The United States national security adviser and the Palestinian president met Friday to discuss postwar arrangements for Gaza — which, according to a senior U.S. official, could include reactivating Palestinian security forces driven out by Hamas in its 2007 takeover of the territory.
The proposal, floated as one of several, was the first specific indicator of Washington's vision for security arrangements in Gaza if Israel achieves its U.S.-backed objective to end Hamas control of the besieged enclave.
Any role for Palestinian security forces in Gaza is bound to elicit strong opposition from Israel, which seeks to maintain an open-ended security presence there and says it won't allow a postwar foothold for the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, a West Bank-based autonomy government led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Thursday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, spoke to Israeli leaders about a timetable for winding down the intense combat phase of the war.
The offensive, triggered by the unprecedented Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, has flattened much of northern Gaza and driven 80% of Gaza's population of 2.3 million from their homes. Displaced people have squeezed into shelters mainly in the south in a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has shown unease over Israel's failure to reduce civilian casualties and its plans for the future of Gaza, but the White House continues to offer wholehearted support for Israel with weapons shipments and diplomatic backing.
"I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives," President Biden said Thursday when asked if he wants Israel to scale down its operations by the end of the month. "Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful."
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Sullivan talked with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu about moving to "lower intensity operations" sometime "in the near future."
It was not clear to what extent the U.S. and Israel differ on the timetable. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Sullivan that it would take months to destroy Hamas, but did not say in his statement whether his estimate referred to the current phase of heavy combat.
Gallant has said this phase would be followed by lower-intensity campaign to stamp out any pockets of Hamas resistance.
A deadly Hamas ambush on Israeli troops in Gaza City this week showed the group's resilience and called into question whether Israel can defeat it without wiping out the entire territory.
Israel's air and ground assault over the past 10 weeks has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. Thousands more are missing and feared dead beneath the rubble.
The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths. Its latest count did not specify how many were women and minors, but they have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead in previous tallies.
On Friday morning, communications services still appeared to be down across Gaza. The Palestinian telecommunications provider Paltel had announced Thursday evening that services were cut off due to ongoing fighting.
Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling continued overnight and into Friday, including in the southern city of Rafah, part of the shrinking areas of tiny, densely populated Gaza to which Palestinian civilians had been told by Israel to evacuate. At least one person was killed, according to an Associated Press journalist who saw the body arriving at a local hospital.
Israelis remain strongly supportive of the war and see it as necessary to prevent a repeat of Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants attacked communities across southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking some 240 hostage. A total of 116 soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive, which began Oct. 27.
The Israeli military on Friday confirmed the return of the bodies of three hostages. Two were soldiers, both aged 19, and the third was a 28-year-old dual French-Israeli national kidnapped from a music festival.
More than 100 hostages have been freed, most during a cease-fire last month in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Palestinian support for Hamas has tripled in the West Bank, with a small uptick in Gaza, according to a poll published Wednesday. Still, a majority of Palestinians do not back Hamas, according to the survey, which had an error margin of 4 percentage points.
Sullivan was scheduled to meet Friday with Abbas, who lost control of Gaza when Hamas drove out his security forces in 2007. The takeover came a year after Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah party in parliament elections and the rivals failed to form a unity government.
A senior U.S. official said that Sullivan and others have discussed the prospect of having those associated with the Palestinian Authority security forces before the Hamas takeover serve as the "nucleus" of postwar peacekeeping in Gaza.
It was one idea of many being considered for establishing security in Gaza, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with White House ground rules. He said such talks were taking place with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and regional partners.
The U.S. has said it eventually wants to see the West Bank and Gaza under a unified Palestinian government, as a precursor to Palestinian statehood — an idea soundly rejected by Netanyahu, who leads a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinian prime minister told The Associated Press it's time for the United States to deal more firmly with Israel, particularly on Washington's calls for postwar negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Now that the United States has talked the talk, we want Washington to walk the walk," Mohammed Shtayyeh said Thursday. "If the United States cannot deliver Israel, who can?"
As part of postwar scenarios, Washington has also called for revitalizing the Palestinian Authority, without letting on whether such reforms would require personnel changes or general elections, which last took place 17 years ago. The 88-year-old Abbas is widely unpopular, with this week's poll indicating close to 90% of Palestinians want him to resign.
Trending stories at Scrippsnews.com