Israel has yet to agree a detailed plan for postwar Gaza, raising fears within its unity government and in Washington that a land invasion against Hamas could begin without adequate preparation for its aftermath.
Several people familiar with the deliberations described Israel embarking on a sprawling and ongoing effort, involving multiple Israeli military bodies and external analysts, to develop a strategy for Gaza after Israel’s expected land offensive.
But around two weeks after Hamas’s devastating attacks, there remain many unresolved questions over Israel’s exit-strategy and postwar goals. The US has directly raised its concerns with Israel, according to sources close to the process. The lack of an exit-plan is one factor in the delays to the Gaza ground operation that has long been threatened by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“There is no plan for the ‘day after’. The [Israeli] system hasn’t decided yet,” said one person familiar with Israeli thinking. “The Americans went crazy when they realised there was no plan.”
In what were described as probing conversations with Israeli officials, US officials have encouraged their counterparts to think about how to achieve their military aims should the original plans fail, and to imagine the day after.
“We’re interested in seeing branches and sequels,” a US official said, using American military terminology referring to different battle plans and post-invasion scenarios.
Hamas’ October 7 attack on southern Israel killed more than 1,400 people, the vast majority civilians, according to Israeli authorities, with over 200 still held hostage inside Gaza including women, children and the elderly. Israel immediately declared war on Hamas, vowing to “crush” the militant Islamist group.
Since Israel retaliated with air strikes, at least 5,791 people have been killed in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials, and aid groups have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster due to an ongoing Israeli “siege” that has severely curtailed the supply of food, water, medicine and fuel.
Any plan for the Palestinian enclave would aim to establish who should control and sustain Gaza the “day after” Israel achieves its purported war aim of destroying Hamas as a military and governing force. Hamas has ruled the coastal enclave since a violent putsch in 2007 kicked out the more moderate, Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Some senior government ministers have laid out plans for expansive buffer zones inside Gaza and a “complete disengagement” from the territory that would sever its ties to Israel and the West Bank. But no consensus has yet been reached within the war cabinet.
Several people close to the Israeli planning process described a frantic effort to establish clear war aims, develop realistic post-conflict scenarios, and agree them across the military and civilian leadership.
As a condition of joining Netanyahu’s “emergency government” in the days after the Hamas attack, opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot insisted on there being a clear plan for how Israel’s military would leave Gaza and what governing regime would replace Hamas. Gantz and Eisenkot, both former military chiefs, are now part of the small war cabinet leading the campaign against Hamas.
The Planning Directorate within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been officially given the task of co-ordinating the postwar strategy. Several retired senior officers and external analysts have been called up for reserve duty to assist the effort.
Additional entities inside the Israeli security establishment are also supporting the work. These include the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a military unit responsible for civilian life in the Palestinian territories, and various offices in the Ministry of Defense that liaise with neighbouring Arab states.
“Everyone is working on this, and everyone in their lane,” said a second person familiar with Israeli thinking.
Current and former Israeli officials, western diplomats and experts on Israeli-Palestinian affairs said policy proposals have also been developed through more informal channels.
Such unofficial position papers have reached the Israeli war cabinet and been circulated within the US administration, according to several people who have either worked on or seen the proposals.
One recurring theme in the proposals is avoiding an open-ended Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, a narrow coastal strip that is home to 2.3mn people. Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005.
Another is the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which may be called upon to reassert control in Gaza even though it is considered to be a weak institution that lacks credibility among Palestinians.
Any such move would also probably require wholesale changes in Israel’s policy on the occupied West Bank, where the PA is based, including settlement expansion. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has been staunchly against curtailing West Bank settlements.
A third element in planning is the potential for Arab states including Egypt and Saudi Arabia to play a direct role, including possible financial and peacekeeping support in Gaza.
Many independent proposals have circulated in Washington and other western capitals and have sometimes been mistakenly identified as official Israeli positions. In at least one instance, the US has also directly sought a detailed postwar planning memo.
“On the third day of the war, we were asked by the [US administration] for ideas and we started working on it,” said the co-author of one such independent report. “I assume [they received similar papers] not just from us.”
Speaking to CBS on Sunday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that Israel had the right to defend itself and that the “status quo” in Gaza prior to the war could not return.
“There are different ideas out there about what could follow. It’s something that needs to be worked even as Israel is dealing with the current threat,” Blinken added.
A second person familiar with the Israeli discussions noted how important the course of the war was for any postwar plan, and vice versa.
“There is a direct connection between the management of the war and the ‘morning after’. It’s supposed to inform the military operation. Right now it’s disconnected.”