The lack of a plan to govern Gaza was the backdrop to the deadly convoy chaos

Israel’s reluctance to fill the current leadership vacuum in northern Gaza was the backdrop to the chaos that led to the deaths of dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza coast on Thursday, analysts and aid workers said.

More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, Gaza health officials said, after thousands of starving civilians rushed a convoy of aid trucks, causing a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire into the crowd.

The immediate causes of the chaos were extreme hunger and desperation: the United Nations warned of a looming famine in northern Gaza, where the incident occurred. Attempts by civilians to ambush aid trucks, Israeli restrictions on convoys, and the poor condition of war-damaged roads have made it extremely difficult for food to reach the estimated 300,000 civilians still stranded in that region, prompting instead the U.S. and others to launch air aid. .

But analysts say this dynamic has been exacerbated by Israel’s failure to put in motion a plan for how the North will be governed.

While southern Gaza is still an active conflict zone, fighting has mostly subsided in the north of the enclave. The Israeli army defeated the bulk of Hamas’ fighting forces in early January, forcing Israeli soldiers to retreat from parts of the north.

Now, those areas have no centralized body to coordinate service delivery, enforce law and order and protect aid trucks. To prevent Hamas from rebuilding, Israel prevented police officers from the pre-war Hamas-led government from escorting the trucks. But Israel has also delayed the creation of any alternative application of Palestinian law.

Humanitarian groups have only a limited presence, with the United Nations still considering how to scale up its operations there. And Israel has said it will maintain military control over the territory indefinitely, without specifying exactly what that will mean on a day-to-day basis.

“This tragic event reflects how Israel has no realistic long-term strategy,” said Michael Milstein, an analyst and former Israeli intelligence official. “You can’t just take over Gaza City, leave and then hope that something positive grows there. Instead there is chaos.”

Since Israel invaded Gaza in October, following the Hamas-led attacks that devastated southern Israel earlier that month, Israeli politicians have argued and disagreed about how Gaza should once be governed after the war, a period they describe as “the day after”. ” “

In northern Gaza that moment has essentially already arrived.

When U.N. officials visited the area last week to assess the damage, they did not coordinate their visit with Hamas because it no longer wielded widespread influence in the north, according to Scott Anderson, UNRWA’s Gaza deputy director, the main humanitarian agency of the United Nations. in Gaza.

Reports emerged of some Hamas members attempting to reassert order in some neighborhoods. But apart from limited services at several hospitals, Mr Anderson said he had seen no sign of civil servants or municipal officials. Uncollected waste and sewage crowded the streets, he said.

“The leadership in Gaza is underground, literally or figuratively, and there is no structure to fill that void,” Anderson said in a telephone interview from Gaza. “This creates a prevailing aura of desperation and fear,” which makes events like Thursday’s disaster more likely, he said, adding: “It’s very frustrating and difficult to coordinate things when there’s no one to coordinate with.”

Videos have emerged of armed groups attacking convoys, and diplomats say criminal gangs are starting to fill the void left by Hamas’s absence.

Without any plan, “the vacuum will be filled by chaos, gangs and lawless criminals,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, an American commentator on Gaza affairs who grew up in Gaza, “or by Hamas, which will manage to reemerge and try to reconstitute itself .

Power vacuums are inevitable after most wars. But critics of the Israeli government say the void in northern Gaza is worse than it could have been because Israeli leaders disagree about what should happen next.

The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, published a plan in late February suggesting that “the administration of civil affairs and enforcement of public order will rely on local stakeholders with managerial experience.” But other than noting that these administrators cannot be affiliated with “countries or entities that support terrorism,” Netanyahu provided no further details.

His plan was so vague that it was interpreted as an attempt to postpone the looming decision whether to prioritize the goals of his domestic political base or those of Israel’s strongest foreign ally, the United States.

Outspoken parts of Netanyahu’s right-wing base are aggressively pushing for the restoration of Jewish settlements in Gaza, nearly two decades after Israel removed them. Such a plan would require long-term Israeli control over the territory, making it impossible to re-establish a Palestinian government there.

Instead, the United States and other Western powers and Arab states are pushing for Palestinian leaders from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to be allowed to govern Gaza, as part of a process toward creating a Palestinian state spread across both territories.

Forced between these two contradictory paths, Netanyahu opted for neither.

“He’s trying all kinds of maneuvers to keep his government calm,” said Milstein, the former intelligence official. “Because of all the tensions and all the problematic configurations in his government, he can’t make any really dramatic decisions,” Milstein added.

Mr Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article.

Nadav Shtrauchler, Netanyahu’s former strategist, dismissed concerns about Netanyahu’s strategy.

“If anyone thinks they don’t have any plan in their head, they’re wrong: They have a plan,” Mr. Shtrauchler said. “I think he has two plans. But I’m not sure which one he will choose in the end, and I’m not sure he knows it.”

For now, Netanyahu is using ambiguity to postpone inevitable clashes with both his right-wing coalition allies and the United States for as long as possible, Shtrauchler and other analysts said.

Israeli officials have spoken of empowering clans in different areas of Gaza to maintain peace in their immediate vicinity and protect aid supplies. But the plan has not been proven or implemented, and foreign diplomats are skeptical of its effectiveness.

Some Palestinian and foreign leaders say several thousand former police from the Palestinian Authority, the body that ran Gaza until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007, could be retrained to fill the void. Others suggest that Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan could send a peacekeeping force to support the authority’s policemen.

Meanwhile, “the Palestinians remaining in northern Gaza are dying of hunger,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor in Gaza City. “And basically, they’re trying to find food any way they can.”