Hamas Is Returning to Northern Gaza Because Israel Has No Plan for the “Day After”


In a stormy cabinet debate after the Six Day War, Israel’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, rejected hardline demands to apply direct civil rule over the newly captured West Bank, declaring: “I don’t want more land and I don’t want more Arabs.” This terse assertion presaged decades of Israeli policy. In its subsequent long history of occupation, Israel has almost always avoided directly practicing civilian governance over local Arab populations. This laissez faire approach surprised a visiting intellectual, Milton Friedman, who during a 1969 tour of the West Bank noted that: “Israeli civilian administrators were few and far between. Governmental functions were being carried out by the pre-war Jordanian civil servants.”

In 2024, as Israel’s war planners seek to prolong their ground invasion of Gaza, this long-established doctrine of laissez faire occupation faces a new challenge: Hamas bureaucrats, militants, and police re-asserting their authority in areas that Israel ostensibly controls. From the sprawling ruins of Beit Hanoun on the Israel-Gaza border to the outskirts of Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital further inside the coastal enclave, Hamas’ uniformed police are operating openly once more. Beyond restoring some semblance of public order on the streets, Hamas’ substantial and established bureaucracy has ordered its employees return to work and has re-started social welfare programs aimed at providing for Gazans’ everyday needs.

This may be an unfolding development, but it is not a surprising one.



Instead, it represents the latest symptom of Israel’s lack of a coherent post-war plan for the territory. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly refused to articulate a “day after” vision for Gaza, arguing that it would distract from the primary goal of destroying Hamas.

But this lack of strategic clarity ensures that, far from preventing Hamas’ return, Israel’s ongoing policies within Gaza are actively facilitating this scenario. Absent any clear political vision for capitalizing on its military successes, Israel refuses to provide everyday governance to Gaza’s civilians. It has also stopped aid organizations from entering the territory. Gaza’s war-weary and poverty-stricken civilians need welfare, public order, and a sense of normalcy now more than ever. Currently, Hamas is the only party that is willing and able to provide these essential services. It is this entirely avoidable status quo that sows the seeds for the Islamist movement’s return to power in Gaza after the fighting ends. In short: The Israeli government should recognize that providing aid and basic civilian governance in Gaza are essential components of a strategy for defeating Hamas.

A Legal and Practical Necessity

During its ongoing military campaign and beyond, Israel has steadfastly rejected any responsibility for governing Gaza’s civilian population. This contravenes international occupation law, which explicitly states that it is the occupier who must guarantee the welfare and address the everyday needs of all non-combatants under a military occupation. It is no wonder that Israel has sought to sidestep this responsibility, given that it is an indubitably heavy burden that spans a broad gamut of needs, including healthcare, education, policing, and more.

Israel has also led the campaign to de-fund the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, thereby shutting out a key and established source of welfare for Gaza’s civilians. Further, Netanyahu has ruled out foreign troops or a Palestinian Authority presence in a post-war Gaza. These are not the fringe positions of a hawkish prime minister: a range of moderates — from defense minister Yoav Gallant to opposition leader Yair Lapid — have echoed Netanyahu’s stances on these key pillars of post-war planning.

But providing aid and good governance is not just Israel’s legal obligation. It is a necessity: Gaza’s civilians are poorer, hungrier and sicker than ever before. Equally, their need for peacetime services has not abated. Gaza’s children still have a right to an education, while the territory’s long-term sick need their regular medications. Someone must provide these services, but Israel refuses to do so.

When Israel launched its ground invasion in late October 2023, the operation’s relatively limited geographical scope surprised observers: Rather than occupy the entire Gaza Strip, the Israeli military concentrated its efforts in the northern part. Israel demanded that the territory’s civilians evacuate to southern Gaza. This would supposedly ensure that Israel could minimize civilian casualties and meet its duty of care to non-combatants. But as the war has dragged on, Israel expanded its operations southwards. It is, therefore, finding itself controlling increasing amounts of territory with increasingly significant civilian populations. Simultaneously, Israel’s strategy has not adapted to these new realities and remains stubbornly force-centric.

An Obvious Outcome

The end result is predictable. It is Hamas — the only group with an established civil infrastructure, a long-established formal and informal charity network, and the willingness to police, provide for, and pay Gaza’s civilians — that fills this power vacuum. It is no coincidence that Hamas administrators are now re-appearing in the parts of Gaza that Israel first captured in the early stages of its ground invasion, because this is where civil governance has been absent for the longest and Gazans’ need for some form of normalcy the most acute. While most of Gaza City’s residents fled south, thousands remain in the territory — it is these families that Hamas now seeks to co-opt to guarantee its post-war existence.

Netanyahu has repeatedly shrugged off U.S. and internal cajoling to articulate how Israel intends to turn its battlefield successes against Hamas into a long-term political vision for Gaza’s future. Facing diametrically opposed political pressure from his right-wing allies to resettle and even annex parts of Gaza on the one hand and the Biden administration’s rapidly diminishing patience for a prolonged military campaign on the other, Netanyahu’s response has been to equivocate and obscure.

The result is that no-one, including the Israel Defense Forces, know what Israel’s long-term objectives in Gaza are. Israel’s military is restricted to doing what the oft-quoted maxim claims armies do best: “Kill people and blow stuff up.” Absent any clearer military doctrine, the perceived need for vengeance following Hamas’ atrocities on Oct. 7 has seeped into interactions between Israeli soldiers and Gazan civilians. This worrying trend is exemplified by the plethora of TikToks and other social media content that Israeli personnel operating in Gaza have themselves uploaded, which often show troops looting property and humiliating detainees with apparent impunity.

Eschewing civilian governance in areas that Israel has supposedly cleared of hostiles does not just create a post-war political challenge. It also creates significant operational issues that stymie Israel’s war effort. When Hamas’ bureaucrats re-appear, its armed wing is not far behind. This is why the Israeli military has recently redirected significant resources to retaking the Al Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, despite the fact that Israel first captured it as far back as early November.

Hamas’ re-emergence also casts doubt on Israel’s ability to eliminate the Islamist movement’s operational capabilities in the Gaza Strip. In early January 2024, Israeli military officials boasted that they had destroyed Hamas as a fighting force in northern Gaza. Barely one month later, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi admitted that same territory witnessed “terrorist activity nearly every day.” Israel then increased its military presence in northern Gaza, flying in the face of its desired strategy to dial down operations to prepare for a more limited yet lengthy counter-insurgency campaign.

The Necessity of Governance

Providing for the welfare of Gaza’s civilians is therefore a political, military, and humanitarian imperative. Israel expanded the scope of its military operations to pursue its objectives — it should now correspondingly broaden its mission parameters to provide aid and assistance to the territory’s residents. This need will become more acute as Israel expands its operations to Rafah, the one urban area in the Gaza Strip devoid of an Israeli military presence. Previously a densely populated city of 250,000 residents, Rafah’s population has swelled to incorporate as many as 1.5 million refugees who fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza. These civilians have nowhere else to go that is outside of Israeli military control. Thus, if it does enter Rafah, Israel will have no choice but to provide for Gazans’ welfare.

This could placate the Biden administration, who have repeatedly cautioned that they will not sanction any Israeli operation in Rafah without guarantees that it would protect the territory’s civilians. Far-right Israeli cabinet ministers will balk at providing humanitarian aid but doing so could alleviate international pressure and thus leave Israel better placed to conduct the prolonged counter-insurgency campaign it seeks. It would also allow Netanyahu to continue his balancing act of mitigating U.S. pressure to retrench Israel’s military footprint and internal cajoling by far-right ministers to continue fighting until Hamas is defeated. Governing — rather than just pacifying — Gaza need not augur an entrenched occupation. Israel successfully provided an extensive aid and welfare program within Syria during that country’s civil war, which it was able to quickly end and leave little footprint of its years-long presence. Basic humanitarian aid and governance will not end Gazans’ suffering, but it will help alleviate the acute and burgeoning humanitarian crisis within the territory.

As the U.S.-led coalition discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, the term “post-conflict reconstruction” is a misnomer. This is because post-war strategic planning is rarely about just rebuilding whatever infrastructure a conflict has damaged. Instead, interveners and occupiers often take on the unenviable and significantly harder task of replacing what came before with a new system of governance. As such, they should create a local status quo that better guarantees stability and security than the pre-war balance of power that necessitated the intervention in the first place.

Israel’s declared war aims — destroying Hamas’ military infrastructure and rendering it incapable of governing a post-war Gaza — are a contemporary manifestation of these lofty goals. But by refusing to engage in Gaza’s civilian governance, while denying other non-hostile actors a role in post-conflict reconstruction, Israel is providing Hamas with the silver platter of legitimacy that it needs to survive the conflict.



Rob Geist Pinfold is a lecturer in Peace and Security at Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs and a research fellow at Charles Universitys Peace Research Center Prague. This article employs data from his book, Understanding Territorial Withdrawal: Israeli Occupations and Exits (Oxford University Press, 2023). 

Image: Fars Media Corporation, accessed via Wikimedia Commons