Three weeks after Hamas’ abhorrent attack on its southern border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had entered “a new phase in the war,” deploying ground forces into Gaza. The Gaza battle is poised to be long and difficult, but even if Israel manages to achieve its maximalist aim of incapacitating Hamas, the challenge does not end there. The resulting devastation will almost certainly test the success of Israel’s invasion. Then Israel must prepare for a unique—but fleeting—opportunity to bring legitimate change to Gaza following its withdrawal, lest it risk creating a security vacuum that plunges the Middle East into deeper instability.
What comes the day after war matters hugely to Israel, the region, and its allies across the world. The Biden administration’s extraordinary support for Israel since October 7th is by and large to protect Netanyahu’s government from repeating the United States’ own wartime missteps in the wake of 9/11. While the U.S. pursued a worthy goal in the removal of Saddam, the history of the Iraq War has proven that negligent post-war planning can completely undermine the merits of any military operation. By embracing an invasion without a defined political outcome, Israel risks leaving behind a Gaza in shambles that has no identifiable central power and would almost certainly be vulnerable to a violent power struggle. Even more, it would pass off a victory to Hamas’ main benefactor, Iran, who will surely use the power vacuum to advance its own goals, which include consolidating complete control over the region, evicting any U.S. footprint from the Middle East, and annihilating the state of Israel.
A post-war strategy for Gaza will also help protect the Arab-Israeli peace process, particularly with Saudi Arabia, whose burgeoning relationship with Israel was one of the key drivers of Hamas’ attack. While it may have once been easy for Arab leaders to show scant interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they can no longer afford to turn their back on the Palestinian cause. Indeed, Israeli bombardments on Gaza have led to mass protests across the Arab world, including in several countries with whom it has normalized relations. Israel would suffer a colossal blow to its security by jeopardizing any progress it has made under the Abraham Accords. If Netanyahu’s government can prove that it is determined to create a sustainable political order in the Gaza Strip, it would extend the regional buy-in of its military operation and incentivize its Arab neighbors to remain at—and in the case of Saudi Arabia, return to—the negotiating table. This, in turn, would weaken the strength of Iran, which currently stands to benefit the most from Israel’s diplomatic isolation.
The most fundamental challenge to Israel’s post-war strategy is determining who and what exactly comes next after Hamas. Israeli officials have expressed zero interest in reoccupying the Gaza Strip. The presence of Israeli forces on Palestinian territory would only undermine Israel’s war objectives by perpetuating the status quo cycle of violence, which played a role in Israel’s decision to initially withdraw from Gaza in 2005. Nor would this do anything to placate Israel’s critics, who endlessly berate the state for its settler expansionist policies in the West Bank.
The most optimal outcome would be for Israel to hand back control of Gaza to the Palestinians. Yet, the only available option, the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which initially lost control of Gaza following Hamas’ violent takeover in 2007—is a deeply corrupt government under President Mahmoud Abbas, who is barely hanging by a thread in the West Bank. Rather than immediately handing authority back to the PA, Israel should work with a coalition of Arab and Western partners to explore options for a long-term provisional Palestinian administration capable of governing the Strip until the PA is in better shape to return to Gaza. This political effort must be complemented by a reconstruction program that creates the infrastructure, education, and employment opportunities needed to put Gaza on good footing. Lessons from post-war Iraq underscore the importance of time and resources in state-building efforts; the process of reforming Gaza will require long-term investment and adequate funding if it has any chance of succeeding. Improving prospects for Palestinians is the only way to completely abolish Hamas’ ability to return to Gaza—and certainly weaken Iran’s hold on the region.
Toppling Hamas will be a bloody—but absolutely necessary—endeavor. However, Israel cannot treat its ground invasion simply as retribution for Hamas’ egregious attacks. If it is interested in creating a post-war environment that enhances prospects for peace while denying Iran and its allies any gains, it must develop a serious strategy for building a better Gaza than what came before. Only then can it claim true victory.
Sahar Soleimany is a Middle East research associate at the American Enterprise Institute