Hamas’s violent assault on Israeli civilians on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent retaliation against Gaza have set in motion an increasingly devastating conflict. European governments have supported Israel’s right to self-defence in response to Hamas’s attacks, while simultaneously urging it to adhere to international law and civilian protection.
But these objectives are proving increasingly difficult to reconcile amid the growing scale of death and destruction that Israel is inflicting on Gaza. Europeans need to now move beyond lukewarm calls for humanitarian pauses to insist on a ceasefire, echoing the calls made by French president Emmanuel Macron and several other European governments. This needs to be accompanied by an expanded diplomatic track to secure the most urgent immediate objectives – the release of all Israeli hostages, the protection of civilians, and full humanitarian access to Gaza – as well as to map a viable political pathway towards a new governance model that ends Hamas’s control of Gaza.
One month of fighting has left Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure devastated by Israeli airstrikes. As of 10 November, more than 11,000 Palestinians had been killed, the majority of them women and children, and half of the Strip’s population internally displaced. Protracted street-to-street fighting is compounding the humanitarian suffering amid the collapse of Gaza’s healthcare system. Hamas also claims that 60 of the 239 Israeli hostages it is holding have been killed by Israeli strikes.
While Israel has made military gains as it moves deeper into Gaza City, it remains unlikely that it will be able to fully uproot Hamas. In addition to the group’s extensive military capabilities, its social, religious, and activist networks run deep through Gazan society, as do its governance structures, which include 40,000 civil servants dealing with everything from waste collection to local policing. As much as Israel and Western governments wish otherwise, Hamas will almost certainly survive the conflict in some form and will remain an unavoidable part of the Palestinian landscape.
Meanwhile, the conflict is heading towards a point of diminishing returns for Israel, though this is not something its government will readily accept. Israel’s expanding military offensive will leave Gaza in total ruin and tens of thousands of its inhabitants dead. The socio-economic collapse of the territory will deepen desperation, feeding extremism and conflict for years to come, while Israel and its allies in the United States and Europe will find themselves internationally isolated, as Arab states and large parts of the global south strongly condemn Israeli actions. The risk of regional escalation will also continue to increase as the situation deteriorates further, with intensifying exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon a particular point of concern.
In the absence of a viable military solution and with the costs mounting, Europeans should now focus on the need for an immediate ceasefire, combined with the release of Israeli civilian hostages and a surge in humanitarian support for Gazans. This is already being negotiated under Qatari auspices – albeit only for an initial three or five days – which suggests that both sides are willing to accept some form of pause if they can secure some of their immediate aims. European governments should support these efforts by engaging with Israel and the US, particularly given that Israel’s ground offensive undermined a previous close deal.
But a ceasefire without a wider political track will only provide brief respite. Europeans should therefore use a cessation of hostilities as an opportunity to wedge open space for a wider diplomatic pathway.
Restoring a political horizon will be immensely challenging and hard for both sides to accept given the intense levels of violence they have experienced. But Hamas will face growing domestic pressure to end the fighting that is killing so many and destroying Gaza. Israel has resisted articulating any political end-game for Gaza beyond a desire to maintain overall security control, while avoiding the burden of governing the territory. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu recently expressed his opposition to any return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Gaza after the war. This in part reflects Israel’s doubts about the PA’s ability to assert control, but also its long-standing policy of maintaining the socio-economic and political separation between Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel may eventually look to the international community or Arab states to govern Gaza and shoulder the burden of its rehabilitation. But without a political track that secures Palestinian support, any international intervention will confront severe security challenges from a likely hostile population in which Hamas remains present, together with a massive socio-economic and humanitarian crisis. Ultimately any meaningful plan to challenge Hamas’s domination in Gaza and stabilise the Strip needs to be Palestinian owned to secure support on the ground. This is not something that can be imposed through the barrel of a gun or international governance.
Post-conflict governance also needs to be guided by what is immediately possible. The illusion of completely uprooting Hamas needs to be discarded, even if Israel’s military operation succeeds in weakening the group operationally. The immediate international focus will need to address the growing humanitarian needs of Gaza’s population, rather than imagining the construction of a new political order on top of the rubble. Given this, some elements of Hamas’s pre-existing civil system will need to be maintained over the short term as the only means of ensuring some form of local administration. This immediate post-conflict period will need to be overseen by the United Nations, given its proven ability to act as a coordinating partner between external actors and Gazan authorities.
Moving forward, the PA remains the only party that can conceivably take over governance and security control of Gaza over the longer term. But it will fail if pushed too quickly given its long absence from the Strip and profound domestic crisis. Even if Netanyahu’s position changes to support the return of the PA, and even with an influx of international funding, President Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to return without bolstering Palestinian accusations that the PA acts as little more than an Israeli subcontractor.
Europeans should therefore focus on re-legitimising the increasingly autocratic PA and boosting its public support in both the West Bank and Gaza. This cannot simply mean strengthening the PA financially and militarily, but rather addressing the need for deep-rooted reforms. These include the restoration of judicial independence, greater accountability for human rights abuses committed by PA security forces, and ultimately working towards municipal elections and long overdue legislative elections to ensure a more inclusive and representative body. The US and European and regional actors should use their important financial and political leverage to urgently advance these reforms, helping to restore the PA as a credible alternative that can then return to Gaza and draw popular support away from Hamas.
To challenge Hamas’s domination and drain its public support, the PA will also need to demonstrate its ability to secure Palestinian rights in the face of Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestinian territory, countering the narrative of Hamas hardliners that violence is the only path left open to them. To do this, Europeans will need to provide Abbas with tangible wins. These could include recognising the State of Palestine and banning the import of products from Israeli settlements. European capitals should also work with the US and regional partners to challenge Israeli actions driving escalation in the West Bank, which undermine the PA and further block prospects for peace – including settler violence, the rampant dispossession of Palestinian land, and expanding Israeli military raids into towns in the West Bank.
Europeans will then need to work with the US and regional actors to establish a reinvigorated political track to address the overarching Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a sine qua non for dislodging Hamas and providing mutual security for Israelis and Palestinians. Without a viable horizon to end Israel’s metastasising occupation of Palestinian territory and secure Palestinian self-determination, there will be little prospect of exiting the cycle of conflict.
To draw Israel away from its singular focus on the military track, Europeans need to work closely with the US to demonstrate that a realistic post-conflict plan for Gaza is the best way to address Israeli security needs. As fears of being bogged down in Gaza grow in Israel, it may prove more receptive to such an approach. But there should be no doubting that Europe and its partners will need to invest significant political effort to shift harder-line Israeli positions that reject any meaningful political engagement with Palestinian, exemplified by right-wing voices in the Israeli government calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.
 Author interviews with Palestinians, West Bank, March 2023.
 Authors’ discussion with former Israeli security official, European capital, November 2023.
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