Israel’s coalition may be looking for a way to rescind its veto of the PA

Asking the PA to manage the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing could ease tension with Egypt

May 16, 2024 11:21

On the morning of Israel’s 76th anniversary, the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces’ 460th Armoured Brigade had no time for celebrations. Two days earlier the combat group of combined tank and infantry battalions, along with platoons of engineers and instructors from the counter-terrorism training base, had been deployed to the eastern part of Jabalia, on paper the largest Palestinian refugee camp but actually a major northern suburb of Gaza City, and they were still finding their bearings

Tanks and other armoured vehicles of the 196th battalion combat group drove in and out of a makeshift compound as gunfire could be heard on either side of the hastily erected sand barriers. A few hundred metres up the road two loud explosions were heard, followed by dense black smoke columns rising as a fighter jet launched missiles at a spot where a Hermes 450 drone circling overhead had detected a Hamas ambush.

It was a scene that could have taken place six months earlier in the previous Battle of Jabalia, which began last year in late October - with some of the same soldiers and tanks who returned there on Saturday night. They tried to hide their frustration at being back in Jabalia a second time but it came through in the word that nearly all of them used to describe their mission: “Sisyphean.”

This isn’t the first time in this war that I’ve joined IDF forces returning to a location in Gaza they had already operated in. Previously it was with the naval commandos of Flotilla 13 who returned two months ago to Shifa Hospital. But Operation Local Surgery was different. That was a special forces operation based on intelligence that high value targets - commanders in Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad - were meeting there.

For two weeks in that operation the commandos encircled and then worked their way through the hospital buildings, flushing out and capturing hundreds of terrorists, including senior figures whose identity has yet to be revealed in public. “There’s a lot about that operation that has yet to be told,” said one intelligence analyst with satisfaction.

But the re-entry to Jabalia is a different story.

The targets are less clear – low-level Hamas fighters who have returned to Jabalia after the IDF left the area in early January, announcing that the Hamas battalions in northern Gaza had been “dismantled.”

“If you really want to know why I’m here,” said one of the soldiers, a reservist back for his second stint of duty of this war, “it’s so we don’t have to come back here a third time. Though I’m far from convinced we won’t have to.”

Another source of frustration among the soldiers is that this wasn’t even supposed to be their mission. The brigade combat group of reservists and regular soldiers on training courses had been assembled two and a half weeks ago to go into Rafah, along with two other brigades of the 98th Division. A week later, the government, under pressure from the Biden administration, decided to embark on a “limited” Rafah operation with two brigades of the 162nd Division capturing the border crossing outside town and some of Rafah’s eastern suburbs, near the border with Israel. The 98th remained on standby and were then suddenly deployed northwards.

As the units were preparing to launch their attack, sources in the IDF General Staff briefed Israeli media that such missions, a second operation in Jabalia and a third in the Zeitoun neighbourhood south of Gaza City, were taking place because of the reluctance of the government to come up with a “day after” strategy for an alternative force that will take control of Gaza instead of Hamas. The government’s indecision, according to anonymous senior officers, is squandering the military gains of this war. Even when the IDF mobilises its full force it cannot be on the ground everywhere. And nature abhors a vacuum.

But the vacuum is inevitable as long as Benjamin Netanyahu and much of the coalition refuse to countenance the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, from which it was evicted by Hamas in a bloody coup in 2007.

There are valid arguments on both sides. The PA is corrupt, weak and badly organised. That’s why it lost control of Gaza in the first place. Relying on it to control Gaza this time around is a gamble, even after it is “revitalised” as the Biden administration insist it can be.

On the other hand, there is no other viable force and Israel has already dramatically weakened Hamas. The PA will receive major incentives in the shape of billions of dollars in rebuilding funds from the Arab states and the IDF will be much more vigilant and active against Hamas this time around. Since the end of the Second Intifada two decades ago, the IDF and the PA’s security forces have worked effectively together to prevent Hamas returning to the West Bank. The alternative, say those who see the PA as the lesser of two evils, is for the IDF to have to go back to Jabalia for a third, fourth and fifth time.

So far neither the generals nor the Biden administration have managed to change the government’s veto on the PA. But that may be about to change due to another influential player: the Egyptian government.

After Israel’s capture of the Rafah crossing last week, the Egyptians closed their side of the border and they are refusing to reopen it with the IDF on the other side. This is seriously hindering Israel’s belated attempts to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

One solution being considered by the government is to ask the PA to take control of the Gaza side of the crossing. This could solve a problem threatening Israel’s crucial relationship with Egypt. But the PA is unlikely to accept such a proposal unless it marks the start of a wider role in Gaza. That may prove to be a non-starter, but it’s beginning to look as if the government, or at least parts of the government, are looking for a back-door way to rescind its veto.

May 16, 2024 11:21

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