Israel's next headache: who will run post-war Gaza?

Palestinians flee eastern part of Khan Younis after they were ordered by Israeli army to evacuate their neighborhoods

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Emily Rose and Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The plan for post-war Gaza that Israel pitched to U.S. allies is to run the strip in cooperation with powerful local families. But there's a problem: in a place where Hamas still wields ruthless influence, none want to be seen talking to the enemy.

Israel is under pressure from Washington to end the loss of human life and wind down its military offensive after nearly nine months, but does not want Hamas in charge after the war.

Israeli officials have therefore been trying to plot a path ahead for the day after the fighting stops.

A major pillar of the plan, according to public statements from leading Israeli officials, was to shape an alternative civil administration involving local Palestinian actors not part of the existing structures of power and willing to work alongside Israel.

However, the only plausible candidates in Gaza for this role – the heads of powerful local families – are unwilling to get involved, according to Reuters' conversations with five members of major families in Gaza, including the head of one grouping.

Israel has been "actively looking for local tribes and families on the ground to work with them," said Tahani Mustafa, Senior Palestine Analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "They refused."

They don’t want to get involved, in part because they fear retribution from Hamas, said Mustafa, who is in touch with some of the families and other local stakeholders in Gaza.

That threat is real because – despite Israel's explicit war objective of destroying Hamas – the Palestinian group still has operatives enforcing its will on the streets of Gaza, according to six residents who spoke to Reuters.

Asked what the outcome would be for any head of Gaza's powerful families if they cooperate with Israel, Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of the Hamas-run government media office in Gaza, said: "I expect it to be lethal."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the challenges last week, saying in an interview with Israel's Channel 14 TV station that the defence ministry had already made attempts to reach out to Gaza clans but "Hamas eliminated" them.

He said the defence ministry had a new plan, but would not give details other than specifying he was not willing to bring in the Palestinian Authority, which currently governs the occupied West Bank.

Reuters could not establish if Israel's efforts to work with the families were ongoing.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant discussed post-war plans at a meeting in Washington last week with U.S. officials.

Briefing reporters during the visit, Gallant said: "The only solution for the future of Gaza is governance by local Palestinians. It cannot be Israel and cannot be Hamas." He did not mention the clans specifically.

Contacted for comment, the prime minister's office referred Reuters to Netanyahu's previous public comments on the topic. Israel's defence ministry did not respond to Reuters questions.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza in response to a Hamas-led cross-border raid on Oct. 7 last year in which around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and about 250 people taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Palestinian health authorities say Israel's ground and air campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 38,000 people, mostly civilians. Israel says many of the dead are Palestinian combatants.


Gaza has dozens of powerful families who function as well-organised clans. Many do not have formal links to Hamas. They derive their power from controlling businesses and command the loyalty of hundreds or thousands of relatives. Each family has a leader, known as a mukhtar.

British colonial rulers of Palestine before the state of Israel was created in 1948 relied heavily on mukhtars to govern. After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, it curtailed the power of the families. But they have retained a degree of autonomy.

Israel does already speak to some Gaza merchants, to coordinate commercial shipments through a southern checkpoint. Residents are reluctant to disclose any interactions with Israel.

The approaches from Israel described by members of the Gaza clans were modest in scope but different: they were about practical issues inside Gaza itself, and focused on the north of the strip, where Israel says it is concentrating its civil governance efforts.

One of Gaza's clan leaders, who asked not to be named, told Reuters Israeli officials had contacted other mukhtars – though not him - in the past few weeks. He said he knew about it because the recipients of the calls told him about the calls.

He said the Israeli officials wanted "some respected and influential people" to help with aid deliveries in northern Gaza. "I expect that mukhtars will not cooperate with these games," he said, citing anger with Israel over its offensive, which has killed clan members and destroyed property.

The person, whose clan is a major player in agriculture and the Gaza import business, has no formal connection to Hamas.

In another contact between Israel and influential Gazans, officials from the Israeli defence ministry have in the past two weeks contacted two major Gaza business owners in the food sector, according to a Palestinian briefed on the contacts.

It was unclear what the Israeli side wanted to talk about, and the business owners, who are from the north of Gaza, refused to engage with the Israelis, according to the person.

A senior member of a different clan said Israeli officials had not contacted his clan, but would be given short shrift if they did.

"We are not collaborators. Israel should stop these games," the clan member, who also has no formal connection to Hamas, told Reuters.


Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, speaking last week, said the government had authorized the Israeli armed forces to find "a local leadership, willing to live side by side with Israel and not to devote its life to killing Israelis."

Speaking through a translator at a conference, he said the process was starting in the northern part of Gaza, and practical results should be seen soon.

Besides civil administration, the other pillars of Israel’s plan for post-war Gaza include bringing in a security force from outside to keep order, seeking international help with reconstruction, and searching for a long-term peace settlement.

The Arab states whose support Israel would need say they won't get involved unless Israel agrees a firm timeline for a Palestinian state – something Netanyahu says he will not be pushed into doing.

Throughout the war, Washington has advocated for reforms to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA) and prepare it to govern Gaza, which it used to run.

Netanyahu has said he doesn't trust the PA, which in turn says he seeks to keep Gaza and the West Bank divided. Support is weak among Gazans for the PA, according to a June 12 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR).

However, two U.S. officials told Reuters Netanyahu may have little choice but to turn security over to the PA.

"It's going to be a fight. But there is no other short-to-medium term option," said one of the officials.

Israel has yet to develop a concrete post-war plan for governance and security in the enclave, said the officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Both said Israeli officials were considering a range of ideas but did not provide details.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


While some Gazans blame Hamas for inciting the war, others, angered and radicalised by Israel's offensive, have drawn closer to the group, with its declared commitment to destroying Israel, PCPSR polls show.

Hamas has recognized it is unlikely to govern after the war, but expects to retain influence.

A Gaza resident said he saw members of the Hamas police force touring the streets of Gaza City in June, warning merchants against hiking prices. They were in plain clothes instead of their usual uniforms, and moved on bicycles, said the resident, who asked not be named fearing reprisal.

Hamas fighters have intervened to control aid shipments, including killing some clan figures at the start of this year who tried to take over the shipments in Gaza City, according to four residents from the city who spoke to Reuters.

Hamas declined to comment about the killings.

In April, Hamas said its security services arrested several members of a security apparatus loyal to the Palestinian Authority. Three people close to the PA said the arrested men were escorting a delivery of aid to northern Gaza Strip.

"There is no vacuum in Gaza, Hamas is still the prominent power," said Michael Milshtein, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence who now heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center, a research center in Israel.

(This story has been corrected to fix a typo in paragraph 15)

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Emily Rose in Jerusalem; Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Jonathan Landay in Washington and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Frank Jack Daniel)