Washington, DC – United States officials have increasingly suggested that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should rule over Gaza after Israel achieves its objective of eliminating Hamas, the group that currently controls the territory.
But analysts warn that the proposal may be unrealistic and premature, as the Israel-Hamas war nears the start of its seventh week.
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US President Joe Biden and his top aides have repeatedly expressed full support for the Israeli offensive in Gaza, but Washington has nevertheless offered indications of what it would like to see after the conflict.
The Biden administration said it does not support an indefinite Israeli military presence in the territory, and it opposes downsizing the besieged strip or permanently displacing its population.
But if Israel manages to dislodge Hamas from Gaza — a goal that is far from guaranteed — bringing the PA back to Gaza would face many hurdles, including Israeli opposition.
Earlier this month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to predicate the authority’s return to Gaza on the condition that a “political solution” to the conflict is reached, one that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“At several different levels, this is just a pure pipe dream,” Osamah Khalil, a history professor at Syracuse University, said of handing Gaza to the PA.
Why is the US pushing for it?
Khalil said the Biden administration is facing mounting pressure over its support for Israel, due to the atrocities it is accused of committing in Gaza. At least 11,500 Palestinians have been killed so far, with United Nations experts warning of a “grave risk of genocide” in the territory.
So the Biden camp is trying to switch the focus to the end of the conflict, by asserting that Palestinians must eventually govern Gaza themselves, Khalil explained.
“It’s for domestic audiences because there is an absolute absence of political will in the United States — particularly going into an election year — to hold Israel to account,” Khalil told Al Jazeera.
He added that there is “an absolute dearth of fresh ideas in Washington”, leading to a policy of “avoiding conflict resolution and focusing on conflict management”.
Both the US and Israel have ruled out the possibility of dealing with Hamas politically after the war.
How did we get here?
The PA — which is controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its dominant faction, Fatah — was established in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords, which sought to shift the occupied Palestinian territories from Israeli military control to civilian leadership.
Oslo promised an eventual Palestinian state, but the so-called peace process never led to a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Over the next decade, the PA continued to oversee a limited form of self-governance over the West Bank and Gaza, co-existing with the Israeli occupation that has had near total control over security matters in the Palestinian territories.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew its military forces and dismantled its settlements in Gaza, but it maintained control over movement in and out of the coastal enclave.
One year later, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in a blow to the PA.
With Hamas committed to armed struggle against Israel and the Fatah sticking to the peace process, the two parties were not able to reconcile their differences.
Meanwhile, Hamas faced increasing international pressure, and fighting broke out between the group and the PA. In 2007, Hamas took over Gaza and has maintained control of the territory ever since. For its part, the PA remained in the West Bank as Israel proceeded with its settlement expansion there.
The rift effectively split the Palestinian national movement. Repeated attempts to bridge the gap with reconciliation agreements have fallen apart.
With the peace process frozen, Israel blockaded the Gaza Strip while further entrenching its military occupation of the West Bank with US support, in violation of international law.
What have US officials said?
Operating under the assumption that Hamas will be eliminated by the end of the current Israeli offensive, the US is now looking to the PA to govern Gaza once again.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told lawmakers last week that the PA is the “only Palestinian government that has come out of the Oslo Accords”.
“Whatever its shortcomings, it is the government for the Palestinians in the West Bank,” Leaf said. “We do believe that ultimately Palestinian voices and aspirations have to be at the centrepiece of post-conflict governance and security in Gaza.”
She added that “the PA is the appropriate place to look for governance”.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also suggested that the PA would take over Gaza eventually. He said earlier this month that a lasting peace “must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority”.
Biden and his aides have also talked about reviving the two-state solution to the conflict.
However, Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank, said that, so long as the US does not call for a ceasefire, talking about what happens after the war is a “waste of time”.
He added that Palestinians should have one authority in the West Bank and Gaza — but after a ceasefire and a democratic election.
“But to bring a dysfunctional Authority in the West Bank basically to a total pile of rubble in Gaza, it’s a formula for disaster,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera. Israeli bombardment has damaged nearly half the residential buildings in the territory.
Khalil, the history professor, echoed Jahshan’s comments about the infeasibility of the US proposal.
“Israel has no intention of agreeing to a Palestinian state,” Khalil told Al Jazeera. “And at the end, the PA can’t come back in on the back of Israeli tanks and say, ‘We’re the new authority.'”
What has Israel said?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud Party opposes establishing a Palestinian State, has all but dismissed the assertions of his US allies, saying that Israel would maintain security control over Gaza.
“Gaza has to be demilitarised and Gaza has to be de-radicalised,” he told NBC News last week. “And I think, so far, we haven’t seen any Palestinian force, including the Palestinian Authority, that is able to do it.”
Jahshan said it is unlikely that the US would meaningfully pressure Israel towards a broader resolution to the conflict anyway.
“This administration proved that it is incapable of showing the political or the moral will or the diplomatic skills to get us closer to that idea,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera. “So it’s preaching it, but only as a defence mechanism for its diplomatic failure in the region. It is not a realistic option.”
Khalil also suggested that the US is not serious about resolving the conflict. He said the US is floating the return of the PA to allay internal dissent over the Western support for Israel.
Discussing future governance, Khalil added, also buys the Israelis more time to achieve a so-far elusive victory in Gaza.
Khalil noted that after more than 40 days of relentless bombing, Israel is still far from neutralising Hamas. The Palestinian group continues to target Israeli troops.
Israeli forces have also failed to free the captives taken during Hamas’s October 7 attack, and they have not killed senior political or military leaders from the Palestinian group.
What has the PA said?
Still, President Abbas, 88, has expressed willingness to bring the PA back to Gaza, but only as part of a broader solution.
“We will fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution that includes all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip,” Abbas was quoted as telling Blinken by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa earlier this month.
But for some analysts, the PA’s shortcomings in the West Bank and its increasingly ageing and isolated leadership make it a non-starter to lead the Palestinian national movement.
Adam Shapiro, the director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based rights group, pointed to Israel’s deadly raids and the settler violence occurring on a near-daily basis across the West Bank, right under the PA’s nose.
“It’s really mind-boggling,” Shapiro said of suggesting the PA as a solution for Gaza. “It begs the question of whether these officials think that we’re not paying attention, or if they’re just simply not paying attention.”