US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he walks with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 1, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was publicly challenged over post-war plans for the Gaza Strip on Wednesday by his own defence chief, who vowed to oppose any long-term military rule by Israel over the ravaged Palestinian enclave.

In a televised news conference, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that, since soon after the conflict erupted with a shock Hamas attack on Oct 7, he had tried to promote a blueprint for an alternative Gaza administration made up of Palestinians.

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Those efforts “got no response” from various decision-making cabinet forums under Netanyahu, said Gallant, who comes from the prime minister’s Likud party.

“I call on the prime minister to announce that Israel will not rule over Gaza militarily,” Gallant said. “An alternative to Hamas governance should be established ... Indecision will erode the military gains (of the war).” There was no immediate response from Netanyahu, who earlier on Wednesday issued a statement that appeared to be a riposte to similar remarks aired by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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Netanyahu has said Israel, if it achieves its war goal of dismantling Hamas’ government and military apparatus in Gaza, would retain overall security control over the territory. He has stopped short of describing this scenario as an occupation.

He has also balked at proposals for the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), which wields some governance in the occupied West Bank, to move back into a post-war Gaza.

Netanyahu has accused the PA of being hostile to Israel, but his governing coalition also relies on ultra-nationalist partners which want the PA dismantled and for Jewish settlements to be expanded to Gaza.

The US also warned Israel it risks creating a power vacuum across swaths of Gaza and urged the country’s leaders to focus more on post-war planning for the Palestinian territory.

“We can’t have anarchy and a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday during a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine.

He spoke as Israeli forces battle in areas of northern Gaza — including Jabalia, near Gaza City — that were cleared of Hamas fighting units months ago, underscoring the group’s ability to reassemble. That’s led to some criticism of Israel’s tactics of rapidly moving troops out of areas when Hamas has been routed.

Part of the problem is that Israel lacks the manpower to hold and administer large parts of Gaza. The country of just under 10 million people mobilized a record 350,000 reservists soon after the war started in October — something that strained its economy. It released most of them late last year or in early 2024, leaving around 150,000 regular troops in the military.

“You have to clear and hold,” former US General David Petraeus, who commanded armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the Qatar Economic Forum. “If you don’t keep the enemy from reconstituting and keep it from getting back into the population, this is going to happen endlessly. You’ll just clear and have to re-clear and re-clear.”