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Lack of plan to govern Gaza sets backdrop for deadly convoy chaos

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Israel’s reluctance to fill the current leadership vacuum in northern Gaza provided the backdrop to the chaos that led to the deaths of dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza coast on Thursday, analysts and aid workers said .

More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, Gaza health authorities said, after thousands of starving civilians rushed onto a convoy of aid trucks, causing a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire on the crowd.

The immediate causes of the chaos were extreme hunger and desperation: the United Nations warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza, where the episode occurred. Civilian attempts to ambush aid trucks, Israeli restrictions on convoys, and poor roads damaged during the war have made it extremely difficult to supply food to the estimated 300,000 civilians still stranded in the area. which led the United States and others to airdrop aid. .

But analysts say this dynamic has been exacerbated by Israel’s failure to implement a plan for how the North will be governed.

While southern Gaza remains an active conflict zone, fighting has mainly subsided in the north of the enclave. The Israeli army defeated most of Hamas’ fighting forces in early January, leading Israeli soldiers to withdraw from parts of the north.

Today, these areas do not have a centralized body to coordinate the provision of services, enforce public order and protect aid trucks. To prevent Hamas from rebuilding, Israel prevented police from the pre-war Hamas-led government from escorting the trucks. But Israel has also delayed the creation of any other Palestinian police forces.

Humanitarian groups have only a limited presence, with the United Nations still assessing how to scale up its operations there. And Israel has said it will retain indefinite military control over the territory, without specifying exactly what that would mean on a day-to-day basis.

“This tragic event shows that Israel does not have a realistic long-term strategy,” said Michael Milstein, an analyst and former Israeli intelligence official. “You can’t just take over Gaza City, leave and then hope that something positive will develop there. Instead, there is chaos.

Since Israel invaded Gaza in October, following Hamas-led attacks that devastated southern Israel earlier this month, Israeli politicians have debated and disagreed over how Gaza should be governed once. once the war is over, a period they describe as “the day after.” »

In northern Gaza, that moment has already arrived.

When U.N. officials visited the region last week to assess the damage, they did not coordinate their visit with Hamas because it no longer has much influence in the north, according to Scott Anderson, director deputy of UNRWA in Gaza, the UN’s main humanitarian agency. in Gaza.

There were reports of Hamas members attempting to restore order in some neighborhoods. But aside from limited services at several hospitals, Mr. Anderson said he saw no signs of city officials or workers. Uncollected trash and sewage lined the streets, he said.

“Gaza’s leadership is underground, literally and figuratively, and there is no structure in place to fill that void,” Mr. Anderson said in a telephone interview from Gaza. “It creates a prevailing aura of despair and fear,” making events like Thursday’s disaster more likely, he said, adding: “It’s very frustrating and difficult to coordinate things when there ‘There’s no one to coordinate with.’

Videos have emerged showing armed groups attacking convoys, and diplomats say criminal gangs are beginning to fill the void left by Hamas’ absence.

Without any plan, “the vacuum will be filled either by chaos, lawless gangs and criminals,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, an American commentator on Gaza affairs who grew up in Gaza, “or by Hamas, which will succeed in reappear.” and try to rebuild.

Power vacuums are inevitable after most wars. But critics of the Israeli government say the vacuum in northern Gaza is worse than it could have been because Israeli leaders disagree on what should happen next.

The country’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, released a plan in late February suggesting that “the administration of civil affairs and the maintenance of public order will be based on local actors with management experience.” But beyond the fact that these administrators could not be affiliated with “countries or entities that support terrorism,” Mr. Netanyahu gave no further details.

His plan was so vague that it was interpreted as an attempt to delay an imminent decision about whether to prioritize the goals of his domestic political base or those of Israel’s most powerful foreign ally, the United States. -United.

Elements of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing base are aggressively pushing for the restoration of Jewish settlements in Gaza, almost two decades after Israel removed them. Such a plan would require long-term Israeli control over the territory, making the restoration of Palestinian governance impossible.

Conversely, the United States and other Western and Arab powers are pushing for Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to be allowed to rule Gaza, as part of a process to create a Palestinian state spread across the two territories.

Pulled between these two contradictory paths, Mr. Netanyahu chose neither.

“He’s trying all kinds of maneuvers to keep his government calm,” said Mr. Milstein, the former intelligence official. “Because of all the tensions and problematic configurations within his government, he cannot make any really dramatic decisions,” Milstein added.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article.

Nadav Shtrauchler, Mr. Netanyahu’s former strategist, dismissed concerns about Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy.

“If anyone thinks they don’t have a plan in mind, they’re wrong: They do have a plan,” Mr. Shtrauchler said. “I think he has two plans. But I don’t know which one he’ll choose in the end, and I’m not sure he knows.

For now, Mr. Netanyahu is using ambiguity to postpone inevitable confrontations with his right-wing coalition allies and the United States for as long as possible, Mr. Shtrauchler and other analysts said.

Israeli officials have spoken of empowering clans in different pockets of Gaza to keep the peace in their immediate neighborhoods and protect humanitarian supplies. But the plan remains unproven and unimplemented – and foreign diplomats are skeptical about its effectiveness.

Some Palestinians and foreign leaders say several thousand former police officers from the Palestinian Authority, the body that ruled Gaza until it was ousted from Hamas in 2007, could be retrained to fill the void. Others suggest that Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan could send a peacekeeping force to support the authorities’ police officers.

Meanwhile, “Palestinians remaining in northern Gaza are starving,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor from Gaza City. “And basically, they’re trying to find food any way they can. »

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