A Palestinian Revival

How to Build a New Political Order After Israel’s Assault on Gaza

After ten weeks of waging a brutal war in Gaza, Israeli leaders continue to insist that their military campaign will press ahead until Hamas has been eliminated. They have yet to articulate what that would mean in practice or who or what they expect to fill the governance void such an outcome would leave. Given the absence of a clear endgame, there has been no shortage of speculation about what will happen after the bombs stop falling. Mooted “day after” scenarios run the gamut from fanciful notions of an Arab-run trusteeship over Gaza to downright disturbing calls, mostly from Israelis, for the transfer of most or all of Gaza’s population to Egypt. The Biden administration has laid out its own “day after” parameters, which, among other things, rule out the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the territory’s reoccupation by Israel. In addition, the administration has said it wants to see a return of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA)—the Palestinian body nominally in control of parts of the West Bank—to Gaza and, in contrast with the last three years, now says it is serious about a political process that culminates in the two-state solution, with a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The administration’s hopeful vision, however, is likely to run up against some hard realities. For one, no one knows when or how this war will end or how much of Gaza and how many Gazans will be left when the fighting stops. Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will not allow the PA to return to Gaza, promising to keep Israeli forces in Gaza indefinitely, including laying out plans for a permanent “buffer zone” inside Gaza that would further constrict the land available to Palestinians. He has assured his partners in his governing coalition that he is the only leader who can prevent the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Events on the ground are already moving in dangerous directions. The sheer magnitude of death and destruction in Gaza is difficult to fathom. According to Gaza’s health ministry, the Israeli assault has so far killed at least 18,800 people, mostly civilians (including 8,200 children). The operation has uprooted more than 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants and rendered much of northern Gaza uninhabitable. Israel’s severe restrictions on supplies of food, water, and fuel to Gaza’s population have led to widespread outbreaks of disease and hunger and what the United Nations has described as an “epic humanitarian catastrophe” and have even prompted warnings from UN officials and other observers of the possibility of genocide. Moreover, the weaponization of mass starvation and disease, combined with the near-total collapse of Gaza’s health care system and the incessant bombardment of a population crammed into ever-shrinking spaces, make it more likely by the day that some or all of Gaza’s vulnerable residents will be forced over the border into Egypt. Such an outcome aligns with Netanyahu’s desire to see a “thinning out” of Gaza’s population.

Alongside Israeli-imposed realities on the ground, the future of Gaza will also depend on developments within internal Palestinian politics. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Palestinians need to be “at the center” of conversations about Gaza’s future. But for this to happen, Palestinians will need to revive not just institutions of governance and security but also, more fundamentally, of politics: the lack of effective political leadership owing to the decay of Palestinian political institutions, notably the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella organization that ostensibly represents the various factions involved in the Palestinian national movement.

As is now clear, the division and stagnation that have plagued Palestinian political institutions for the last 16 years have been disastrous not only for Palestinians but for Israelis and the region as well. Indeed, as many analysts (including myself) have long warned, the debilitating split between Hamas and Fatah—the two biggest Palestinian political factions, which warred over Gaza in 2007—had become a perpetual source of violence and instability. Although much of this Palestinian political dysfunction was self-inflicted, Israel has actively worked to promote weakness and division among Palestinians to maintain its indefinite rule over the occupied territories. This divide-and-rule approach to the Palestinians was epitomized by Netanyahu’s cynical hope that propping up Hamas in Gaza would prevent an eventual two-state solution. The events of October 7 brought that policy to an end.

Any discussion of the “day after” should therefore be predicated on encouraging the emergence of a unitary and cohesive Palestinian political leadership. Palestinian leaders will have to set aside their factional commitments, and Israel and the United States will have to relinquish the wholly unrealistic idea that Hamas can be permanently excluded from Palestinian politics. Convincing either Palestinians or Israel and its U.S. allies to do so will not be easy. But if they fail to make these accommodations, humanitarian and security conditions in Gaza are unlikely to improve and a diplomatic settlement will remain far out of reach.

ANOTHER CATACLYSM
The events unfolding in Gaza since October 7 are of a historic nature, on par with other cataclysmic moments in Palestinian history, such as the 1948 nakba or “calamity,” during which some 800,000 Palestinians, around two-thirds of the British Mandatory Palestine’s Arab population, were forced out of their homes or fled and barred from returning, and the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel captured the remaining parts of historic Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and another 300,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes or fled. Like 1948 and 1967, the current Gaza war is likely to alter the trajectory of Palestinian politics in ways that are impossible to predict.

The ongoing assault on Gaza is already the deadliest single event and the largest forced displacement of Palestinians in history. Just as the horrific attack of October 7 by Hamas will be felt by Israelis for many years, the sheer magnitude of human and physical destruction inflicted on Gaza by Israel will leave an indelible imprint on Palestinian national consciousness for generations to come. Like the nakba, the collective trauma of Gaza today is being experienced well beyond its borders among Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel, and the diaspora, and even more broadly across the Arab world, and it will shape the political consciousness of the next generation of Palestinian leaders.

In the meantime, the difficult but unavoidable reality is that Israel’s stated goal of eliminating Hamas as a political and military force cannot be achieved and is, quite frankly, a recipe for endless death and destruction. The sooner Israeli and U.S. officials come to terms with this fact, the better off everyone will be. Two months of ferocious bombing and the destruction of large portions of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure have failed to dislodge Hamas from power or significantly degrade its military capabilities, including its ability to launch rockets, and has done little to disrupt its systems of command and control. The hostages-for-prisoners deal, although short-lived, demonstrated Hamas’s continued relevance; Israel has no choice but to deal with the group. A recent study by +972 Magazine suggests that Israel may be deliberately inflicting mass civilian casualties and suffering in the hope of inducing Gazans to turn on Hamas, but there is little evidence that such a turn is happening. Indeed, it is more likely that the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza have achieved the opposite effect, driving many Palestinians toward Hamas, as recent polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research have shown.

Hamas is an integral component of Palestinian politics with deep roots in society and a significant following both inside and outside the occupied territories. However abhorrent some of its actions or ideas may be, Hamas will likely remain part of the Palestinian political landscape for the foreseeable future. Moreover, as long as the conditions of occupation, blockade, and other forms of Israeli structural violence persist in Gaza, some form of violent resistance from Hamas, or another group like it, will continue.

A RETURN TO GAZA?
Because of Hamas’s durability and other reasons, it is unrealistic to expect that the group’s rivals in the PA can simply swoop into Gaza and take control of the territory. Despite the preferences of the United States and other Western powers, the PA is unlikely to return to Gaza anytime soon—at least not as it is currently constituted. Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has also expressly rejected that possibility. But even if Israeli leaders could be convinced to change their minds, the PA sees the possibility of regaining control over the devastated territory as a poisoned chalice. No Palestinian leader wants to be seen taking over Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks, particularly someone as intensely weak and unpopular as PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He has said the PA will not return to Gaza unless a clear pathway to Palestinian statehood has been established.

That remains highly improbable given Israel’s far-right government, parts of which favor the outright annexation of the Palestinian territories, and the Biden administration’s track record in the Middle East, including its reluctance to put pressure on Israel. Moreover, the PA can barely control the limited areas under its jurisdiction and is in a state of slow-motion collapse, and Abbas has no desire to inherit the monumental humanitarian and security problems resulting from Israel’s destruction of Gaza. The feeling is most likely mutual, as Palestinians in Gaza are unlikely to be enthusiastic about embracing Abbas’s corrupt and feckless bureaucracy. In the end, given Abbas’s intense unpopularity and Hamas’s intractable presence on the ground, any return of the PA would still require Hamas’s consent.

In light of the flagging legitimacy of the current Palestinian leadership, many both inside and outside Palestine see new elections, which have not been held since 2006, as a necessary component of the postwar order and the eventual reconstruction of Gaza. But the chances of holding a vote are extremely low. The Israeli onslaught in Gaza has caused massive dislocation, destruction, and suffering, conditions likely to persist for some time. These conditions simply would not allow for elections to take place. Then there is the perennial and unavoidable question of whether Hamas would be allowed to participate. It is virtually impossible to imagine any circumstance under which Israel or the United States would allow even a reformed Hamas to contest future elections. And yet an electoral process that expressly excluded Hamas would rob it of legitimacy and could even lead to another civil war. In short, it is extremely difficult to see a way forward for Palestinian politics with Hamas, but equally, there is no way forward without it.

THE REVIVAL OF THE PLO
There are ways to overcome that basic conundrum, but they would require sober thinking and humility on the part of all parties. First and foremost, Israeli and U.S. officials will need to reconcile themselves to the fact that Hamas will, in one form or another, remain a force in Palestinian politics. In addition, they must abandon the idea that they can reengineer Palestinian politics to suit Israeli (or U.S.) political needs, a conceit that has helped erode the domestic legitimacy of Palestinian leaders since the Oslo process began in 1993. No less crucial, Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum must set aside their parochial differences to address the truly existential challenges that they now face.

Many Palestinians already recognize what must be done to revive their politics: the disentangling of the PA from the Palestine Liberation Organization. Whereas the PLO is supposed to be the official address of the Palestinian national movement that represents Palestinians everywhere, the PA was originally set up by the Oslo accords as a temporary governing body overseeing the affairs of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. In the process, the PLO was gutted and its institutional and human resources were effectively folded into the PA in anticipation of an eventual Palestinian state. That state never came to fruition; moreover, as the PA became the de facto locus for Palestinian politics, the PLO was sidelined and allowed to atrophy. The goal, then, should be to reverse this process by downgrading the PA and upgrading the PLO while more clearly delineating the lines between them. This delineation can be achieved through the creation of a technocratic government that is agreed to by all factions, including Hamas, but does not include members of any of them. Such a government should be transitional until the creation of an actual Palestinian state or at least until conditions allow for elections to be held. Because this government would not include Hamas, it could receive international donor aid and function as a service provider rather than a political body.

Hamas’s exclusion from Palestinian politics enabled years of violence and instability.
Unlike most other political systems, where the functions of governance and political leadership are generally held by the same people, the realities of Israeli occupation and the arrangements produced by the Oslo accords have meant that those who govern Palestinians are not necessarily the same as those who lead them. In that distinction lies an opportunity. At the same time as a technocratic Palestinian administration stabilizes and rebuilds Gaza, the PLO must evolve so that it can provide credible Palestinian political leadership and enjoy the legitimacy and support of the Palestinian people. It must expand to include Hamas and other factions currently outside the PLO umbrella as well as representatives of Palestinian civil society both inside the occupied territories and in the diaspora. This basic formula has been outlined in successive Palestinian reconciliation agreements since 2011, but thanks both to Abbas’s reluctance to share power as well as to U.S. and Israeli inability to accept a political role for Hamas, it has never been implemented.

The idea of normalizing Hamas’s presence within the PLO will no doubt spark outrage in Israel, the U.S. Congress, and elsewhere. This is understandable, but it is not reasonable. It was precisely Hamas’s exclusion from Palestinian politics that allowed the group to serve as a free agent and spoiler, that enabled years of violence and instability culminating in October 7. Conversely, the inclusion of Hamas in the PLO’s governing bodies such as the Executive Committee and its long-dormant parliament, the Palestine National Council, would help to moderate the group and limit its ability to act on its own. Decisions of war and peace, including the disposition of Hamas’s weapons, would not be in the hands of any one party but matters of collective Palestinian decision-making and consensus. Although this will make a diplomatic settlement between Israel and the PLO more difficult to achieve, such an agreement is far more likely to stick. In any case, the question of who may or may not participate in Palestinian politics should not be subject to Israeli veto any more than Palestinians should be allowed to choose which parties may run in Knesset elections. Indeed, an effective Palestinian leadership must be able to act in accordance with Palestinian national needs and priorities independently of Israel and the United States, whose coercive influence over the past three decades has helped erode the legitimacy of Palestinian leaders in the eyes of their people.

As Palestinians know all too well from their painful history, it is precisely in those moments when they do not have a credible political leadership that bad things tend to happen to them. This is certainly one of those moments—as the current Israeli leadership no doubt understands. But even though a pliable and ineffective Palestinian leadership may serve Israel’s short-term interests, it has been highly destabilizing to the region and detrimental to prospects for a diplomatic settlement. The challenges ahead for Palestinians require strong leadership of the sort that Abbas has not offered and cannot provide. Although Abbas is unlikely to embrace such reforms on his own, key Arab states that have a stake in regional stability and the fulfillment of Palestinian political aspirations, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, can help bring him along until such time as more credible leadership can emerge.

It is impossible to imagine a process of rebuilding or stabilizing Gaza without a credible, legitimate, and united Palestinian leadership, which in turn requires a revival of Palestinian institutional politics and, more specifically, the PLO. For this to happen, the United States and especially Israel will need to abandon the dangerous notions that they can control or engineer Palestinian politics to suit their own political or ideological needs or that they can make peace with one set of Palestinians while simultaneously waging war on another. It is hard to take seriously U.S. rhetorical support for an independent Palestinian state if the United States is not even willing to allow Palestinians to control their own domestic politics. Normalizing Hamas within the context of revivified Palestinian politics will be a bitter pill to swallow, but the alternatives—such as continuing to insist on Hamas’s destruction, attempting to drag an illegitimate and ineffective PA to Gaza, or forcing elections in a volatile and crisis-ridden environment—will likely backfire as they have in the past.

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