Israelis craft secret plan to put anti-Hamas Palestinians in charge of Gaza aid

Security personnel guard trucks carrying aid as they arrive in Rafah, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the southern Gaza Strip. (File Photo: Reuters)
Security personnel guard trucks carrying aid as they arrive in Rafah, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the southern Gaza Strip. (File Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Top Israeli defense official seeks regional support for a plan to enlist Palestinian leaders, with no links to Hamas, for aid distribution and eventually a Palestinian-led governing authority.

Israeli security officials are quietly developing a plan to distribute aid in the Gaza Strip that could eventually create a Palestinian-led governing authority there, Israeli and Arab officials said, causing a fierce backlash from Hamas and creating divisions in Israel’s war cabinet.

A top Israeli defense official has held talks with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to build regional support for an emerging effort to enlist Palestinian leaders and businessmen who have no links to Hamas—a U.S.-designated terrorist organization—in distributing aid, some of the officials said.

The aid would enter by land and sea after Israeli inspection and would head to large warehouses in central Gaza, where Palestinians would then distribute it, the officials said. When the war is over, the people in charge of aid would assume authority to govern, backed up by security forces funded by wealthy Arab governments, the officials said.

The effort represents some of the first steps Israel has begun taking to fill a power vacuum left by its invasion of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The U.S. and Arab governments have pressured Israel to do more to get humanitarian aid for Gazans and lay out a clear vision for postwar Gaza’s administration.

The aid effort has already hit obstacles and could fall apart. It so far doesn’t have the support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given that some of those involved would be affiliated with Fatah, a rival party to Hamas seen by the Israeli leader as supporting terrorism.

“Gaza will be run by those who do not seek to kill Israelis," said a senior Israeli official from the prime minister’s office.

Another Israeli official said Hamas’s vehement opposition could make the plan unfeasible.

But the chaos reigning across Gaza has frustrated the Biden administration, the Israeli defense establishment and critics inside Netanyahu’s emergency government. They say that the organized distribution of aid is currently impossible and that Hamas can reassert itself within the governance vacuum. A force that can effectively distribute aid in Gaza is needed now, they say, and realistically that force would be connected to the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank-based government, or to Fatah, the authority’s ruling party.

Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, the head of the Israeli security arm overseeing civilian affairs in occupied territories, sees the aid effort as an important part of Israel’s plan to evacuate the city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold, before an offensive on the border city. The aid-distribution network would feed 750,000 to a million people in displacement camps that Israel has planned for absorbing Rafah’s population, which has swelled as Gazans sought refuge there, the officials said.

One of the officials said Alian’s vision is that anti-Hamas Palestinians would form “a local administrative authority" to distribute aid, cutting out the militant group from the process.

The effort has triggered retaliatory threats from Hamas. The group has labeled anyone who works with the Israelis as traitors and threatened them with death. Several Palestinian families once thought to be open to the idea have withdrawn in recent days.

“Accepting communication with the occupation forces by heads of families and tribes for work in the Gaza Strip is considered national betrayal, which we will not allow," a Hamas security official said in a public statement on March 10, shortly after Israel’s efforts began.

Hamas has played no formal role in distributing aid in Gaza but views the nascent Israeli plan as a way to create an independent governing structure. “We will strike with an iron hand against anyone who tampers with the internal front in the Gaza Strip and will not permit the imposition of new rules," the Hamas security official said.

Another Hamas official said the group already felt it was being sidelined by the sea bridge backed by the U.S., U.A.E. and other partners to deliver aid to Gaza. The humanitarian corridor was negotiated directly with the municipality of Gaza City without the group being consulted, the official said. He said Hamas was also nervous about the involvement of Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior member of Fatah who was the head of security in Gaza for the Palestinian Authority before going into exile in the U.A.E.

More broadly, Hamas wants security to be handled by forces that would be apolitical but would operate with the militant group’s approval, Husam Badran, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, said in a recent interview. He said that security in recent weeks has been handled by volunteer militias in the southern city of Rafah and in the north, with the group’s approval, to replace the Hamas-run police after it had been targeted by the Israeli military.

“There was a consensus [between Palestinian groups] to form this security institution," Badran said.

But the Hamas official said any permanent security arrangement should be overseen by a future Palestinian unity cabinet backed by all factions, not foreign entities. “Security would be the responsibility of the government of national accord," he said.

Wealthy Gulf states have said they won’t pay for security forces or help rebuild Gaza, as envisioned under the emerging aid plan, unless Israel agrees to a process creating a Palestinian state—an idea Netanyahu has rejected. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday to discuss postwar planning, with Saudi Arabia expected to shoulder a heavy financial burden for rebuilding Gaza.

Israel has approached several prominent Palestinians for participation, the officials said, including the Palestinian Authority’s top intelligence official, Majid Faraj; West Bank businessman Bashar Masri and Dahlan.

Netanyahu has opposed the involvement of Dahlan and Faraj, who is a Fatah member, according to an Israeli official. Ophir Falk, a senior diplomatic adviser to Netanyahu, said the Palestinian Authority isn’t the right body to take over Gaza because it hasn’t condemned the Oct. 7 attacks and continues to pay stipends to individuals or their relatives killed during attacks on Israelis, a policy Palestinian officials say provides necessary welfare payments to needy families.

“We need someone who doesn’t want to murder Jews to step to the plate. That can happen once Hamas is destroyed in Gaza. That is within reach," he said.

Dahlan has also made it clear he won’t be involved in ruling Gaza, the officials said. Dahlan, who lives in Abu Dhabi, oversaw Palestinian security forces that fought Hamas in 2006 and is seen as a proxy for the U.A.E.’s interests in postwar Gaza.

Masri declined to comment. Dahlan and Faraj didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, Dahlan said he wasn’t interested in returning to Gaza to run a government and said Israel and the West must accept that Hamas can’t be totally eradicated and will need to play a role in future governance. “I am no friend of Hamas," Dahlan said. “But do you think anybody is going to be able to run to make peace without Hamas?"

Israel initially imposed an almost total siege on Gaza after Oct. 7, when thousands of Hamas fighters stormed across the border in a surprise attack, killing about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking more than 200 hostages. Israel’s response has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities whose figures don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel and Hamas resumed talks this week for a six-week cease-fire that would free some 40 hostages and allow more humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, where more than one million people are experiencing famine-like conditions, according to food-insecurity experts.

Israel has allowed in food, medicine and other essential items after close inspection, but aid hasn’t reached much of Gaza’s north since it descended into lawlessness in recent weeks.

Under pressure from the U.S., Israel has allowed more trucks to enter Gaza, opened a new land crossing and is involved in the Mediterranean Sea route for food deliveries. It still amounts to a fraction of what Gazans need.

Write to Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com, Dov Lieber at dov.lieber@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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