Israel has to keep Hamas from rebuilding once Gaza fighting ends

A vehicle in Kiryat Gat, Israel, was destroyed by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
(David Buimovitch / AFP/Getty Images)

Determined to avoid a repeat of the fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israel is seeking to build support for having an international force take charge of preventing the Palestinian militant group Hamas from rearming once the conflict is over.

One sticking point remains: finding countries willing to take on the job.

The idea, floated repeatedly by top Israeli officials in recent days, comes at what could be a key point in the 3-week-old conflict. With the announcement of a 72-hour cease-fire starting Friday morning, the Israelis apparently believe they are close to destroying the bulk of the tunnels that Hamas, which controls Gaza, has spent years digging and fortifying, and a significant portion of the group’s arsenal of rockets.

The Israelis plan to continue with that part of their operation during the cease-fire, according to officials familiar with its terms. Israeli officials previously said they needed a few more days in which to destroy the tunnels, a task in which they have the tacit support of key regional powers, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


Once the fighting ends, Israel would be faced with the problem of how to prevent Hamas from rebuilding, as it has after previous conflicts. Usually reluctant to involve foreign powers in their nation’s security, Israeli leaders have concluded that an outside force might be the most effective way to accomplish that goal.

Initial international reaction to the idea of an outside force has been positive, with the United Nations, European Union and Obama administration all embracing the idea, in principle.

In practice, figuring out who is willing to police the coastal strip and separate Hamas from its remaining weapons poses a problem, officials and experts acknowledge.

The concept “is probably unassailable from the standpoint of the United States and a number of the European countries,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and onetime Obama administration advisor. “But will the U.S. volunteer to send the 82nd Airborne to oversee the demilitarization? Will NATO or the Arab states go in?”

“The problem is somebody has to do the demilitarizing, and no one’s running to the front of the line,” Kurtzer said.

Preventing a repeat of the fighting has become a preoccupying concern for Israelis, Palestinians and world powers alike. But the unfolding debate over an international force is another reminder of how the Gaza conflict defies solutions.


Israeli officials believe the mission should involve several tasks. Overseeing distribution of billions of dollars in aid that is expected to flow in for the rebuilding of Gaza is one need, officials say. Israel wants to be sure Hamas will not be able to divert international aid to buy arms, officials say.

Another need is ensuring that materials and equipment entering Gaza cannot be used to build tunnels or repurposed for rockets and other weapons.

Demilitarization of Gaza “has to be part of any solution,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “The international community should insist forcefully on this.”

In conversations with world leaders, Israeli officials have left open the question of who would play which role. But they say it could make sense for Egypt to help control access at its border with Gaza and for the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank and is Hamas’ political rival, to have a role as well. Neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both of which have a deep enmity for Hamas, might also take part, they say.

Whether the Palestinian Authority is willing to play much of a role remains unknown. With passions running high over civilian casualties in Gaza, Palestinian officials say they would be deeply reluctant to be seen by ordinary Palestinians as acting on behalf of Israel.

President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, national security advisor Susan Rice and other senior officials have signaled support in some form for disarming Hamas, and the House has adopted a resolution this week embracing the idea.


Tony Blinken, a deputy national security advisor, said demilitarization of Gaza “needs to be the end result” of peacemaking efforts “so that this doesn’t repeat itself.... There has to be some way forward that does not involve Hamas having the ability to rain down rockets on Israeli civilians.”

But neither they nor the European officials have talked publicly about who might do what, perhaps to avoid mobilizing opposition before diplomats can figure out a division of labor.

Controlling the flow of goods into Gaza is a manageable task that has been accomplished in the past, analysts say.

Egypt, which is at odds with Hamas, can probably play an important role in that capacity, said Dan Arbell, a former Israeli diplomat. To reassure its public, Israel will insist that a force be deployed in Gaza to monitor what is happening, he said.

“Without monitoring, Israel will not agree to it,” said Arbell, who is now scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service in Washington.

Much more challenging is the question of how to eliminate existing stocks of weapons, even if Israel keeps destroying what it finds during this operation.


Hamas is already warning that it is not going to surrender its arsenal without a fight.

Mohammed Deif, the fugitive leader of Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, said Hamas would discuss disarmament only after Israel and Egypt lifted the blockade on Gaza.

Israel will “not have security as long as the Palestinians do not have it,” he said.

If U.S. forces are involved, that would mark an expansion of the traditional American role. In previous peace agreements involving Israel and its neighbors, the United States has provided billions of dollars in direct military aid, arms and intelligence, but it hasn’t put its troops in harm’s way.

Still, Israel has more confidence in U.S. forces than those of other countries, and it might seek a U.S. presence of some kind to guarantee that tasks are properly handled, some analysts believe.

One prominent U.S. supporter of Israel suggested that the United States might play a supervisory role.

“It doesn’t have to be the U.S. troops doing it: They could be overseeing it to guarantee that it be done,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The 38 European, Asian and African countries that contribute to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon might be willing to help in Gaza, he said.


But some analysts predicted that given America’s war-weary mood, any effort to involve U.S. personnel would face opposition.

Even a supervisory role “would be tremendously unpopular,” predicted former Ambassador Kurtzer, who is now with Princeton University. “Who wants to go into Gaza?”

Times staff writer Laura King in Gaza City contributed to this report.