Washington, DC – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has become the latest United States government official to warn Israel that it cannot “reoccupy Gaza” after the war with Hamas, in response to recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu raised concerns this week after suggesting that the Israeli military could control security in Gaza “for an indefinite period” when fighting in the besieged Palestinian enclave ends.
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Israeli officials have since said Netanyahu did not mean that Israel plans to take administrative control of the Gaza Strip, but the country’s intentions remain unclear amid conflicting statements by senior government leaders, including Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.
Speaking to reporters in Japan on the sidelines of a G7 meeting on Wednesday, Blinken said that “the only way to ensure that this crisis never happens again is to begin setting the conditions for durable peace and security”, including “no reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends”.
The Israeli government has contended that its occupation of Gaza ended in 2005, when it withdrew military forces and settlers from the enclave. But that position has been described by Israeli rights group B’Tselem as “entirely baseless” and rejected by international law experts.
Here, Al Jazeera speaks to Michael Lynk, who until last year served as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, about recent discussions around the Israeli occupation of Gaza and what could come after the war ends.
Al Jazeera: The US has said it opposes Israel’s “reoccupation” of Gaza. But did the Israeli occupation of Gaza ever end?
Michael Lynk: A couple of years ago, there was a comment made on CBC Radio in Canada, which said that Gaza was no longer occupied. I and another organisation (Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East) each sent letters in to say that Gaza actually remains occupied.
The test in international law is: Does the military exercise – the term is “effective control” – over the land or territory?
It’s like if the guards leave the prison, but they take all the keys with them; They’re still controlling how much food goes inside the prison each day and how much electricity goes into the prison each day. The people inside the prison are free to roam wherever they want within the confines of the prison but have no ability to be able to leave – that would be “effective control” over the prison.
This is the same way Israel exercises effective control over who and what leaves Gaza and who and what enters Gaza, as well.
AJ: What significance is there to the US using the term “reoccupation”?
Lynk: I suspect the US does not take the position that Gaza is occupied. I don’t know if they have a coherent position at all on what the status of Gaza is now. They’ve accepted, probably, that Israel in leaving Gaza in 2005, formally ended that occupation.
In fact, it’s very hard to find any statement from a recent Republican or Democratic administration that uses the word “occupation” to describe any part of Palestine with regards to this.
So I guess I understand why they’re using the word “reoccupy”, in the sense that they’re talking about Israeli troops holding onto power inside of Gaza, and exercising military authority whenever the current [fighting] comes to an end.
But as I said, it’s not reoccupation – it’s occupation in a new form.
Al Jazeera: What differences are we seeing between the US and Israel in their views of what happens after the war in Gaza?
Lynk: What we have is a tactical debate going on between the United States and Israel over what Gaza would look like immediately after hostilities wind up ending.
Israel is saying that they would probably need to remain in Gaza for some period of time. And that’s probably because they want to absolutely destroy whatever they can find with respect to the military presence of Hamas.
Given Blinken’s tour of parts of the Arab world over the last week, he recognises the intense pressure coming from the Global South in general, and in particular, as to what Gaza would look like afterwards and recognising that any kind of ongoing Israeli presence in Gaza is a non-starter.
Keep in mind that there are calls not only for the reoccupation of Gaza within Israel, but also (among some hard-right Israeli lawmakers for) the resettlement of settlers in Gaza, as well. That’s an argument you may hear from the far-right-wing settler movement.
However, I suspect there are all kinds of voices within the Israeli military and Israeli military intelligence saying that that’s a non-starter.
Al Jazeera: What comes next in terms of the Israeli occupation and the future of Gaza?
Lynk: There are a couple of possibilities.
One, which I think has got to be one of the lowest possibilities, is that Israel keeps its boots on the ground inside of Gaza and rules it through a direct military administration for the foreseeable future.
I think that that has very little chance of succeeding, both because I think Israeli soldiers would probably pay a high price, as they did in maintaining their occupation in Lebanon in the 1980s into the 1990s.
A second option, which I think is what the United States would prefer – and you’d probably find support from countries in the Global North – is an international administration moving in, either led by the Arab world, led by the United Nations, or some combination thereof, where there would be international troops on the ground, there would be an international fund to reconstruct Gaza.
And there would be, I guess, a serious attempt to try to build up the governance capacity to be able to provide basic services in Gaza as any national or municipal administration would wind up doing.
And that would include, I suspect, a plan to have the Palestinian Authority take over at some point.
Al Jazeera: Would any pathway lead to the end of the Israeli occupation?
Lynk: For the Palestinian Authority to come in, they themselves have a difficult political choice to make.
Do they come in simply to provide stability and manage, if you like, Gaza, or is this actually a first step towards an independent Palestinian state? And I’d be fairly confident saying the Palestinian Authority would be insisting that they would not want to take over the administration of Gaza.
I think there would be great reluctance to be able to be seen to be coming into and ruling and taking over the administration of Gaza, on the back of Israeli bayonets. They’d want a guaranteed prelude to the end of the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
And the difficulty with that is … if the Biden administration doesn’t have the political clout to force Israel into making humanitarian pauses, let alone a ceasefire, what hope is there for the United States using political capital to force Israel – in an American election year – to make the substantive agreements necessary to be able to create an independent Palestinian state that is contiguous, where the settlements have ended, and where the Palestinian capital is in East Jerusalem?
I think the chances of that are less than zero.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.