OPINIONS

Tue 27 Feb 2024 6:28 pm - Jerusalem Time

Governing Gaza After the War: The Regional Perspectives

MARWAN MUASHER,  AMR HAMZAWY,  RAIN JI,  MOHANAD HAGE ALI,  EBTESAM AL-KETBI,  YASMINE FAROUK


JORDAN

By Marwan Muasher

The war in Gaza has been raging for more than four months now, resulting not only in tens of thousands of Gazans killed but also in making Gaza practically uninhabitable. Public opinion in Jordan is boiling, and the official reaction has been unprecedented in its criticism of Israel. The government has gone as far as to support South Africa’s submission to the International Court of Justice, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes. 

Jordan has refrained from publicly outlining any specific plan for the future of diplomacy with regard to Palestine following the war, preferring to focus its efforts on ending the war on Gaza first. But one can infer what Amman’s priorities are, based on public statements and private discussions with international political visitors to the country. 

Jordan understands that a return to the status quo ante isn’t possible and would like the international community to launch a serious political process with a defined end game within a specified time frame. It also will have to reevaluate its relationship with Israel, which was based on co-option and appeasement before October 7. The continuation of such a policy is unlikely, particularly given the strong public anger toward Israel. The absence of a serious political process to end the war and bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians would hinder any future political or economic rapprochement, although the security relationship is unlikely to be seriously affected.

In addition, Jordan still prefers dealing with the Palestinian Authority (PA) rather than with Hamas. Given Hamas’s surging popularity and the PA’s almost total lack of credibility with Palestinians, according to a recent poll, it is not clear yet whether Jordan will decide to expand its network beyond the PA or participate in efforts to produce a revitalized PA without having Palestinian elections, which seem nearly impossible to conduct in the short term. Maintaining the same relationship with the PA, to the exclusion of talking to all other Palestinian forces, will be difficult to justify and would be seen as out of touch with reality. 

Jordan’s main priority remains to prevent a mass transfer of Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt and from the West Bank to Jordan. To that effect, Jordan has repeatedly sent humanitarian aid to Gazans and has maintained close coordination with Egypt. Jordan’s leaders want to make sure that the Egyptian stance remains firm, so as not to set a precedent that Israel can use to try to affect a similar future mass transfer of Palestinians into Jordan, particularly given settler violence in Area C of the West Bank. It has succeeded in drawing the attention of the international community, including the United States, to this issue.

Jordan wants the so-called day after to focus on a political initiative to solve the whole conflict—by treating Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem as one and by ending the occupation—rather than just focusing on who rules Gaza after the war. 

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East. 


EGYPT

By Amr Hamzawy and Rain Ji

Ongoing Israeli military operations and profound civilian casualties have tested regional and international humanitarian commitments and containment efforts. Bordering Gaza, Egypt is now confronting escalating demands and facing increasing risks. 

The trilateral framework between Hamas, the PA, and Israel—which Egypt developed following Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’ takeover in 2007 to protect its interests—has been destabilized. Disputes over the control of the Philadelphi Corridor, a small strip along the border of Egypt and Gaza, have highlighted for policymakers in Cairo the possibility of a collapse of the equilibrium between the three parties and have threatened each party’s bilateral relationship with Egypt. To preserve its security priorities, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has advocated for a mutation to the trilateral framework through the inclusion of a new element that would maintain the balance between Palestinian factions and Israel in postwar governance.

The trilateral framework stems from four Egyptian security priorities vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip. Egypt has worked to avert the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and prevent mass Palestinian displacement since the Israeli blockade began in 2007, while also deterring the infiltration of terrorists into Egyptian Sinai and preserving its sustainable peace treaty with Israel. 

In addition, the trilateral framework allowed Egypt to maintain relationships with Hamas, the PA, and Israel. It has worked as a system of checks and balances that permits the coexistence of the three actors from an Egyptian security perspective, while highlighting Cairo’s reconciliation and peacemaking efforts. For Egypt, Hamas has been the main interlocutor for Gaza; the PA, the internationally recognized government and primary actor in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and Israel, the hegemon with whom Egypt has been willing to collaborate to ensure stability. 

Egypt’s strategic use of its borders with Gaza has been an example of the effectiveness of the trilateral framework. Egypt has leveraged its control over the Rafah crossing to at times pressure Hamas. It has upheld reconciliation talks between the PA and Hamas. It has also worked closely with Israel to limit jihadi infiltration of Sinai through Gaza and curb Hamas’s smuggling activities. Both countries have also collaborated to continue implementing in good faith the 1979 peace treaty. Now, the war has made these goals and relationships much more complex. The humanitarian situation in Gaza has dramatically worsened in recent months, with the Gazan Ministry of Health reporting more than 23,000 deaths, 85 percent of the population internally displaced, and more than 60 percent of housing units destroyed since the start of the war. Far-right Israeli officials have put forward mass displacement plans, amplifying Egyptian fears. Last month, Egypt foiled a drug-smuggling attempt at the border, underscoring that the division with the strip likely will become more volatile and violent. A repeat of the 2008 border breach, during which an estimated 200,000 Gazans entered Egypt, would no doubt threaten Egyptian national security.

Disputes over the control of the Philadelphi Corridor reflect the impending end of the security coexistence of Hamas, the PA, and Israel within the contours of the Egyptian trilateral framework. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel intends to control the corridor by “removing Palestinian [Hamas] officials and stationing Israeli forces.” Israel’s insistence on controlling the eight-mile-long corridor shows that it is no longer willing to tolerate a Hamas-led security regime, does not trust the PA’s return to govern Gaza, and is resolved to stop smuggling threats at the borders by means of direct intervention. Israeli proposals have, informally, gone from intelligence-sharing to suggesting stationing Israeli security apparatuses on the Egyptian side of the border. These proposals have been vehemently rejected by Egypt on grounds of sovereignty and good faith implementation of previous agreements that stipulate the demilitarization of the Philadelphi Corridor.

For its part in the framework, the PA rejects a return to a Hamas-led security regime and governance in Gaza. Although it has continued its security collaboration with Israel in the West Bank, the PA is wary of the intentions and policies of the Netanyahu government. Hamas, for its part, realizes that it is also fighting for its political survival and rejects all scenarios where it is removed from Gaza’s governance. It also rejects Israel’s plans for promoting local committees to govern the strip after the war, the PA’s plans to return to Gaza without the inclusion of Hamas and other allied factions, and any interim international administration of Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt has focused on introducing a fourth player to the collapsing trilateral framework: a future Palestinian government that could take the form of one of two potential shapes. The first is an independent and technocratic Palestinian government. The second is a unified Palestinian government legitimated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and consisting of different factions. This government, regardless of its specific composition, would lead the West Bank and Gaza through a transitional phase before presidential and parliamentary elections may allow a legitimate political figure to succeed Mahmoud Abbas. The first option has been met with widespread Palestinian resistance. The PA is concerned about being sidelined in a government of technocrats, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad have allegedly rejected the proposal since it favors independent technocrats. The second option, although accepted by the PA, has been rejected by Hamas, as the movement’s inclusion in the PLO continues to be uncertain. Despite the cold response, Egypt will likely continue to work toward including the fourth player in an attempt to salvage its framework.

To this end, Egypt has rejected the prospects of an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, as well as the floated Israeli idea to delegate Gaza’s governance to local committees while security is kept in the hands of Israeli forces. Cairo has also expressed its resolve to not participate in any international security and governance administration in Gaza after the war. Moreover, Egypt will likely continue to facilitate Palestinian national reconciliation talks under the auspices of the PLO, aiming at including Hamas and other resistance factions and developing a consensus-based Palestinian vision for the future.

Reconciliation between Palestinian factions would provide better safeguards for the four Egyptian security priorities. A functional, legitimate Palestinian government could better address humanitarian needs in Gaza, accept international aid, avoid displacement of the Palestinian population, ensure stability at the borders, and protect the Egyptian-Israeli peace. Ultimately, Egypt aspires—with the help of regional and international support—to return to negotiations based on the two-state solution with a demilitarized, independent Palestinian state coexisting alongside Israel. 

Amr Hamzawy is a senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. His research and writings focus on governance in the Middle East and North Africa, social vulnerability, and the different roles of governments and civil societies in the region.

Rain Ji is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.


HEZBOLLAH

By Mohanad Hage Ali

A day after October 7, Hezbollah joined the Israel-Hamas conflict through limited attacks in South Lebanon. Its allies in Iraq and Yemen—Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement—joined in the following days, as Israel escalated its bombing of the Gaza Strip. How Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict evolved in the following weeks and months uncovers its long-term strategy during the war and in its aftermath.

While commentators rushed to ask whether Hezbollah would use its medium-range missiles to widen the escalation with Israel, Hassan Nasrallah, the organization’s secretary-general, disappointed many with his justification for limited strikes. He highlighted two goals for the conflict: first, stretching out Israeli forces on two fronts and second, keeping this war about the Palestinian struggle, not one against Iran or Hezbollah. The two objectives, according to Nasrallah’s argument, require a limited confrontation.

Nasrallah said he envisaged a victory for Hamas that mirrors the outcome of Lebanon’s 2006 conflict with Israel. That conflict ended with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, granting a wider role for the UN interim force in Lebanon and Lebanese armed forces along the country’s southern border. The UN resolution did not alter or sever Hezbollah’s military activities in the region, although the organization had to adopt a more subtle approach in boosting its presence within this area.

Nasrallah’s analogy unveiled the Iran-backed alliance’s view of an acceptable end to the conflict. In the Gaza Strip, such an outcome could entail a role for a border regional force or a buffer zone. On the political level, Hamas could hand over the strip’s administration to a new civilian authority. The essence of such a deal would be to allow Hamas to lead and sustain an underground resistance movement against Israel, parallel to a civilian governing administration.

Hezbollah could help Hamas manage its operations under these circumstances, specifically in reconciling or diffusing any tensions between any new authority and its regional backing, on one hand, and Hamas’s military wing, on the other. Hezbollah had successfully managed these tensions in Lebanon, undermining its opponents politically and on the popular level and winning with its allies the 2018 elections. The organization could advise and help Hamas navigate such a transitional phase.

One prominent aspect of the Lebanon conflict is the explicit participation of Hamas’s military branch, the Qassam Brigades, in the fighting. As its popularity grew in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, Hamas issued an open call for recruitment among Palestinians in Lebanon. This unveiled yet another aspect of Hezbollah’s strategy in supporting Hamas during this conflict and its aftermath: to establish a stronger foothold within Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon and potentially in the Palestinian diaspora. Hezbollah will need to actively manage existing tensions between Hamas’s presence and the Lebanese state, which has grown wary of Islamist militancy in refugee camps.

During this war, Nasrallah has further cemented his role as the most prominent figure within this alliance of Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In his speeches, Nasrallah outlined the groups’ participation in the conflict, demonstrating Hezbollah’s significance and respective goals. The Iraqi attacks on U.S. forces, while framed within the Gaza conflict response, probably serve a different strategy: Iran’s pronounced goal of a U.S. military withdrawal from the region, starting with Iraq and Syria. Both exits seem to be attainable: the Iraqi government is negotiating with the United States on the future of its forces in the country, and a similar withdrawal from Syria seems to be a serious option.

On the military level, Hezbollah’s role in the conflict has shed light on its deep ties with Hamas. The two organizations maintain a high level of coordination, which was put into place during the 2021 Gaza conflict and continues today. This relationship reflects the shift in Hamas’s politics and is largely attributed to Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the organization’s political bureau who was assassinated in Beirut on January 2. Al-Arouri helped forge a stronger alliance with Hezbollah, leading to the “unity of fronts” strategy, which was implemented to a certain extent on the second day of this war.

The ongoing fighting is uncovering more aspects of this alliance. Most recently, the Qassam Brigades in the Gaza Strip issued a statement following the assassination of Ali Hodroj, a Hezbollah commander in South Lebanon, noting “his contribution in supporting the resistance in the Gaza Strip.” In the conflict’s aftermath, Hezbollah could assist Hamas in recovering its capabilities and learning from its experiences. A useful guide to understand such a role would be the history of the organizations’ collaboration prior to their rift during the Syria conflict years. Hezbollah has long supported Hamas’s rearming efforts, as evident in the activities of its militants in Egypt who were captured during the Hosni Mubarak regime and who escaped following the January 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Hezbollah’s careful but costly participation in the Gaza conflict has unravelled the organization’s approach to leverage the war, calibrate its attacks to serve its long-term strategy, and limit the risks of an all-out conflict.

Mohanad Hage Ali is the deputy director for research at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses on the shifting geopolitics and Islamist groups after the Arab Uprisings.


THE UAE

By Ebtesam Al-Ketbi

The war in Gaza has raised questions about the fate of regional normalization with Israel through the Abraham Accords and the future of U.S.-sponsored integration projects with Israel. It also calls into question the prospects of merging Israel into regional security and economic infrastructure and the mega-connectivity projects centered around transportation, energy, technology, and trade.

Such questions will become more urgent if the war in Gaza does not lead to a rapid and serious political engagement between Palestinians and Israelis. Such engagement must offer the prospect of a different reality for Palestinians and their national and political rights. Without such a development, the war in Gaza will be the biggest and most important challenge for the Abraham Accords since they were signed in 2020.

Over the short term, the UAE has consistently called for de-escalation, calm, and avoiding attacks on civilians. It used its nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council (which ended recently) to push for a ceasefire in Gaza. The UAE’s diplomacy has stressed the need to end the cycle of violence and the unconditional release of hostages. The UAE and many countries believe that political prospects that lead to the two-state solution are the only way to end this conflict. The government has also emphasized the urgency of regional and international mediators’ efforts to secure a ceasefire, prevent the cycle of revenge and retaliation, release hostages, and block any forced displacement from the Gaza Strip. The UAE also recognizes that extinguishing the hopes of the people in Gaza and the West Bank does not contribute to the prospects of peace between the two sides.

But over the longer term, more is needed than simply an end to the current fighting. In cooperation with its partners, friends, and stakeholders, the UAE seeks to launch an international effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discussions are gaining momentum on how to rebuild and govern the coastal strip after the war is over. There is uncertainty, confusion, and division over the day after.

The UAE has said it will link its financial and political support for rebuilding infrastructure in Gaza to a U.S.-backed viable track toward a two-state solution. The disaster in Gaza could be an opportunity to construct a viable political horizon. This was an essential reason behind the UAE’s engagement in, and leadership of, the Abraham Accords. The UAE believes that a serious road map toward the two-state solution is needed before any talk about rebuilding Gaza. The UAE has emphasized that the future of Gaza and its administration should stay under the control of the Palestinian people, and it underscores that any hypotheses or plans aiming to separate the Gaza Strip from the state of Palestine are not acceptable.

UAE-Israeli relations enhance stability and calm in the region. The UAE feels it must push for more significant efforts to end the Palestine-Israel conflict through a political solution that envisions a state of Israel and a state of Palestine coexisting side-by-side in peace and prosperity. It is essential to make efforts to curb the influence of extremists on both sides.

 

NORMALIZATION PATH

Not only does the UAE advocate for the protection of civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel and urge diplomatic efforts to prevent a broader regional confrontation, but it also maintains that the full impact of the Abraham Accords in the region depends on the establishment of a political horizon between Palestinians and Israelis. Such a horizon should grant Palestinians their right to an independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The events unfolding in Gaza might temporarily impact normalization efforts with Israel but are unlikely to halt them. The ongoing cycle of violence could influence new normalization initiatives, potentially causing delays. Even if there is a temporary impact, it would only postpone these efforts instead of reversing them. The sooner regional governments can protect civilians, including children and women, and safeguard residential areas from the ravages of this violent conflict, the closer they will be to strengthening peacebuilding, de-escalation, and regional integration, as well as preparing for a more promising future in the region. Likely, a comprehensive peace agreement could pave the way for broader regional recognition of Israel.

The UAE and its neighbors stand at a crucial turning point, with an opportunity to embark on a more realistic and mature political path. The Palestinian cause is of utmost importance and cannot be disregarded. The effectiveness of the UAE’s economic and development strategies relies heavily on regional stability and conflict de-escalation. According to Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, Israel’s containment policy over the past two decades regarding the Palestinian issue has yielded no positive results. This implies embracing a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to initiate conflict resolution rather than being solely subject to the existing power balance, which currently favors Israel.

The key lesson from the ongoing Gaza war is that relying on force alone does not offer a satisfactory solution, nor does it bring about peace and stability. The emphasis should be on moderation, tolerance, and rejecting hatred, as these elements need to be rehabilitated.

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi is the president and founder of the Emirates Policy Center and a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.


SAUDI ARABIA

By Yasmine Farouk

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is still geared toward Vision 2030’s ultimate objective of transforming the country’s economy and society. On the eve of the October 7 attacks, this objective translated into a regional security vision that privileged de-escalating regional tensions and downgrading the country’s involvement in regional conflicts, and it translated into five operational priorities: ending the country’s involvement in the war in Yemen; establishing a modus vivendi with Iran; preventing domestic instability in key regional states; securing a U.S. commitment to defense; and diversifying strategic and international relations in the region and beyond. Riyadh was slowly but surely progressing on all fronts. With the exception of diversifying its international relations, Hamas’s attacks and the overwhelming Israeli response have threatened or set back Saudi Arabia’s progress. Preventing, then containing, the spillover from the war in Gaza into the Gulf region became the top priority in the short term, while preventing Saudi entanglement in hastily prepared postwar arrangements for Gaza became the medium- to long-term objective.

When it comes to Yemen, Saudi Arabia needs to neutralize the Houthi threat. Since November 19, the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea haven’t singled out Saudi Arabia, but a Houthi attack killed one Saudi soldier on the border in January. The U.S.-led military response to the Red Sea attacks also led the militia to threaten its “neighbors” with consequences if they joined ranks with the United States and Israel. The Houthi spokesperson stated in a Saudi leading newspaper that the Red Sea escalation will not impact the looming peace agreement with the Saudi “brothers.” However, the attacks have raised the Houthis’ political and strategic profile not only regionally but internationally. This newly found international profile may thus seduce the militia to raise higher demands in the peace agreement with Saudi Arabia. It also means that the Houthis will reuse the Red Sea attacks in the future, despite U.S. and UK strikes, to extract concessions from any party. In reality, the military escalation in the Red Sea is jeopardizing the looming Saudi-Houthi peace agreement by reinvigorating Iranian military support to the Houthis and integrating them further into the Iranian-backed axis of resistance, which is focused on the region, not just on Saudi Arabia. The escalation is also undermining Saudi logistics plans, and it is showcasing that Riyadh’s multibillion Vision 2030 projects along the Red Sea, including those close to Israel, are within Houthi missile range.

Saudi Arabia is also actively preserving its de-escalation with Iran. The two countries held the first meeting of their joint committee with China on December 15, in accordance with the agreement that restored their diplomatic relations in March 2023. The meeting came on top of calls and meetings between the two states’ officials, including a meeting between the Saudi crown prince and the Iranian president in Riyadh during an urgent summit on Gaza. The calls and meetings between the ministers of foreign affairs continued despite Iran’s support for military escalation in the Red Sea. So far, Iran has expressed a reciprocal will to push forward its détente with Saudi Arabia and to continue discussing “a political solution” for Gaza with Saudi Arabia. While the United States was striking Iranian targets in the region, an Iranian military delegation met with Saudi Arabia’s chief of general staff on the margins of a defense expo in Riyadh. Yet the Iranian president’s bilateral visit to Saudi Arabia still hasn’t happened. Saudi Arabia is bearing the potential and real-time consequences of Iran’s inability or unwillingness to rein in its allied militias. Halting Iran’s military support to the Houthis was the top priority for Saudi Arabia in the bilateral agreement, and the revival of such support as part of an Iranian-backed axis of resistance is testing the two countries’ rapprochement.

Like the de-escalation with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s access to a U.S. defense commitment is still a regional security priority in Riyadh. Yet the longer the current war in Gaza continues, the more complicated it becomes to fulfill the U.S. condition of normalizing relations with Israel. For such normalization to happen, Saudi Arabia “communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip.” Previous Saudi statements went further by not excluding Hamas from the political future of a Palestine governed by a reformed Palestinian authority. The Israeli prime minister is explicitly rejecting any future Palestinian state and vehemently opposes any political future for Hamas, at least rhetorically. At a minimum, and in the long term, Riyadh will go back to the crown prince’s request of measures “that ease the life of the Palestinians” and prevent the resumption of devastating military operations. Any future normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel likely will have to take into consideration a potential Houthi or even Iraq-based retaliation against the kingdom. Saudi public opinion is currently strongly anti-Israeli and anti-American but not necessarily pro-Hamas. Therefore, short of a Palestinian state, only consequential Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians and/or international recognition of a Palestinian state could give Riyadh the bandwidth to continue negotiating with Washington on normalization with Israel.

Israeli threats of mass displacement of Palestinians into Jordan and Egypt also rang alarm bells in Riyadh. As the Arab revolutions have shown, Egypt’s stability and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s ideological mother organization, on its territory is a matter of national security to Riyadh. Jordan shares a border with Saudi Arabia and its domestic stability is essential to curb further expansion of the Levant’s problems and their potential penetration into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was already scouting out policy options to help the Egyptian economy before the October 7 attacks. Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf countries, may want to accelerate such plans to support the Egyptian economy. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan are part of an EU, Arab, and Islamic efforts working on a pathway to a ceasefire and a long-term peace process that includes a Palestinian state.

So far, the Saudi strategy is making it clear that its activism to end the war in Gaza will not overtake its domestic and foreign policy strategies to achieve Vision 2030 goals. Even though the weakening of Iranian-backed militias serves Saudi interests, Riyadh declined to participate in the U.S.-led military coalition to retaliate against the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea; expressed its concerns over the U.S.-led military strikes against Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and continues its engagement with Iran and pro-Israel Western countries—all while hosting scheduled Vision 2030-related breakthroughinternational summits and local and international events and allowing its media to rebuff any suggestion to delay them because of the war in Gaza. Yet, as suggested by the Arab ministerial meeting that Riyadh hosted on February 9, Saudi Arabia will not relinquish a postwar role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will remain a major player in any plan that is agreed upon by the Palestinians.

 

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Governing Gaza After the War: The Regional Perspectives

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