A Positive Exit Strategy From Gaza

by October 2023
A rainbow over the border wall in the northern Gaza Strip, near Netiv HaAsara, Israel. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“The real victory comes not from defeating our enemy but from achieving a better place for Israel and our Palestinian neighbors.” 

Yair Lapid, Knesset Speech, October 16, 2023

The ground campaign in Gaza has yet to start as I write on October 16. Much of the world’s focus is rightly on supporting Israel’s stated objectives: destroy Hamas and free the 199 hostages. At the same time, Israel must provide for the humanitarian supply of Gazan civilians and take all possible measures to avoid civilian casualties, consistent with both the laws of war and its legitimate military objectives, as Jim Jeffrey laid out in his recent piece in this journal. 

Now there is a third priority: planning for a positive exit strategy from Gaza once Israel completes the military campaign. Recognizing that the kinetic phase (to use US military jargon) may take many weeks, this planning is nevertheless urgent. To contribute to what is an emerging conversation over planning for future Gaza reconstruction and governance, I outline below two aspects: models to avoid; and a good model to adopt. 

After decades of failed international engagement in Gaza, we owe it this time to the Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians – and to ourselves – to get this right. 

Bottom Line Up Front: The MFO Model

Once the fighting is finished and humanitarian supply is assured, the IDF should withdraw troops from Gaza as soon as their replacement is in place. A lingering Israeli security presence throughout Gaza will not help post-stabilization efforts, though Israel should continue to maintain a corridor into Gaza in support of the multinational missions. The replacement should be two separate missions with two commands under a single head: one is a multinational gendarme force to maintain order and begin training a new Gazan police force; and the other is a multinational civilian governance team to help the Gazans rebuild economically and begin the process of governing themselves politically. 

We cannot repeat two failed prior efforts in Gaza: the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA). They have troubled missions on the West Bank in desperate need of internal reform. They must focus on the West Bank and cannot take on a new mission in Gaza with any realistic expectation of success. 

However, both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA must be consulted frequently, along with Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority must be assured that the ultimate intention of the multinational mission is for Gaza to decide to reunite with a reformed West Bank Authority. That intention must be publicly and frequently stated: the multinational mission cannot be seen as a continuation of any “divide and conquer” strategy separating Gaza and the West Bank. After it is formed and established in Gaza, the multinational mission must be independent of Israel, Egypt and its member nation governments, with frequent consultations with all of the above.  

The positive model is the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a non-UN international organization staffed and funded by 22 member states with a strictly defined mandate. The US and Israel should convene a joint planning team now to begin defining mandates for the two missions – a security mission and a governance/reconstruction mission – while recruiting nations for these two new multinational teams. The Negev Forum countries (Israel, Egypt, Morocco, UAE and Bahrain) should be consulted from the early stages of planning. But the key members are most likely to be American friends and allies in Europe, South America and the Pacific (see box on MFO). 

Information about MFO

Refrain from Doing Harm

In chatting with experts over the past week about Gaza, I confirmed what seems obvious: no one in the international community knows very much about the potential politics of a liberated Gaza. So the key becomes choosing the right personnel who can innovate in a fairly unknown and somewhat unpredictable environment. 

Hamas has killed any competitors for leadership. There are vestiges of Fatah support and some supporters of Mohamed Dahlan, the former Fatah security chief from Khan Yunis who lives in Abu Dhabi. Dahlan is preoccupied with his many business interests in the Gulf these days and was seen as corrupt when he exercised power; he is unlikely to want to return. Likewise the al-Shawwa family, the traditional source of Gaza City mayors under both the Egyptian and Israeli occupations from 1949-1995, hasn’t had significant political support in Gaza since the Hamas coup d’etat of June 2007. 

In short, the Gazans post-Hamas may be able to have a fresh start at self-government. But of course they will need a stable security environment and the support of capable, dedicated multinational teams, who are funded and prepared to stay in Gaza to support the locals for many years. As a point of comparison, the MFO recently celebrated its 40th year in Sinai observing and monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace.

The American-Israeli planning team for post-Hamas Gaza should first take an oath to do no harm, and here is what I mean by that. 

MFO Force in Sinai. Source: www.mfo.org

No Expatriate Rulers 

One lesson from past failures in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is to avoid the well-educated, English-speaking expatriates whom Americans feel will be welcomed by the locals. Everyone recalls Iraq’s Ahmed Chalabi or Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, but more relevant here is the PLO return to Gaza in the mid-1990s. They replicated their Tunis seaside villa lifestyle in the midst of Gaza. They set up armed guards on the corniche to prevent the average Gazan from entering the exclusive residential zone of their new rulers. When the Gazans got a chance, they voted the PLO thugs out of power (and instead got the genocidal maniacs of Hamas.) 

Even the expatriate Palestinian technocrats in the international organizations are bad fits (though some are impressive individuals, for instance, former World Bank economist Salim Fayyad and former IMF economist Jihad al-Wazir). They have no local followings and don’t have the hard experience of building political constituencies. That’s not their training or background. 

Instead of taking the easy way out of town by dumping Gaza on some set of beguiling expatriates, the multinational governance team should be prepared to work with the local Gazans to build governance capacity – over the course of years. 

No Amateurs or Adventurers – and No Consultants Seeking Their Own Business Interests 

As an Arabic-speaking US diplomat I was assigned in 2003 to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to help build self-government among Iraqis. That mission attracted hundreds of Americans from outside government service, some very well-meaning, but nearly all of whom had no Middle East experience and thus achieved little to nothing in Iraq. Now some of these volunteers over time built a resume of Middle East experience, they learned from mistakes made, including by them, in the US occupation of Iraq. But we cannot indulge the amateur adventurer model at the Gazans’ and our expense.

We must also avoid the Washington consultants, and current government officials who will exit the revolving door into their former consultancies, who always try to tie anything Middle-East related to the Saudis, because they want those ties for their own private business interests.

On one of last Sunday morning talk shows, I heard one such person say that the way to really defeat Hamas was to achieve Israel-Saudi normalization. I felt a familiar chill creep my spine – this was the kind of talk that after 9/11 had the US invade Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Saudi Arabia – Israel normalization likewise is a completely different issue from rebuilding Gaza. 

Let’s allow Saudi-Israel normalization to develop gradually, maturing from mutual Israel-Saudi interests rather than US inducements. Normalization will be best achieved through private sector contacts that produce benefits seen by the Saudi people. Let’s not try to force it into the Gaza project because some people want to benefit personally from Saudi ties.

Khan Younis in Gaza after Israeli airstrikes, October 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot

So who then?

Governmental and non-governmental organization professional staff – in the US, Europe and a few other places – may not have effective lobbies or media appeal, but they (and especially those with prior Middle East experience) are the most likely to succeed in helping Gaza become self-governing. Among this cohort are many who don’t have the right skill sets for the Gaza mission. Personnel recruitment and selection will be the most important initial step in planning. 

On the civilian governance side, the multinational team will need to be able to bring in a wide variety of expertise, from education to business development, once there is interest by the locals. Again, this cannot be driven from outsiders, including West Bankers. The pace and intensity of engagement has to be dictated by local Gazans and the process could take many years. But identifying and recruiting expertise should begin early in the planning process. 

The MFO has worked effectively for over 40 years and it is the right model for Gaza. There are no Israeli or Egyptian staff in it, nor should there be in the Gaza missions. The MFO security team is usually headed by a non-American military officer while the civilian side is headed by an American diplomat seconded to the mission. The entire staff are government professionals from MFO member countries. 

Now, the Gaza reconstruction mission will be much more complicated than the MFO border monitoring mission. But some MFO elements are directly applicable : funded by member states and intended to be in place for years with no pre-planned end date, and staffed strictly by professionals. 

No one knows what to expect precisely from a post-Hamas Gaza. But we might be surprised at some of the Gazans’ reactions.

In October 1988, I took an intensive two-month course in the Palestinian dialect of Arabic at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya. I had left my law firm job in Los Angeles and was headed into the US Foreign Service in January, with some time off in between. My roommate at Ulpan Akiva was a Gazan doctor, a young man who was there to study Hebrew prior to doing an internship at an Israeli hospital. The Intifada had already broken out in Gaza but he was so excited to learn about Israel’s medical practice and, in fact, to learn Hebrew. 

Like many educated Gazans I suspect he has relocated elsewhere over the years of PLO and then Hamas rule. But I hope we will find others like him, interested in learning, and in leading Gaza towards a different and positive future.

Robert Silverman
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
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