Israeli defense chief, Netanyahu spar over Gaza governance when war with Hamas ends

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stands with soldiers by a self-propelled artillery howitzer during a visit to a position along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel near Rafah, on May 7, 2024. [AFP]

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday for failing to devise a plan to govern Gaza after the end of Israel’s war with Hamas. But the Israeli leader said it was pointless to do so until the militants are defeated.

In an unusual rift between the two leaders, Gallant said in a televised statement that he is opposed to the establishment of either Israeli military or civilian control of the narrow Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea that is home to about 2.3 million Palestinians.

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

"I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip," Gallant said, calling for an immediate "governing alternative to Hamas.”

With the shock October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent ongoing counteroffensive on Hamas militants in Gaza, Netanyahu has repeatedly declined to lay out a post-war plan for governance in Gaza.

The United States, Israel’s chief arms supplier, has called for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern both Gaza and the West Bank in a two-state solution, Palestine alongside Israel.

But Netanyahu and his right-wing governing coalition adamantly oppose such a solution. The prime minister said any discussion of how Gaza should be ruled after the seven-month war was just "empty talk" if Hamas remains in the territory.

"The first condition for preparing the ground for another entity is to destroy Hamas, and to do so without making excuses," Netanyahu said in the statement posted on his Telegram channel.

Gallant said the current military action in Gaza needed to be followed by political action.

"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," he said.

"This, above all, is an interest of the State of Israel,” Gallant said.

Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of Netanyahu's ruling coalition, attacked Gallant over his views. Ben-Gvir characterized Gallant as “the minister of defense who failed on October 7 and continues to fail today. Such a minister of defense must be replaced in order to achieve the goals of the war,” he said.

Operation in Rafah

Meanwhile, the European Union called on Israel to immediately end its military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, saying Wednesday that the operation is disrupting humanitarian aid operations and bringing more displacement, famine and human suffering.

The statement from EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recognized Israel’s right to defend itself but said Israel must follow international law and protect civilians.

“The European Union is calling on Israel to refrain from further exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and reopen the crossing point of Rafah,” Borrell said.

“Should Israel continue its military operation in Rafah, it would inevitably put a heavy strain on the EU’s relationship with Israel,” he said.

Borrell also called on Hamas to unconditionally release the 100 or so hostages it is holding in Gaza.

Israel’s military said Wednesday its forces conducted airstrikes on roughly 80 targets throughout the Gaza Strip during the past day, while ground units fought on the east side of Rafah.

Israeli forces were also battling Hamas in several areas in northern Gaza, four months after the military said it had dismantled the militant group’s infrastructure in the area.

The war was triggered by the October Hamas terror attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and led to the capture of about 250 hostages, according to Israeli officials. Israel’s subsequent counteroffensive in Gaza has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which includes civilians and combatants in its count, but says most of the dead are women and children.

Israel says it has killed more than 14,000 militants and around 16,000 civilians.