As the Israeli war on Gaza entered a new, and possibly end, phase this week, Israel escalated its attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially the middle and southern parts, with a view to displacing as many people as possible.
“Israel is acting to make all of Gaza as unsafe as possible in order to push as many people out as possible. It does not matter where they go, that is very clear,” said a source at an international humanitarian organisation working on the ground in Gaza.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said that his organisation, along with others, is currently working “through UN channels to designate safe havens” where displaced Palestinians that have been forced out of the north and the middle of Gaza to the south can be located “in some sort of tents”.
“We are seeing a very bad situation on the ground in the south of Gaza,” he said. He added that there are entire families that have been rendered homeless even in the south, and houses with a capacity of seven people are now being inhabited by triple or quadruple this number.
“It is horrible to see over 50 people living in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom and no running water,” the source said. It “is simply unsustainable. People will end up in tents, especially as many who have come from the north have not ended up in relatives’ houses.”
According to figures from international organisations working in Gaza, over one million Palestinians have been displaced in Gaza as a result of the Israeli war that started on 7 October in reaction to an attack on southern Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas.
The same organisations suggest that at least another half a million people have been rendered homeless.
There is now the question of whether there are enough safe areas for tents to accommodate one and a half million people and whether enough field hospitals can be found to provide medical help to the 50,000 people who have been wounded as a result of the intense Israeli strikes.
Many more people have had to be evicted from hospitals, including from intensive-care units, as a result of the Israeli targeting of medical facilities in the north and middle of Gaza.
An informed Egyptian source said that the evacuation of badly wounded people for treatment outside Gaza, in Egypt and elsewhere, and the possibility of “some partial reconstruction scenarios” were currently being discussed in several capitals and with the UN.
“Nobody knows exactly when this war is coming to an end, but we think we are now talking about weeks and not months. In any case, we need to consider scenarios for the next phase,” he said.
The source declined to use the term “the day after”, however. “I am not sure we are talking about that because when we talk about ‘the day after’ we are assuming we are moving from war to no war. This is not necessarily the upcoming scenario,” he said.
He added that there are no indications of an Israeli intention to fully stop the war. “We are hopefully inching closer to a four-day ceasefire that is supposed to start in the early hours of the morning on Friday 24 November,” he said.
“But this is not to say that the war is starting to come to an end. I think we will be seeing a shift from high-intensity strikes to low-intensity strikes from Israel,” he explained.
The source said that to see an end to the war, there has to be a deal on the situation on the ground first. “The Israelis will not stop short of this. They might agree to a sequence of ceasefires in the coming weeks along with the release of batches of the Israeli civilians taken by Hamas on 7 October,” he said.
On Tuesday this week, Ismail Haniyeh, the Doha-based chief of the Hamas Politburo, issued a statement saying that a ceasefire deal was in the offing.
But the Egyptian source said that a deal was in the offing last week as well before Israel decided to attack the Al-Shifa Hospital despite appeals from several regional and international capitals against the move.
“We are working with the Qataris and the Americans on it and are pushing for the ceasefire that Gaza desperately needs,” he stated.
He said that Egypt is working with the US, Qatar, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other partners to find “a way out” from the conflict. “If the war were to stop tomorrow without a clear vision for the future, at least in the short term, then we would be taking the risk of some sort of renewed conflict sooner rather than later,” he said.
According to the Egyptian view, the source said, there needs to be “an approach to get the PA back on the ground in Gaza with the approval and in coordination with Hamas.”
Short of this consensual arrangement, he added, the PA might wish to take the risk of going back into Gaza. However, if it does, it will be resisted.
This week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in Cairo. The issue of the future management of Gaza was on the table in their talks.
Following her visit to Cairo, Von der Leyen went to Arish to oversee a new phase of EU assistance to the Egyptian border governorate with Gaza. “Even as we deal with the urgency today, we must also think about what the day after could look like,” she said.
Josep Borrell, high representative of the EU for foreign and security policy, was also in Qatar this week to discuss the future management of Gaza in a bid “to move from war to peace”.
Borrell stressed that “the day after is today,” adding that the “PA has to go back to Gaza and that the solution of Gaza has to be part of the overall solution for the Palestinian people.”
Meanwhile, an Arab-Islamic delegation of foreign ministers that was assigned by the Arab-Islamic Summit convened earlier this month in Saudi Arabia has been touring the capitals of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss a roadmap for the next few weeks.
According to Arab and European sources who spoke this week in Cairo, the roadmap for the remaining weeks of this year includes a sequence of ceasefires that should culminate in a more permanent ceasefire to be followed by political talks on the management of Gaza, the return of a provisional PA delegation to Gaza, and then discussion of the future.
This will include the management of Gaza, the security of Gaza and its borders with both Egypt and Israel, the stabilisation of the situation in the West Bank, where Israel has been conducting aggressive attacks and arrests, and possible political avenues, limited and dim as these might be.
In statements that echoed the same line this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the international community needs to look into a transitional period.”
A New York-based diplomat said that the UN Security Council is “trying hard to push for conditions that could lead to an eventual final ceasefire, hopefully before Christmas.”
He agreed that much has to be agreed in terms of interim management and that the remaining four weeks before Christmas might not be enough. “But everyone is trying hard to get to a sustainable ceasefire before Christmas,” he stated.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly