For Palestinians, the “Day After” Starts With a Plan for Ending Israel’s Occupation

Until the international community is ready to bridge the gap between Israel’s and Palestine’s plans for Gaza’s future, day-after negotiations only serve to distract from ending the bombardment and the urgent humanitarian crisis now.

With the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in its third month and a permanent ceasefire nowhere in view, policymakers in the United States and Israel continue to discuss a theoretical “day after” in Gaza. To many Palestinians, such talk is dehumanizing and appears callous as the death toll still mounts. To date, more than 20,000 Palestinians are dead, 40 percent of whom are children, while almost 7,000 people remain unaccounted for.

In considering how to support a better future for Gaza—and for Palestinians and Israelis writ large—U.S., Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab policymakers have a daunting task ahead. As impossible as it is without a permanent ceasefire in place, they must assess the scale and impact of the destruction in Gaza, the short- and long-term needs of Palestinians who remain at high risk for full or partial permanent displacement, and the willingness and capacity of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume governance in Gaza. And they must conduct these assessments even as Israel has indicated it will continue its military campaign in some form for months more, possibly remaining in Gaza indefinitely.

Drawing on an exclusive interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and conversations with other key stakeholders, this article lays out some of the most important questions that must (but, for now, cannot) be answered as policymakers discuss day-after scenarios. The most vexing questions include the future habitability of Gaza; the myriad urgent, long-term needs of the 2.3 million Palestinians who reside there; and the governance of Gaza during any transition period and once a permanent political solution can be implemented.

Considerations for the Day After
The Habitability of Gaza and Its Infrastructure

When discussing day-after scenarios for Gaza, policymakers are assuming that the enclave will be habitable after a permanent ceasefire is reached. That is not a given. The United Nations had already determined that Gaza would be unfit for human habitation by 2020. That assessment has clearly not improved, as Israel’s bombing campaign has taken matters in Gaza from dire to “apocalyptical.” More than 29,000 bombs have been dropped on Gaza, an area twice the size of Washington, DC. This amounts to the weight of two nuclear bombs, causing levels of destruction that the world has not seen since the yearlong carpet bombing campaigns of World War II. The toxins released from spent explosives, Gaza’s pulverized building material, and the white phosphorus Israel has reportedly used in civilian areas are hazardous to human health and will take time to remediate to allow for safe habitation in some parts of the enclave, according to a UN Mine Action Service expert. What will that mean for the ground soil in Gaza and the ability to grow food—and the enclave’s economy, since agriculture represents 85 percent of Gaza’s exports and provides nearly 30,000 formal jobs while unemployment stands around 45 percent? How will the seepage of toxins into the aquifer underneath Gaza impact ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the strip’s only freshwater source? And how will Israel’s flooding of Gaza’s tunnel network to root out Hamas impact future use of the aquifer?

Removing and disposing of the rubble created by the bombings will in itself be a monumental task, made all the more difficult by the fact that most of Gaza’s civil defense digging equipment has been destroyed. New equipment will need to be purchased and transferred to Gaza. How will this be financed, and how will the entry of such equipment be coordinated with Israel when officials there have been reluctant to open up further entry points for critically needed humanitarian aid and foodstuffs?

As for the civilian infrastructure in Gaza, it is yet unclear how much damage has been suffered. UN officials have accused Israel of using water as a weapon of war, but the extent of the damage to Gaza’s water and wastewater treatment infrastructure is not yet clear. The power stations, reservoirs, some water towers, and water treatment plants have been targeted. Some telecommunications equipment, like cell towers and fiber-optic cables, have been destroyed or damaged during the rounds of bombardment.

As for the healthcare sector, according to the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, infrastructure “has been completely obliterated.” More than fifty healthcare facilities have been affected by the Israeli bombardment, while almost 600 doctors and healthcare workers have been killed. This will challenge the sector’s ability to treat the more than 50,000 wounded, many of whom will need long-term care and who will have mobility issues due to lost limbs. With so many parents among the dead, there will also be a need for facilities to care for orphaned and injured children and provide them with psychosocial care. The hundreds of thousands of other traumatized civilians will also need specialized care after surviving more than three months of bombing and deliberate deprivation of food, water, and shelter.

Basic Humanitarian Requirements, Palestinian Displacement, and a Shrinking Gaza

Israel’s strict blockade of Gaza and the denial of food, water, and needed supplies to sustain human life will also have long-term impacts on the survivors in Gaza. Currently in the southern part of Gaza, where Palestinians were instructed to flee and where 85 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced, the World Food Programme reported that 56 percent of people suffer from severe levels of hunger and over 90 percent suffer from inadequate food consumption. Israel’s ongoing bombardment has crippled Gaza’s food production capacity: for instance, several bakeries have been destroyed. Even before October 7, the population was largely dependent on humanitarian assistance and will be in greater need of aid for some time. Water delivery and distribution from outside Gaza will also be needed for the foreseeable future to meet needs. Palestinians in Gaza are currently consuming only 2 liters of water per day, far below the 15 liters needed for basic human survival, forcing them to consume impure water and raw or indigestible foods. This fact, along with poor sanitation, stands to accelerate what the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory calls a “textbook formula for epidemics and a public health disaster” with potentially long-term effects on the population of Gaza.

To the extent that the Palestinian population is able to stay in Gaza under such inhumane and unhealthy circumstances, they will need better shelter as winter sets in. Temporary dwellings must be set up, and basic utilities, healthcare, education, and other humanitarian aid provided, until longer-term solutions are found. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had provided social services and humanitarian relief to between 60 to 80 percent of the population in the strip before October 7 and for more than seven decades has provided primary and secondary school education and primary healthcare services to Palestinians in Gaza (the agency had served more than a quarter of a million students and provided health screening to 1.5 million registered refugees). However, with so many of its local staff killed, injured, or without shelter, and with some Israeli and U.S. officials calling for the dismantling or defunding of UNRWA, it is not clear if UNRWA could take on an expanded role or if it will survive as a UN agency. No organization could readily step in to take on UNRWA’s mandate, and the UN secretary general has expressed opposition to the idea that a UN peacekeeping force would provide security or a protective presence in Gaza during the period between the end of bombing until Palestinian governance.

And even if answers are found for the basic needs of the more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza—shelter, food, medical care, environmental remediation, and temporary protection, among others—how will the youth of Gaza (half the population) be educated with so many schools, universities, mosques, and churches damaged or destroyed?

The prospect that Israel intends to forcibly displace some or all of the population out of Gaza cannot be discounted, according to both the head of the UNRWA and the Jordanian foreign minister. Approximately 1.8 million people are sheltering in Gaza’s south in abject circumstances. Already half of Palestinians in Gaza are starving, and desperation is setting in. In the first few days of Israel’s assault on Gaza, Israel proposed that Palestinians be relocated to Egypt temporarily—though Egyptian and U.S. officials feared the forced displacement could become permanent. Indeed, a leaked Israeli Ministry of Intelligence report dated October 13 recommended the construction of permanent cities for Palestinians in Egypt. If Palestinians are displaced due to miserable and inhumane circumstances of Israel’s making, will residents ever be allowed to return? Or will they be permanently dispossessed, some of them for a second or third time in their lifetimes?

Operating Assumptions for Any Day After

Though the list of unknowns is too long to make for informed planning for the future, and though the situation is still very fluid, certain assumptions can be made right now.

First, Israeli political leaders, both in the government and in the opposition, will insist on maintaining open-ended security control over the entirety of Gaza. They also intend to effectively annex a yet undetermined or unknown portion of Gaza for a buffer zone. They oppose either a return of Hamas rule or the reentry of the PA to the strip and are against a UN presence in Gaza, even a transitional force to maintain public order, though there may be willingness to tolerate an international force in the buffer zone area. Israel apparently would support a regional force inside Gaza to coordinate the transitional period for reconstruction purposes.

Yair Lapid, the more liberal member of the opposition parties in Israel, has posted on his Facebook page a policy vision prepared, he states, following a roundtable that included Israeli and American officials. It calls for the civilian management of Gaza to be temporarily entrusted in the first stage to an international team led by the United States with the participation of select Arab states and local elements in the strip not affiliated with Hamas. The team would engage in management, reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance and would establish a body to replace UNRWA. Considering U.S. and international support for the PA to assume governance over Gaza in a transitional phase and permanently, overwhelming international intervention led by the United States will be required to push back against Israeli impulses that would imprison the Palestinian population in a revamped version of the seventeen-year-long Israeli siege over Gaza.

Regional Countries

Second, Arab states neighboring Israel and the occupied territories are heavily invested in seeing an end to hostilities and a political resolution. Egypt and Jordan have indicated that they will not countenance a single Palestinian displaced from Gaza or the West Bank to their sovereign territory. They have also indicated that they will neither individually nor collectively with others be involved in the administration of Gaza. While Arab states have an interest in leading the dialogue concerning Gaza’s fate and a final political solution between Israelis and Palestinians because of how the hostilities impact their own national security, they oppose any plan that involves them being responsible for Gaza, the West Bank, or the fate of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The U.S. and EU Positions

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell are largely in agreement about what they envisage for Gaza. They do not support Israel forcibly displacing Palestinians from Gaza, the reduction of Gaza’s territory, or Israel’s reoccupation of the strip. Neither has indicated, however, what leverage they might be willing to use to prevent Israel from taking such steps. Both have also indicated support for a “reinforced” or “revitalized” version of the PA to assume governance in Gaza. Borrell suggested the PA’s legitimacy would be “defined and decided upon by the [UN] Security Council.” Their plans assume a role for the Arab states, particularly those that have normalized relations with Israel, by using their influence with Israel to push for its acquiescence to a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Authority’s Stand on the Day After

Given these assumptions about Israel, the region, and influential stakeholders like the United States and the EU, much rests on the PA and what it will or will not do in Gaza once a permanent ceasefire is reached. The PA has indicated that it will not assume responsibility over the strip unless it is part of a political solution that ends the occupation that began in 1967. Beyond that, less is understood about what the PA will demand in return for its engagement on interim arrangements concerning Gaza. What would the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or PA require before entertaining the idea of governance over Gaza? How might a more credible PA be accomplished without or until elections are possible? Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh answered these questions in a series of interviews I held with him over the past week.

On the PA’s position for the day after, the prime minister stated, “today is the day after,” explaining that medium- to high-intensity violence threatens to become the new status quo unless serious efforts are made toward a political solution now. Thus, in his view, the day after must be the day after a plan for ending Israel’s occupation, not the day after Israel decides to allow Palestinian administration in Gaza. He said that no transitional mechanism for administering Gaza by a UN or multilateral force is needed in Gaza.

Despite the political division between the PA and Hamas following Hamas’s 2007 takeover of the strip, the PA has continued to be responsible for Palestinians there. Until October 7, the PA had been spending a third of its budget in Gaza. It was paying for the water and electricity provided by Israel and the salaries of 37,000 Palestinian civil servants, including 19,000 police officers who were replaced by Hamas after the Islamist movement took over governance. The PA has also continued to maintain a shadow cabinet in Gaza that includes ministries of agriculture, social affairs, national economy, interior, and higher education. It also ran the official media in Gaza and supervised the industrial zones and the Municipal Development and Lending Fund, a donor facility. Shtayyeh pointed to the fact that his Ramallah-based cabinet includes five ministers from Gaza (three of whom are currently in Gaza).

Shtayyeh asserted that the PA will not accept any interim or transitional agreement where it takes over governance of Gaza because prior such agreements—the Oslo Accords, in particular—have functioned as a trap for Palestinians. The situation in the West Bank is rapidly deteriorating due to near-daily Israeli military incursions and mass arrests: Israel has rounded up at least 3,000 Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7. As a result, the PA is barely holding on to the 40 percent of the West Bank where it has some authority. A comprehensive agreement is needed to end Israeli rule and resolve all outstanding issues, Shtayyeh argued, while Palestine is still an international focus.

The PA will also require commitments, including from the United States, about exactly what the path toward an end to the occupation will look like and how the United States intends to work toward that objective. In Shtayyeh’s view, U.S. President Joe Biden has to take certain meaningful steps that could not easily be reversed by another administration, including supporting Palestine’s admission to the UN and recognizing the State of Palestine. Political recognition would mean ending the U.S. treatment of the PLO as a terrorist organization, something Biden can do under his executive power. The PA would also want the United States and other stakeholders to use their leverage to address ending the geographic fragmentation of Palestinian communities inside and between the occupied territories and removing Israel’s movement and access restrictions imposed on Palestinians. Any attempt to govern Gaza and the West Bank without such connectivity would guarantee the PA’s failure.

To the extent that transitional arrangements will be needed to lay the groundwork for an end to the occupation, Shtayyeh insisted that Israel not have any say over the day-to-day administration of Gaza or the civil defense and law enforcement required to secure the territory. The PA will also require any transitional security arrangements be linked to the West Bank, where both the Israeli military and extremist settlers have been attacking Palestinian civilians, many times in coordination with each other.

Shtayyeh said he believed the PLO and PA would be supportive of establishing an international monitoring mechanism during this period. The temporary protective presence (TPP) that operated in the West Bank city of Hebron for more than twenty years, whose mandate expired when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to renew it in 2019, provides a useful example. A multinational force led by Norway, the TPP was established in 1994 to monitor and provide confidential reports on the situation in Hebron after an American Israeli settler opened fire inside the Ibrahimi Mosque killing twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers. Unlike the TPP in Hebron, however, Shtayyeh said a new mechanism should be empowered to file public reports and provide recommendations to stakeholders for international action and accountability.

The PA will also need commitments from international donors to help reconstruct and rehabilitate Gaza. In an effort to recover the costs for Israel’s evident targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, provide justice to victims, and prevent any possible future violations of international humanitarian law, Shtayyeh said the international community should also support Palestine’s efforts toward accountability.

A critically important obstacle to PA governance that must be addressed, according to Shtayyeh, is Israel’s continued withholding of PA tax revenue. The PA has not paid civil servant salaries in the West Bank since October 7 because Israel had been holding on to PA revenue in the amount the PA spends in Gaza each month to pay for utilities and salaries. Before October 7, the PA had only been able to pay 80 percent of all its civil servants’ salaries due to other Israeli deductions from Palestinian revenue. Responding to the massive need in Gaza while also reliably maintaining PA operations in the West Bank will require the PA to be able to collect its own clearance taxes.

As for how the PA might be revitalized, Shtayyeh pointed to the plan for reforming the PA that was submitted this year to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a coordination mechanism established to deliver international aid and development assistance to the PA. The plan was also provided to a U.S. delegation that met with the prime minister on December 18. Shtayyeh said that the way to shore up the weak and dysfunctional PA is to end the Israeli practices that undermine the PA’s authority, including military incursions, mass arrests, settlement expansion, and withholding PA revenue. Allowing the PA to benefit from its land and natural resources would also help to bolster the PA’s capacities.

As for Hamas’s future representation in the PA or the PLO, Shtayyeh was circumspect, recognizing only that Hamas is “an integral part of the Palestinian mosaic” but without indicating how Hamas as a political party might be incorporated in Palestinian national institutions. In recent weeks, members of Hamas’s political bureau have been signaling in interviews a willingness to accept the two-state solution and the PLO’s program. On the one hand, the PA understands that any discussion about a political solution with Hamas as a partner will be used to justify Israel’s nonparticipation and likely that of the United States. On the other hand, not including the political arm of Hamas, which maintains some support in Gaza and the West Bank, will guarantee a continuation of internal divisions and the failure of any meaningful peace. Despite how much has changed across the region since October 7, this is one area where the situation may not change at all.

Concluding Thoughts: The Day After Distraction

What is left between what Israel wants for Gaza and what the PA will demand is wide and deep. Unless key stakeholders have a plan for bridging differences and using their considerable collective leverage, the place where Palestinians in Gaza will likely end up will not be dissimilar from the cantonized West Bank, even if the PA assumes responsibility for governance in the enclave during any transitional phase. Palestinians will likely be forced into smaller areas within Gaza with greater deprivation than what they had known before. A different future appears possible, if the international community, lead by key stakeholders, is willing to support Palestinian national reconciliation and elections, make some concessions to the PA toward a political horizon, and use their leverage with Israel. For now, though, the day-after discussions appear to be only a distraction from the more pressing matter of ending the killing in Gaza and securing a ceasefire.

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