US preparing for ‘prominent’ role in postwar Gaza

The idea was mentioned in a classified State Department document that outlined how the U.S. could help stabilize Gaza after a cease-fire.

The Biden administration is considering appointing a U.S. official to serve as the top civilian adviser to a mostly Palestinian force when the Israel-Hamas conflict ends, four U.S. officials said — a sign that the U.S. plans to be very involved in securing a post-war Gaza.

The civilian adviser would be based in the region and work closely with the commanding officer of the force, who would be either Palestinian or from an Arab nation, the people said.

Washington is still debating how much official authority this adviser would have, but all officials, granted anonymity to detail very sensitive discussions, stressed it is part of a plan for the U.S. to play a “prominent” role in lifting Gaza out of desperate chaos.

The private discussions between the White House, Pentagon and State Department regarding the adviser role — which have not been previously reported — show that the Biden administration expects to be at the center of what happens to Gaza long after the guns go quiet. The U.S. would therefore be partly responsible for what comes next, including improving the lives of 2.2 million Palestinians who are suffering in the decimated territory.

The adviser would never enter Gaza itself, the officials said — an indication of the desire to avoid any implication that the U.S. would be dictating the future of the territory.

Two officials said the adviser could be based in Sinai and another said it could be Jordan. The proposal for the adviser and peacekeeping force also has been circulating in a classified administration for months.

The U.S. is already a major player in the conflict, supporting Israel’s military campaign against Hamas while pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Now, during an intense planning phase, the administration is working to have multiple partners inside and outside the U.S. converge around ideas to stabilize postwar Gaza — namely to maintain security and avoid an insurgency that could plunge the enclave into more turmoil.

The plan for the adviser is one of many being floated for “day after” scenarios, all four officials said, which includes others focused on growing Gaza’s economy and rebuilding flattened cities. While many of the plans involve some kind of peacekeeping force, debates still rage about its makeup and the authorities it will be given.

“We have talked about a number of different formulas for some kind of interim security forces in Gaza,” said a senior administration official, “and we have talked to a lot of partners about how the United States could support that with all of our capabilities from outside Gaza.”

The officials added that a cease-fire and the return of hostages must come first, a tall order as negotiations between Israel and Hamas have broken off with no sign of restarting.

The Biden administration is trying to convince Arab states such as Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to join the peacekeeping force, a second official said, as regional countries continually demand that the U.S. have a heavy hand in Gaza’s postwar future. “It’ll be easier to get them to come along if we’re there playing a part, and we’re prepared to play that role,” the official said about what Arab countries want from the U.S.

The official added that there’s also broad agreement between the U.S., Israel and regional players to help form a Palestinian Council, comprising Palestinians from Gaza, to serve as an interim governing structure. Spain, Ireland and Norway plan to recognize such a country next week, an unmistakable sign that there’s growing interest among American allies to push for a sovereign Palestinian state.

Israel must also support the establishment of the force in Gaza, a hard sell as Netanyahu and his far-right government oppose anything that has the trappings of a Palestinian state. It’s unclear what alternative there would be, however, as all officials agreed desperate conditions in Gaza require a peacekeeping force.

A third official added that recent conversations with Israel and Middle Eastern partners is “how you transition to a more political phase and a stabilization phase” after the war ends. “We’re offering our ideas and concepts based on very broad and in-depth consultations that we’re having throughout the region on this question.”

The current planning resembles ideas about the civilian adviser and peacekeeping force floated in a classified State Department paper obtained by POLITICO.

In that March document, marked “SECRET” and not for the eyes of foreign officials, the State Department proposed the formation of the Temporary Security Mission for Gaza. The security mission “could be a hybrid model of police and Carabinieri/gendarmerie,” per the document, referencing the Italian law enforcement group responsible for internal security. “State recommends branding this as a security mission not a ‘force.’”

The officials said that such a plan is still regularly discussed and factors into current thinking about postwar Gaza.

The document was clear that the TSMG “should not be a U.S.-commanded mission” partly because it “would likely encounter fierce resistance by the Palestinian people given U.S. support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.” Instead, it should feature “robust Palestinian participation” — roughly 2,000 members — as well as 1,000 more from Arab-speaking countries.

The force would be led by “an appropriately senior officer” from either Israel, Egypt or the Palestinian Authority. Egypt would “ideally” agree to be the “Arab lead” of the force. Once the lead is identified, the nation would be responsible for the TSMG’s “mandate, composition and duration of deployment.”

The U.S. would not send troops to Gaza, but the document proposes appointing an American civilian as “Director-General” to coordinate with Israel and help train and advise the force’s members. Washington would also provide intelligence support against threats, namely from Hamas and other Gaza-based militants.

The force would start small in a “limited area of responsibility” focused initially on “key humanitarian assistance hubs” and then “gradually expand.”

“The eventual geographic scope of the TSMG’s mission would be Gaza-wide,” according to the document.

Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesperson, said “we don’t comment on purported leaked documents, which often do not reflect the state of play on any given issue at the department.”

Gen. C.Q. Brown, the Joint Chiefs chair, on Monday offered a rare public rebuke of Israel’s military strategy, stating that chaos in Gaza is in large part due to the way the campaign has been waged. “Not only do you have to actually go in and clear out whatever adversary you are up against, you have to go in, hold the territory and then you’ve got to stabilize it,” he told reporters.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan recently returned from meetings with senior officials in Saudi Arabia and Israel. It’s unclear if he discussed these and other ideas with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Netanyahu.