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Israel has no plan for Gaza after Hamas rule, the Israeli defense chief says

Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari stands at the opening to a tunnel near the border with Israel on Dec. 15, 2023, northern Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said this was the largest tunnel they'd found yet in Gaza.
Amir Levy
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Getty Images
Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari stands at the opening to a tunnel near the border with Israel on Dec. 15, 2023, northern Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said this was the largest tunnel they'd found yet in Gaza.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Amid growing frustration in Israel over where the war is headed eight months in, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday accused Israel's leadership of ignoring his requests to discuss a replacement to Hamas rule in Gaza.

"Since October, I have been raising this issue consistently in the Cabinet, and have received no response," Gallant said.

His speech, broadcast live, is the harshest rebuke yet of Israel's war strategy in Gaza from within Israel's three-man war cabinet. It set off a political firestorm that could threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hold on power.

How the controversy began

The debate over the "day after" in Gaza erupted when Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari was asked at a news conference Tuesday whether Israeli troops had been sent to retake areas of Gaza they had retreated from because there were no governing alternatives to Hamas. Hagari said a replacement for Hamas would pressure the militant group, but that it was a question for Israel's political leaders.

Netanyahu then said in a video released by his office Wednesday that discussions about a "day-after" strategy are meaningless until Hamas is defeated, and said some of Israel's efforts to replace Hamas are covert.

Gallant appeared to refute Netanyahu's claims, saying no efforts were being made to establish an an alternative to Hamas in Gaza. He called on Netanyahu to declare that Israel would not establish civil or military rule in Gaza for the long term.

"The 'day after Hamas' will only be achieved with Palestinian entities taking control of Gaza, accompanied by international actors, establishing a governing alternative to Hamas' rule," Gallant said in his live speech. "Unfortunately, the plan was not brought for discussion, and worse, an alternative discussion was not raised in its place."

In response, several hard-right members of Netanyahu's governing coalition called for the defense minister to be replaced.

Gallant, a member of Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party, challenged Netanyahu in March of last year when he called on him to drop plans to weaken the powers of Israel's judiciary. He said widespread opposition to the judicial overhaul among the public and within the military ranks was eroding Israel's security. Netanyahu fired Gallant, sparking massive street protests that led Netanyahu to reinstate him.

Nadav Eyal, a senior writer for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, says Netanyahu is stuck with Gallant for now, even though he's not pleased with him. "Netanyahu doesn't want this defense minister in his government," Eyal says. "He's just too afraid to fire him right now because he knows that during a war, to do such a thing will lead to just implications that you cannot foresee, including the very real possibility of another dramatic night in the streets of Israel."

The Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel came about half a year after Gallant's reinstatement. It was the deadliest day in Israel's history, sparking the country's ongoing offensive in Gaza, the deadliest war in Gaza's history.

Israeli settlers at a barbecue as smoke rises from Gaza Strip during Israel's Independence Day, May 14.
/ Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
Israeli settlers at a barbecue as smoke rises from Gaza Strip during Israel's Independence Day, May 14.

Israel's far-right dream: settlements in Gaza

With Netanyahu failing to articulate a clear plan for replacing Hamas rule, several thousand Israeli settlers and their supporters — including senior ministers in Netanyahu's government — rallied Tuesday for Israel to build Jewish settlements atop the ruins of Gaza's destroyed cities, and to encourage Palestinians to emigrate.

The rally took place next to the Gaza border in the city of Sderot, as large pillars of smoke rose across the border in Gaza.

It was held on Israel's 76th Independence Day, which Palestinians commemorate annually as the Nakba, or catastrophe, when many Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and exiled in Israel's founding war. Palestinians rallied this week in commemoration in parts of Israel and the occupied West Bank.

In a speech at the pro-settlement rally, far-right lawmaker Zvi Sukkot celebrated the immense destruction the Israeli army has wreaked on Gaza in the more than seven months of war, saying Israel's enemies must relinquish land as a consequence of attacking the country.

Far-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir also addressed demonstrators.

"To be a free people in our country," Ben Gvir said to a cheering crowd, referencing Israel's national anthem, "is also to say to Biden, 'Mr. President, this is ours. We're going home to Gaza.'"

Israel used to have settlements in Gaza. The government uprooted its soldiers and settlers from the territory in 2005. Two years later, the Palestinian militant group Hamas took control of the enclave.

Netanyahu's political bind

Netanyahu has said Israel does not intend to reoccupy Gaza for the long term or to resettle it, but he has also resisted U.S. calls for Gaza to be governed by a revitalized Palestinian Authority, a more moderate Palestinian leadership.

"In various Cabinet meetings and consultations, Netanyahu has talked about some kind of a self-rule by the Palestinians that will involve Arab countries such as the [United Arab Emirates] and Egypt, with some sort of an international coordination," says Eyal, the writer. "He was very resolved to make sure that this would not include the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, which is the party that's most dominant within the Palestinian Authority and is, of course, a competitor of Hamas in the Palestinian society. But he did not present any plan for that."

Eyal Hulata, who served as Israel's national security adviser under Netanyahu's predecessor, Naftali Bennett, and is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says, "Nobody's talking about a two-state solution. We're talking about a prospect of self-governance by the Palestinians, something that gets the support of the vast majority of Israelis. And Netanyahu, for his own political reasons, isn't capable of saying that."

Billboards from the New Gaza group, describing their mission to settle Gaza City, on display at the pro-settlement rally.
/ Daniel Estrin/ NPR
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Daniel Estrin/ NPR
Billboards from the New Gaza group, describing their mission to settle Gaza City, on display at the pro-settlement rally.

At the rally, families were brought onstage, holding signs pledging their plans to move into Gaza's cities. At a card table, an organization called the New Gaza presented a map of Gaza City's neighborhoods with new Hebrew names.

"It's either us or them. We have to clear out Gaza," said Chanie Luz, an Israeli originally from Queens, N.Y. "There's a lot of room in the world for the people of Gaza. They can be absorbed in any country in the world. They cannot stay here. We can't live with them. They want to kill us."

When asked whether she was prepared to settle in Gaza, she said, "I would love to build a vacation village on the coast of Gaza. I love the sea."

Jackie Northam, Alon Avital and Itay Stern contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.