonstop Iranian efforts to undermine them and in exasperation at the venality of the Lebanese political class. The question for the international community is whether the Saudis might have learned from their Lebanon mistakes and be willing to give it another go. The question for the White House is whether, after nearly three years of gratuitously antagonizing the Saudi regime, they might realize that the strategic partnership matters.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).