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Government divided over role of Palestinian Authority

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Day after in Gaza: Israeli media sources report this morning that Prime Minister Netanyahu is relaxing his opposition to the Palestinian Authority (PA) playing a role in the post-war governance of the Gaza Strip.

  • While Netanyahu publicly continues to rule out swapping ‘Hamastan’ for ‘Fatahstan’, in private he is thought to be more open to a role for the PA, or at least for figures closely associated with it. The PA retains on its payroll in Gaza those who managed civilian affairs in the Strip prior to Hamas’s takeover in 2007: it is likely these individuals that Netanyahu has in mind for assuming civilian administration.
  • Since early in the war, the US has pressed Israel to accept and cooperate with a “reformed” PA assuming control in Gaza. It has never been entirely clear the extent to which these reforms will address Israel’s concerns over the government led by President Abbas, which include: anti-Israel incitement; the encouraging of acts of terror by ‘pay for slay’; the corruption, inefficiency, and lack of a popular mandate seemingly inherent to an organisation which has not held popular elections in 19 years.
  • The Financial Times reported yesterday that Israel is planning to begin a pilot programme in which humanitarian ‘bubble zones’ are implemented in the two northern Gazan cities of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia. The plan would see Israel initially maintain security control of the areas, while the US trains a Palestinian security force, likely made up of PA personnel, who could later assume security control.

West Bank: The IDF last night announced the death of Sergeant First Class (Res.) Yehuda Geto, killed in an operation in the West Bank.

  • Geto died when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in the Nor a-Sham refugee camp, near Tulkarem. Another soldier was seriously injured.
  • In the same operation, an Israeli UAV targeted a terrorist fell without exploding. Some locals then approached it and it exploded, killing a woman and injuring several others.
  • The IDF had been in the area specifically trying to combat the use of IEDs in West Bank refugee camps. The IDF and Shin Bet have lately been working to address their proliferation, caused in part by there being a lengthy period of time when troops refrained from entering the camps, allowing local groups time and space to amass weapons.
  • Geto’s death follows that of Cpt. Alon Sacgiu, 22 last week, also killed by an IED in the West Bank city of Jenin’s refugee camp. 16 soldiers were also wounded.
  • Tulkarem and Nor a-Shams in particular has been the focus of IDF operations largely due to its close proximity to the security barrier and the fear of terrorists infiltrating into nearly Israeli communities.
  • The move to relax opposition to the PA’s involvement in Gaza comes in parallel to the Israeli government announcing further sanctions against it, along with provocative recognition of outposts.
  • Last week, the security cabinet approved a plan by Finance Minister Smotrich to legalise five previously unsanctioned settlement outposts in the West Bank: Evyatar, Sde Efraim and Givat Asaf in the central West Bank, and Heletz and Adorayim in the south of the territory.
  • Smotrich also announced a package of sanctions targeting PA officials, including cancelling exit visas and implementing restrictions on their movement and the transfer of responsibility from the PA to Israel in a West Bank nature reserve.
  • Smotrich said that the punitive moves were in response to Ramallah’s support for actions against Israel at the ICJ and ICC, and for Norway, Spain, and Ireland’s recognition of a Palestinian state.
  • However, it has been reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu sees the role of the PA differently. According to Channel 12 News, Netanyahu recently acknowledged, “We cannot ignore the activities and actions of the PA; they have significant benefits for Israel,” adding, “The collapse of the Palestinian Authority is not in Israel’s interest at this time. There is a need to promote actions that stabilise the Authority to prevent escalation in the area.”
  • With the PA coming close to financial collapse after Smotrich started withholding the tax revenues Israel collects on its behalf in April, he has also reportedly agreed to release some of these funds, and to allow Israeli banks to resume cooperation with those in the West Bank.
  • Smotrich’s punitive policies reflect a desire to implement an irreversible status quo in the West Bank, which would survive a change of government. He seeks not only an extension of the areas under Israeli control and an expansion of settlements, but the erosion of the PA itself. In this, he and his far-right colleagues in government are opposed both by the administration’s pragmatists and the military and security establishments, all of whom recognise the value to Israel of a functioning PA.
  • Yesterday, 55 Palestinian security prisoners were released from Israeli jails, including Mohammad Abu Salmiya, the director of Gaza City’s Shifa hospital arrested in November on suspicion of having allowed Hamas to use the hospital as an operations centre.
  • The decision was made by the Shin Bet, which says that Israel’s over-crowded jails cannot continue to hold dangerous security prisoners from the West Bank and all those arrested in Gaza since the beginning of the war.
  • Several senior politicians have criticised the decision to release Abu Salmiya, including the prime minister who said, “The release of the director of Shifa Hospital is a grave mistake and a moral failure,” he said. “The place of this man, under whose responsibility our abductees were murdered and held, is in prison.”
  • In parallel to operations in Gaza, the IDF has been regularly conducting counter-terror operations in the West Bank. In the last nine months, the IDF have arrested over 4,000 terror suspects and killed over 550.
  • Data from the Shin Bet shows there have been over 3,580 terror attacks perpetrated in the same period. These range from stoning cars to shootings, stabbings and car rammings. In total 23 Israeli have been killed.
  • According to the latest polling among Palestinians, satisfaction with PA President Abbas’ performance stands at 12% and dissatisfaction with 85%. About 90% want the president to resign.
  • When asked who the public would prefer to control the Gaza Strip after the war, 61% (71% in the West Bank and 46% in the Gaza Strip) said it was Hamas, 16% chose a new Palestinian Authority with an elected president, parliament and government, 6% chose the current PA without Abbas, 6% also chose the return of the PA but under Abbas’ control, 2% chose the UN, 1% selected one or more Arab states, and 1% selected the Israeli army.
  • Regarding satisfaction with Hamas, there was an increases to 75% (82% in the West Bank and 64% in the Gaza Strip). While Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, thought to be the architect of the October 7th massacre received 65% support, (76% in the West Bank and 50% in the Gaza Strip).

Looking ahead: Although too soon to declare an end to the ground incursion in Gaza, over the next month the IDF are transitioning into the next less intense stage of the campaign.

  • Operations in the West Bank are likely to continue, particularly in the areas that have been forsaken by the PA.