Crown Center for Middle East Studies

After the Israel-Hamas War: Palestinian Perspectives

A Conversation with Yezid Sayigh and Khalil Shikaki

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research, and Naghmeh Sohrabi, Director for Research and the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History

November 4, 2023

In this two-part Crown Conversation, we asked two Israeli and two Palestinian experts about likely scenarios and outcomes in light of the October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. These conversations were conducted on October 23 and October 30, 2023 and as such may not reflect the latest developments. But read together, they present a nuanced and complex picture of the long-, medium-, and short-term factors that will shape the current war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and possibilities and limitations for peace.

We wanted to ask you about likely scenarios for Gaza once the current war ends. Who will govern Gaza after the war, and what form will it take?

Yezid Sayigh: The term governance has been used endlessly for at least the last 30 years, if not longer, by organizations like the World Bank and others that sought in this way to sidestep contentious terms such as "democracy" and "politics." What we're talking about here is who rules Gaza, and if that's to be Hamas or not. The challenge isn't one of a corrupt government because then we'd be talking about the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority instead. Nor is it about good or poor delivery of services to the population because if that had been the case then Israel would have lifted its blockade so as to enable whatever governing authority existed in Gaza to meaningfully deliver and regulate the needs of the local population.

Whatever comes next in Gaza, it's clear that Israel wants to make sure that Hamas cannot rule Gaza. The problem is not simply that there are no credible Palestinian alternatives standing by in the wings who can be brought into Gaza; obviously here I'm referring both to the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah mainstream that would be brought in from the West Bank, and to Mohammad Dahlan who is based in the United Arab Emirates. Rather, it is that Israel wants a situation in which it can control whoever is in power in Gaza, and yet somehow still claim that it is not in control of Gaza in the sense that international law defines control (or belligerent occupation). This is a paradox for which Israel has no solution.

One option is that Gaza somehow becomes genuinely autonomous, able to interact freely with the rest of the world. This would bring its own headaches, whether for the Palestinian population of Gaza or for Egypt, which would have to provide much of Gaza's freedom of access to the rest of the world. Obviously that would pose a huge dilemma from the perspective of the Israeli government because how would it then guarantee that people it doesn't like cannot become powerful in Gaza? Israel has patently been unwilling to either let go of control in its relationship with the Palestinians for a single day since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. In fact, the extension of control, the reinvention of control, has been fundamental to the Israeli approach to the very negotiation of the Oslo Accords, and indeed to the autonomy talks that were launched prior to that at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

So, for all these reasons, my take is there is basically no stable or durable outcome in Gaza without there being an Israeli government capable of agreeing to a wider framework that would include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is what the Oslo Accords were meant to be about and where the peace process ended in the Camp David talks in 2000. This is why I think there is no scope for any kind of political arrangement to emerge in Gaza that both has any hope of being meaningful and that Israel would agree to.

Khalil Shikaki: I agree with everything that Yezid just said but let me add a few things. On October 6 no one was interested in controlling Gaza other than Hamas. This remains the case today, and it will remain the case after Hamas's military infrastructure is destroyed, which is the most significant and lasting impact of what the Israelis are currently doing. Does that mean that Hamas will no longer be in control of Gaza? My answer is, no. Hamas will remain in control of Gaza, even after its capacity to enforce law and order among Palestinians or inflict pain or suffering on the Israelis is completely eradicated.

The second question is going to be, who is going to be the party that sets the rules? Now, let's assume that there is an Arab force, Egyptian or whatever, and it is deployed to help maintain order. I think it's just impossible, but let's think that it happens, and we have an Egyptian military presence or police presence in Gaza. Who is going to determine how they will behave? It will be Hamas, that's my conclusion, and it will not be deployed without the consent of Hamas and without full coordination with Hamas.

The third issue is going to be who will deliver services. I think that will be given to an international organization that's already on the ground, which is UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East). Almost 80% of Gazans are refugees. And so UNRWA will continue to deliver services to those and most of that is going to be basically on a humanitarian basis.

The economy in Gaza is not going to be revived in the short term. There isn't going to be any reconstruction. No one in his right mind will invest any money in reconstructing Gaza at this time. Everyone is going to wait to see what will be the more sustainable outcome. In the short term, as Yezid said, there is no such sustainable outcome. It will require billions upon billions of dollars to reconstruct Gaza, and I doubt very much that anyone would want to go in and start this reconstruction at this early stage. Maybe, later on. So, what will happen to people who have no homes? That's all humanitarian, and it will be international organizations continuing to provide it, just as they deliver the basic services.

If we separate these three items: the security structure in Gaza, if the Israelis decide to leave then that security structure will be filled by somebody, and if it is not Hamas, if it is an Arab or some sort of international deployment, it will be in coordination with Hamas; second, the issue of setting the rules will be Hamas determining and everyone dealing with Hamas would be doing that with Hamas's consent; and thirdly, service delivery, where again Hamas will be in charge in terms of setting the rules, but most likely it will be UNRWA. It's already happening right now. Hamas's government is not receiving the aid. All of the aid is currently going to UNRWA. This will be from now on how the international community will be dealing with service delivery in the Gaza Strip. So, these are the three basic functions, and in all three of them, Hamas will be either in total control or in partial control in the Gaza Strip.

Sayigh: It's very interesting for me to hear Khalil because he is dealing with things that I've kept away from dealing with: the much more pragmatic level analysis of what happens after Israel declares combat operations over. The only thing I could come up with, and I thought of this on the very first day of the current conflict, was we may end with an Arab mandate over Gaza. The details may vary. It might be an international mandate, an Arab mandate, whatever. My point goes back to the dilemma that Israel faces, which is that Israel wants to be shed of Gaza completely and can't do so unless someone takes responsibility for Gaza. If this someone is not going to be Hamas again, then clearly, you're only left with Egypt, maybe Saudi Arabia as a vehicle for normalizing ties with Israel, or the US or the UN. None of which could happen, of course, unless Israel, the Egyptians, and other any concerned parties agree. So, I can also see why even a mandate for peacekeeping, of whatever type, won't fly.

Under present circumstances, some sort of Arab or international umbrella might appear as a best-case scenario for Gaza but seems extremely unlikely. I can't see anyone having the appetite for that. This is 2023, not 2000 or 1990: what might have been possible in the flush of the end of the Cold War, the triumph of liberal capitalism, and so on, is no longer possible. This is a moment in world history where we are all going to much worse places.

Why isn't the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip one of these scenarios?

Shikaki: First of all, you have to consider why in the last 15 years that has not happened. The basic dynamics really haven't changed. Israel preferred to make a deal with Hamas rather than facilitate the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip. Israel would have liked nothing better than Hamas establishing a mini state in Gaza. I believe that Hamas was willing to do that once it lost its own trust in the PA and Abbas after Abbas canceled the elections in April 2021.

I think Hamas waged this war with the goal of establishing a mini state in Gaza as its own limited 1973 War in the hope that it would get a deal that would lead to a long-term truce with Israel. But the outcome was very different for Hamas and catastrophic. Nonetheless, I think that was Yahya Sinwar's entire goal from the beginning.

So, does Israel abandon this idea that there should be no reunification of the West Bank and Gaza? That the Palestinian Authority must remain weak? That Gaza should be controlled by somebody other than the PA? I doubt very much that the Israeli prime minister of today would do that. Maybe a different prime minister. If Benny Gantz becomes the prime minister, I think Gantz would allow the PA to return. It seems, in fact, there is a consensus within the Israeli military that the best outcome would be for Abbas to return.

Now, does Abbas want to return? Yes, he wants to return. But Abbas, right now has zero legitimacy in Gaza, zero legitimacy in the West Bank, and he knows that. He would demand a price for returning to Gaza. The price, as Yezid said earlier, is one that the current Israeli government isn't going to agree to, which is basically to revive diplomacy, to revive the two-state solution, to make it viable again, and to make a commitment to strengthening the Palestinian Authority. The current Israel government isn't going to do it. I doubt very much that even Gantz would want to or would be able to do it.

So, the issue of the PA returning is linked directly to the question of the state of play with regard to the two-state solution and the likelihood that such a step would be part of the larger roadmap for creating an independent Palestinian state. Even if we do see progress in that direction again—there is zero prospect that this would happen—if this is in the cards, the US would have already by now put out a clear architecture and a roadmap with European powers as to how this will unfold. It hasn't done that because it realizes this is not realistic, and on top of that, Abbas would not be able to do it without Hamas's consent. And so, even in that case, even with Abbas returning, he will only do it if his move is part of this larger picture, and if Hamas agrees. In other words, it will require a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and for the return of the PA to Gaza as part of that reconciliation, eventually leading to elections and, of course, again, part of a larger revival of the political process.

Sayigh: I concur with everything Khalil said about the dynamics and politics of the PA returning to Gaza, but it's worth remembering that this isn't just about Gaza. The bigger challenge in the long term lies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is the focus of the incessant Israeli colonization process. So, why not consider the alternative possibility, which is that you change the status quo in the West Bank by the PA finally deciding that it has really run its course and dissolving itself?

Twenty-three years on, the PA cannot be assessed on the basis what it was originally set up to do. It's in a different place. The PA's original purpose was to provide governance, in the narrow sense of the word I discussed earlier, for the people of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem under the Oslo Accords. The PA was not meant to be the actual state-in-waiting. That function was supposedly provided by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PA doesn't really do governance per se anymore; rather, it mainly just transmits incoming funds in the form of salaries to people. The PA doesn't actually control almost anything worthwhile in the Occupied Territories because Israel has the ultimate say on everything that affects the daily lives of Palestinians. I'm not someone who is hostile to the PA, nor was I opposed to the Oslo Accords, as you well know. But the PA does not serve a clear Palestinian purpose.

The question, then, is for Fatah, the dominant force within the PLO. Fatah can't be assessed in terms of what it did once upon a time; it now has its own legitimacy crisis. If Fatah wants to be relevant, then it has to do what it has failed to do since 2000, which is to come up with strategies for confronting Israeli colonization of the territories that are under negotiation. It has to find an exit strategy from the total mishmash and historic strategic mistake of the Second Intifada in 2000, which was to take the guns out of the cupboards and start shooting very randomly and chaotically at Israelis.

My takeaway is that if we focus too much on Gaza, we're sort of obscuring another elephant in the room, which is the status of the West Bank as an area of increasingly unfettered Israeli violence of expanding settlement activity, sanctioned and protected by soldiers. Israeli forces—along with settlers armed and abetted by the army—are doing in the West Bank what we now see being done in Gaza: the colonization project pushing Palestinians towards the last, the final, border.

Given all this, were Israel to reinstall the PA in Gaza, that could prove tantamount to removing it from the West Bank altogether. We're back to where we were right at the very outset of the Oslo process, which was conducted under the rubric of "Gaza and Jericho first." I'm simplifying and condensing, even caricaturing, but I'm also characterizing the logic of long-term Israeli policy. To put this differently, people who speculate about magically transposing the PA to Gaza are thinking in too narrow or short-term a frame.

Shikaki: I think the question of the West Bank is a very good question. However, the better question is would the West Bank open a new front? Once there is a ground offensive, and the bloodshed becomes just too much to take, will the West Bank explode in the PA's face or in Israel's face, and could that explosion then bring about the dynamics that might be similar to those that Yezid is thinking about? At this moment, the West Bank is not ripe for that kind of outcome. We see a great deal of discontent. The PA has zero legitimacy even among Fatah supporters. Abbas is disliked immensely among the majority of Fatah supporters. Yet, there is no militancy against the Palestinian Authority at this point to lead to a third Intifada in the West Bank. The only environment in which I see the dynamics in the West Bank leading to significant change in this kaleidoscope would be if conditions in Gaza after the Israeli ground invasion become such that people in the West Bank can't take it, most importantly Fatah. Or, in addition to or separate from that, there is a regional war involving other actors, like Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria, and the question of the entire regional balance becomes at stake. In that case, it is extremely difficult to predict what could happen in the West Bank, and the possibility that the West Bank could then explode becomes a very serious one.

Alongside the war in Gaza, the past weeks have been the bloodiest weeks of the year in the West Bank in terms of settler violence and settlement expansion. How does that factor into your thinking?

Shikaki: Settler violence, land grabs, forcing people to leave their homes and their property in certain parts of the West Bank is ongoing. International organizations and Palestinian NGOs have been documenting that on a daily basis. All of that is making the Palestinians more desperate for a different outcome. But it is not yet ready for an explosion in the West Bank, and even if there is an explosion, Israel will be able to put it down fairly quickly and to continue with the current policy, which basically gives the settlers a free hand. The Israeli army does not have a mission of containing or preventing settler violence. They and the settlers are almost the same. You see this everyday if you're a Palestinian. You see these images and videos of settlers attacking Palestinians and soldiers watching and doing absolutely nothing about it. In some cases, settlers kill Palestinians right in front of the soldiers, and the soldiers do nothing about it. Clearly, this is a policy of the current national religious government in Israel. If this government continues the gradual de facto annexation of the West Bank, this one-state reality that is out there will only consolidate. There's absolutely no way out of this to a two-state solution. That's where we are. I still think this is reversible, however, if we see a different Israeli government, if we see a different Palestinian leadership, and if we see a different international and regional resolve regarding the political process moving forward.

Sayigh: The West Bank is at the heart of the project of the ultranationalist camp in Israel. Whatever scenario unfolds next, I don't see the massive edifice of Israeli physical presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem being unraveled. Think back to when Obama suggested a settlement freeze; this was much easier than today, and that's speaking purely in terms of physical infrastructure or of the sheer number of settlers on the ground. Whether Israel lurches even further to the right now or, conversely, is so shocked by what happened on October 7 and since that it comes to the realization that the situation with the Palestinians is untenable, I have a hard time seeing how a fundamental change of approach to the West Bank and East Jerusalem can materialize. Israel has been allowed to have its cake and eat it at the same time for too long, and so even if a more centrist position might somehow emerge in Israel, we are at the wrong moment in the historical trajectory for a sufficient change.

So, who is going to change reality on the ground? No one in the US or Europe is going to invest the kind of political capital that would be needed to change Israeli policy on pretty much any issue. Western governments are stretched even in getting Israel to allow a few aid trucks into Gaza from Egypt. Indeed, the US and principal European leaders did nothing for crucial days beyond saying "we stand with Israel" and deliberately, repeatedly, disregarding questions about international law and the duty to protect civilians. As for Arab governments, we can see every day that they are desperate, almost across the board, to try and preserve their strategic situation and security. For them, this means maintaining the alliance with the US and the West on one side, but also opening up to Israel on the other. I don't see this strategic posture as ready to change yet.

We are at a moment in world history that doesn't allow the horror of what's happening—what happened on October 7 in Israel and since then in Gaza—to be turned into something more positive. We're just at the wrong moment in time. And this is where I fault Hamas enormously—this is 2023, not 2000. The world is in a different place. The West especially is in a different place: geopolitically, it sees itself as confronting Russia and China; right-wing, ultranationalist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-women, homophobic, and bluntly fascist movements have been on the rise worldwide, but no less in the heartland of the West, in Europe, and in the US.

You've both been working on finding solutions for Israeli-Palestinian peace for a long time. In your own personal experience was there a moment that either feels like this or that you think back to as a way of trying to find some kind of light in this moment?

Shikaki: In the Second Intifada, there was a great deal of bloodshed. The Palestinian security services, or most of them, joined the Intifada. Yasser Arafat either turned a blind eye or implicitly encouraged what was happening. He destroyed his own Palestinian security sector. The Israelis destroyed what was left of it and reoccupied the entire West Bank. The Palestinian Authority at that moment was their Hamas. The Palestinian Authority continued to deliver services. They ran local government, schools, clinics, and hospitals. They arranged for social services by providing electricity, water, and gasoline, and so on. The Palestinian Authority was essentially similar to what Hamas is to Israelis today.

Eventually, the Israelis came around and rebuilt their relationship with the Palestinian Authority. They would not do it with Arafat, and his death facilitated the emergence of a new leadership that the Israelis were more comfortable talking to. I'm not saying this is similar to what is happening now in Gaza or what might happen. But we have this example that shows that even when things break down significantly, the two sides do have common interests, and they will do their best to try and accommodate those and find a way out.

Some of the most important things I personally did, in fact, were during the Second Intifada, and it involved thinking about what needs to be done to stop what was going on and what needs to be done in the aftermath. That took place in full consultation with Arafat and the PA leadership, with the full participation of Israeli actors on behalf of the Israeli government, and with the participation of various European and North American departments of foreign affairs. This is one reason why I think in spite of the dramatic developments, on a personal level, I don't feel despair, and I feel that eventually we will be able to manage the aftermath of the current development.

Sayigh: During the Second Intifada, I was in Ramallah and working with the Negotiation Support Unit, heading up policy planning for the negotiation briefs for Palestinian negotiators. Khalil and I were seeing quite a lot of each other in that general period, as we also worked on Palestinian public institutional reform challenges. The second firefight between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops took place in the Masioun neighborhood, which is where I lived at the time. The gunman basically shot at an Israeli army camp from our building and drew fire back. Later, I heard that one of my neighbors, a woman with a family, remonstrated with the fighters, saying, "You know you're putting us in danger." And they replied, "Why should it only be us? Why shouldn’t you experience what we do?"

This was the moment I understood what drove the Second Intifada to further violence. I was having dinner with friends that night, and I said to them the two-state solution has ended because what's being unleashed has nothing to do with political strategy. There's no plan. This is driven by internal dynamics of frustration and resentment—between refugees versus non-refugees, between those who benefited from the Oslo process with VIP cards and salaries and those who didn't. And then, I also saw what Arafat was doing: he wasn’t in the country at that moment, and the first thing I noticed was his silence. I knew Arafat well enough to know at that instant he was giving a green light; all the Fatah guys understood that too and took out their guns. Arafat thought he could use this for leverage against Ehud Barak to extract more concessions. I'm not saying Arafat should have sought more in the negotiations or that he should have accepted anything in particular, but rather I'm simply making the point that he fundamentally misread the moment and saw it purely in a cynical manner, i.e., that the violence gave him leverage in relation to Ehud Barak. And that's why Hamas for the first several months of the Second Intifada did nothing. They stood on the sidelines because they were convinced that this was a ploy by Arafat for negotiation purposes. They only jumped in after Ariel Sharon came to power, and they thought, "We can change this, and take it somewhere else."

So, I had this moment of horror where I knew what was coming. I concluded it would take another 10–15 years for a new Palestinian national agenda to emerge and acquire a mainstream position. I was horrified because I thought we had an opportunity: I could see it degrading during the 1990s, but in 2000, I saw what was coming instead. I feel like that again today, the difference being that today is not 2000. My prediction of 10 or 15 years of "drift" before a new national agenda crystallized proved wildly optimistic. And now, I believe we are looking at the next century before some form of resolution of Palestinian rights can happen, whether this century will be "long" or "short" as historians measure it.

To put it differently, Hamas may well survive, and even survive better than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Everything that Khalil laid out earlier makes total sense. But I just don't see the Palestinian cause, whether by this we mean a set of individual or collective rights, being fulfilled any time soon. Considering where Western societies are going, where the US-Russia relations, US-China relations are going, where the Arab regimes are, Hamas is more likely to represent a Sarajevo 1914 moment—that leads to wider conflict—than a 1973 moment that leads to one or more negotiated settlements.


For more resources, please see the Crown Center analyses which delve into the roots and evolution of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.