Lack of plan to govern Gaza was backdrop to deadly convoy chaos

Israel’s reluctance to fill the current leadership vacuum in northern Gaza formed the backdrop to the chaos that led to the deaths of dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza coast on Thursday, analysts and aid workers have said.

More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, Gaza health officials said, after thousands of starving civilians rushed a convoy of aid trucks, triggering a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire into the crowd.

The immediate causes of the chaos were extreme hunger and desperation: the United Nations warned of impending famine in northern Gaza, where the incident occurred. Civilian attempts to ambush aid trucks, Israeli restrictions on convoys, and the poor condition of roads damaged during the war have made it extremely difficult for food to reach the estimated 300,000 civilians still stranded there. region, prompting the United States and others to airdrop aid. .

But analysts say this dynamic has been exacerbated by Israel’s failure to put in place a plan for how the north will be governed.

While southern Gaza remains an active conflict zone, fighting has mainly subsided in the north of the enclave. The Israeli army defeated the bulk of Hamas fighting forces there in early January, prompting Israeli soldiers to withdraw from parts of the north.

Now, those areas lack a centralized body to coordinate service delivery, enforce law and order, and protect aid trucks. To prevent Hamas from rebuilding, Israel has prevented police officers from the pre-war Hamas-led government from escorting the trucks. But Israel has also delayed creating any alternative application of Palestinian law.

Aid groups have only a limited presence, and the United Nations is still evaluating how to increase its operations there. And Israel has said it will maintain indefinite military control over the territory, without specifying exactly what that will mean on a day-to-day basis.

“This tragic event reflects how Israel has no realistic long-term strategy,” said Michael Milstein, an analyst and former Israeli intelligence official. “You can’t just take over Gaza City, leave and then expect something positive to grow there. Instead, there is chaos.”

Since Israel invaded Gaza in October, following the Hamas-led attacks that devastated southern Israel earlier that month, Israeli politicians have debated and disagreed over how Gaza should be governed once the war ends, a period they describe as “the day after.” “

In northern Gaza, that moment has practically already arrived.

When U.N. officials toured the area last week to assess the damage there, they did not coordinate their visit with Hamas because it no longer exerts widespread influence in the north, according to Scott Anderson, deputy Gaza director for UNRWA, the main relief agency. UN aid. in Gaza.

Reports have emerged that some Hamas members are attempting to restore order in certain neighborhoods. But other than limited services at several hospitals, Anderson said she saw no signs of public officials or city officials. Uncollected trash and sewage lined the streets, she said.

“The leadership in Gaza is underground, literally or figuratively, and there is no structure to fill that void,” Anderson said in a telephone interview from Gaza. “That creates a prevailing aura of desperation and fear,” making events like Thursday’s disaster more likely, he said, adding: “It’s very frustrating and difficult to coordinate things when there’s no one to coordinate with.”

Videos have emerged of armed groups attacking convoys and diplomats say criminal gangs are beginning to fill the void left by the absence of Hamas.

Without any plan, “the vacuum will be filled by chaos and illegal gangs and criminals,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, an American commentator on Gaza affairs who grew up in Gaza, “or by Hamas, which will manage to re-emerge.” and try to reconstitute it.”

Power vacuums are inevitable after most wars. But critics of the Israeli government say the vacuum in northern Gaza is worse than it could have been because Israeli leaders cannot agree on what should happen next.

The country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a plan in late February that suggested that “the administration of civil affairs and the maintenance of public order will be based on local stakeholders with management experience.” But beyond pointing out that these administrators could not be affiliated with “countries or entities that support terrorism,” Netanyahu did not provide further details.

His plan was so vague that it was interpreted as an attempt to postpone an imminent decision on whether to prioritize the goals of his domestic political base or those of Israel’s strongest foreign ally, the United States.

Vocal parts of Netanyahu’s right-wing base are aggressively pushing for the restoration of Jewish settlements in Gaza, nearly two decades after Israel eliminated them. Such a plan would require long-term Israeli control over the territory, making it impossible to reestablish Palestinian governance there.

Instead, the United States and other Western powers and Arab states are pushing to allow Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to govern Gaza, as part of a process toward creating a Palestinian state spanning both territories.

Caught between these two contradictory paths, Netanyahu has opted for neither.

“He’s trying all kinds of maneuvers to keep his government calm,” said Milstein, the former intelligence official. “Because of all the tensions and all the problematic configurations of his government, he can’t make any really dramatic decisions,” Milstein added.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article.

Nadav Shtrauchler, Netanyahu’s former strategist, dismissed concerns about Netanyahu’s strategy.

“If anyone thinks they don’t have a plan in their head, they’re wrong: They have a plan,” Shtrauchler said. “I think he has two plans. But I’m not sure which one he’ll choose in the end, and I’m not sure he knows.”

For now, Netanyahu is using the ambiguity to postpone inevitable confrontations with both his right-wing coalition allies and the United States for as long as possible, Shtrauchler and other analysts said.

Israeli officials have talked about empowering clans in different areas of Gaza to maintain peace in their immediate neighborhoods and protect aid supplies. But the plan has not been tested or implemented, and foreign diplomats are skeptical about its effectiveness.

Some Palestinians and foreign leaders say several thousand former police officers from the Palestinian Authority, the body that ran Gaza until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007, could be retrained to fill the void. Others suggest that Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan could send a peacekeeping force to support the authority’s police officers.

Meanwhile, “Palestinians who stayed in northern Gaza are dying of hunger,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor in Gaza City. “And basically, they’re trying to find food any way they can.”