Israel says Hamas won't rule Gaza. So who will?
TEL AVIV — As Israel presses its military operation in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his country will never again let Hamas rule the territory.
But here's the problem for Israel: Right now, no one else wants to rule the Gaza Strip.
Israel's immediate goal of removing Hamas is a major military challenge that's likely to take two to six months, according to Yaakov Amidror, a former general and national security advisor in Israel.
"We will not allow an organization to be on the other side of the of the fence with capabilities to attack the civilians and to launch rockets into Israel," said Amidror, who is now a military analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Israel launched its ground operation on Oct. 27, and troops have swiftly taken over much of northern Gaza, and encircled Gaza City, the largest urban center.
But taking full control of the territory may be the easy part. The more daunting challenge could be finding a replacement who's willing and able to run Gaza.
Israel insists it doesn't want to remain in Gaza for long
Israel withdrew all its troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 after nearly four decades. There's no desire for another extended stay, said Amidror, expressing a sentiment that many current Israeli officials have also stated.
"We don't want to take responsibility for 2 million Palestinians to rebuild Gaza," he said.
So who might take on such a monumental task?
Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national security advisor, concedes there's no clear candidate.
"If you want to replace Hamas, who is going to come afterwards? What is going to be 'the day after?' This is the big question," said Mizrahi, now with Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.
The Palestinian Authority nominally leads the Palestinians in the West Bank, but is widely seen as weak and ineffective. The PA used to run Gaza, as well.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that over time a "revitalized" Palestinian Authority could return to Gaza. But that seems unrealistic at the moment, said Mizrahi.
"I'm not sure that the Palestinian Authority will want to come after Israel," she said.
Palestinian Authority says it won't follow Israel into Gaza
In fact, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who turns 88 years old next week — reportedly told Blinken that, "I will not return (to Gaza) on top of an Israeli tank."
Hamas took charge in Gaza by first winning Palestinian elections in 2006. The following year, Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out in a bloody one-week battle.
Since then, Israel and Hamas have battled repeatedly, but the Israeli military operations were always limited, and it sought to degrade, but not to oust the militant group.
This time, Netanyahu says Israel will destroy Hamas and never allow it to have political or military power in Gaza again.
"So anything less than that will be viewed as a failure," said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor. "Whether you think it's the right thing to do or not, the (Israeli) government may have just roped themselves into doing that."
Privately, Israeli officials are talking about bringing in the international community to help run a future Gaza. But no one is raising a hand to volunteer at this point, and prospects are not promising.
Neighboring Egypt isn't interested. The Egyptians have long sought to keep Gaza's chaos from spilling over its border.
Wealthy Arab states like Qatar cut large checks to Gaza, but show no interest in getting directly involved.
The United Nations has long provided basic services likes food, health care and schooling in Gaza, but is not equipped to govern.
In addition, Freilich says, Hamas would not accept rule by outsiders, especially someone installed by Israel.
"How do you keep them in power? Remnants of Hamas will be doing their best to kill the guy who's in power," he said.
A cautionary tale for Israel
Yaakov Amidror said Israel should remember an important precedent.
Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 to drive out Palestinians attacking northern Israel.
Israel did push out the Palestinians, but then found themselves stuck in southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Lebanese group Hezbollah emerged and developed into a much more potent force than the Palestinians that Israel had evicted.
Israel finally left southern Lebanon in 2000 in a unilateral pullout. Hezbollah continues to fire rockets on northern Israel to this day. At the moment, the skirmishes on Israel's northern border are limited. But Israel is deeply concerned that Hezbollah could turn the northern border into a second front in the war.
"We learned the hard way in Lebanon," said Amidror. "We cannot be the kingmakers. You cannot come from outside and determine who will be the Palestinian government. They have to make decisions. They have to make the choice."
But right now, it's hard to see any good choices.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Jerusalem from 2000-2007.
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