Israel informs Arab states it wants buffer zone in post-war Gaza

Israel related its plans to its neighbours Egypt and Jordan, along with the United Arab Emirates, which normalised ties with Israel in 2020

Samia NakhoulAhmed Mohamed Hassan and Jonathan Saul
Published : 2 Dec 2023, 04:37 AM
Updated : 2 Dec 2023, 04:37 AM

Israel has informed several Arab states that it wants to carve out a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of Gaza's border to prevent future attacks as part of proposals for the enclave after war ends, Egyptian and regional sources said.

According to three regional sources, Israel related its plans to its neighbours Egypt and Jordan, along with the United Arab Emirates, which normalised ties with Israel in 2020.

They also said that Saudi Arabia, which does not have ties with Israel and which halted a US-mediated normalisation process after the Gaza war flared on Oct 7, had been informed. The sources did not say how the information reached Riyadh, which officially does not have direct communication channels with Israel. Non-Arab Turkey was also told, the sources said.

The initiative does not indicate an imminent end to Israel's offensive - which resumed on Friday after a seven-day truce - but it shows Israel is reaching out beyond established Arab mediators, such as Egypt or Qatar, as it seeks to shape a post-war Gaza.

No Arab states have shown any willingness to police or administer Gaza in future and most have roundly condemned Israel's offensive that has killed more than 15,000 people and levelled swathes of Gaza's urban areas. Hamas killed 1,200 people in its Oct 7 raid and took more than 200 hostages.

"Israel wants this buffer zone between Gaza and Israel from the north to the south to prevent any Hamas or other militants from infiltrating or attacking Israel," said a senior regional security official, one of the three regional sources who asked not to be identified by nationality.

The Egyptian, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Jordanian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

A UAE official did not respond directly when asked if Abu Dhabi had been told about the buffer zone, but said: "The UAE will support any future post-war arrangements agreed upon by all the concerned parties" to achieve stability and a Palestinian state.

Asked about plans for a buffer zone, Ophir Falk, foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters: "The plan is more detailed than that. It's based on a three-tier process for the day after Hamas."

Outlining the Israeli government's position, he said the three tiers involved destroying Hamas, demilitarising Gaza and de-radicalising the enclave.

"A buffer zone may be part of the demilitarisation process," he said. He declined to offer details when asked whether those plans had been raised with international partners, including Arab states.

Arab states have dismissed as impossible Israel's goal of wiping out Hamas, saying it was more than simply a militant force that could be defeated.

SQUEEZING PALESTINIANS

Israel has suggested in the past it was considering a buffer zone inside Gaza, but the sources said it was now presenting them to Arab states as part of its future security plans for Gaza. Israeli troops withdrew from the enclave in 2005.

A US official, who declined to be identified, said Israel had "floated" the buffer zone idea without saying to whom. But the official also repeated Washington's opposition to any plan that reduced the size of Palestinian territory.

Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states have voiced fears that Israel wants to squeeze Palestinians out of Gaza, repeating the dispossession of land Palestinians suffered when Israel was created in 1948. The Israeli government denies any such aim.

A senior Israeli security source said the buffer zone idea was "being examined", adding: "It is not clear at the moment how deep this will be and whether it could be 1 km or 2 km or hundreds of metres (inside Gaza)."

Any encroachment into Gaza, which is about 40 km (25 miles) long and between about 5 km (3 miles) and 12 km (7.5 miles) wide, would cram its 2.3 million people into an even smaller area.

In Washington, an Israeli official said the Israeli defence establishment was talking about "some kind of security buffer on the Gaza side of the border so that Hamas cannot gather military capabilities close to the border and surprise Israel again."

"It is a security measure, not a political one," the official said on condition of anonymity. "We do not intend to remain on the Gaza side of the border."

Till now, Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel, and Qatar, which does not have formal ties but keeps communication channels open, have been at the centre of mediation talks with Israel that have focused on exchanging hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians in Israeli jails.

SHIFTING FOCUS

Two Egyptian security sources said Israel had raised the idea in mediation talks with Egypt and Qatar of disarming northern Gaza and setting up a buffer zone in north Gaza with international supervision.

The sources said several Arab states opposed this. While Arab states might not oppose a security barrier between the two sides, there was disagreement over where it was located, they added.

The Egyptian sources said Israel had said in a meeting in Cairo in November that the Hamas leaders should be tried internationally in return for a full ceasefire. Mediators said the issue should be postponed until after the war to avoid derailing talks about hostage releases, the sources said.

A source in the Israeli prime minister's office declined to address the reports, adding: "Netanyahu's War Cabinet has defined the war missions: destroy Hamas and bring all the hostages back home, and we will continue until we complete our missions."

One of the Egyptian sources said Israel, in its discussions with Egypt and Qatar, had shifted from a focus on retaliation earlier in the crisis towards showing a greater willingness to "rethink its demands as mediation continued."

The regional sources compared the Gaza buffer zone plan to the "security zone" Israel once had in south Lebanon. Israel evacuated that zone, which was about 15 km (10 miles) deep, in 2000 after years of fighting and attacks by Lebanon's Hezbollah.

They also said Israel's plan for post-war Gaza included deporting leaders of Hamas, an action that would also mirror the Israeli campaign in Lebanon in the 1980s when it drove out the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had launched attacks from Lebanon into Israel.

"Israel is ready to pay a costly price to expel and evict Hamas completely from Gaza to other countries in the region similar to what it did in Lebanon, but it's not the same. Getting rid of Hamas is difficult and not certain," said another of the regional officials familiar with the discussions.

A senior Israeli official said Israel did not consider Hamas to be like the PLO nor believe that it would act like the PLO.

Mohammad Dahlan, Gaza's former security chief from the Palestinian Fatah faction which was ejected from the enclave when Hamas took control in 2007, said Israel's buffer zone plan was unrealistic and would not protect Israeli forces.

"The buffer zone could make (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's forces a target also in the zone," he said.