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What political scientists know about occupation, applied to Gaza

Experts on the politics of foreign occupations tackle big questions in this week’s Good Chat.

Following Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, the world awaits Israel’s likely ground invasion of Gaza. Many analysts have asked a version of the question: What happens next? Who will rule in Gaza after an Israeli invasion is a political question that no country or group in the region seems able to answer – including the Israeli government, which reportedly told President Biden during his visit last week that they “aren’t there yet” when Biden asked about Israel’s long-term plan for the enclave.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after nearly four decades of occupation. As Good Authority contributor Marc Lynch has noted, however, Israel’s withdrawal: 

…did not end its de facto occupation. It retained full control over Gaza’s borders and airspace, and it continued exercising tight control (in close cooperation with Egypt) from outside the security perimeter over the movement of Gaza’s people, goods, electricity, and money. 

Political scientists who study international security and comparative politics have examined the politics of occupation – but often approach the question from different perspectives. In this Good Chat, we’ve asked four of these scholars – Diana B. Greenwald, Dana El Kurd, David Edelstein, and Alexander Downes – to discuss the politics of “what happens next” in Gaza, as well as what they wish other scholars and readers knew as they watch these events unfold.

Elizabeth N. Saunders: We’ll start with Diana B. Greenwald, a comparative politics scholar at City College of New York, whose book Mayors in the Middle: Indirect Rule and Local Government in Occupied Palestine is forthcoming with Columbia University Press (spring 2024). You’ve studied the West Bank and the politics of occupation extensively. Are these dynamics relevant – or not – to a potential re-occupation of Gaza?

Diana Greenwald: My book explores how Israel’s approach to ruling the West Bank has shaped formal local government in Palestinian towns and cities. Israel has iterated its approach to ruling the West Bank over time. However, one thing has remained constant since 1967: Israel has sought to offload the responsibilities of day-to-day governance of Palestinian communities onto Palestinians themselves, while maintaining its continued military domination of the territory. I describe this as a form of indirect rule, paired with a regime of ethnonational domination. 

At first, Israeli indirect rule over West Bank Palestinians meant attempting to coopt or coerce Palestinian mayors and village councils while relying on them to provide local governance. That wasn’t very successful. With the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Israel adopted a radically different approach, ruling the West Bank through cooperation with a centralized intermediary. And Israel depended on the Palestinian Authority to police Palestinian communities, which facilitated continued Israeli territorial control and settlement expansion. 

How does indirect rule affect local governance? Palestinian politicians aligned with Fatah, the Palestinian Authority ruling party, have more resources but less legitimacy. Those aligned with the PA’s opponents – like Hamas – are strapped for resources but can avoid the charge of collaborating with the occupying power. 

This was the story in Gaza until 2005-2007, when Israel withdrew its settlers, Hamas won control of Palestinian institutions, and Israel imposed its land, sea, and air blockade. Since then, Gaza’s trajectory has diverged sharply from that of the West Bank. Now, it is hard to know what either Israel or Palestinians will do once the dust has settled. 

Much of Gaza’s population are refugees descended from the original expulsion and flight of Palestinians in 1948. As with the West Bank, Israel’s goal, until now, has been to maintain military control of this population while refraining from governing or enfranchising them. Israel’s extremely intensive bombardment of north Gaza and de facto forced displacement of Palestinians into the southern half of the territory may mean Israel seeks to create an even more concentrated and unlivable space for Palestinians in Gaza. 

Who will “govern” this population? Israel wants to eradicate Hamas and other militant groups, but Israel also likely knows it will be nearly impossible to coopt a Palestinian intermediary, such as Fatah, into governing this territory. Thus, we have a recipe for even more dire humanitarian conditions, which will likely fuel continued Palestinian resistance but also, possibly, what we might call self-governance amidst desperation.

Saunders: Turning to Dana El Kurd, a political scientist at the University of Richmond and author of Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2020). Your research looks at how outside patrons who support regimes like the Palestinian Authority can reinforce authoritarian repression and undermine public participation. Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, but has faced outside interference (the U.S.-led effort to replace Hamas with the Palestinian Authority) as well as the support of an outside patron, Iran. What does that mean for the prospect of a non-Israeli answer to the question of “who rules” in Gaza?

Dana El Kurd: First, I agree with Marc Lynch in his Foreign Affairs piece: I think it’s important to make clear that although Israel withdrew settlements and direct forces from the Gaza Strip, and although Hamas controlled institutions on the ground in Gaza (and challenged Israeli control in myriad ways), what is about to happen in Gaza if the ground invasion goes through is not exactly a re-occupation. 

Ground forces might move in, take greater control, attempt to eradicate Hamas as an organization, but the reality is Israel has maintained control of Gaza through its blockade. It can turn the internet off, it can turn the water off. So what’s about to happen might be an escalation of control, not a new occupation. 

Saunders: So you both seem to agree that Israel has been exercising a form of rule over Gaza even since 2005, not just blockading its air, land, and sea borders.

Greenwald: Yes, Israel has exercised military domination over Gaza since 1967.

El Kurd: Yes, I agree with that. 

To turn to your question, my book looked at how international intervention can distort state-society relations and reinforce authoritarian conditions, not necessarily just in the context of occupation. My research focused on U.S. intervention in the consolidation of the Palestinian Authority, and how that actively encouraged, in a lot of ways, authoritarian dynamics. 

But I also looked at international intervention across what I called the “state sovereignty spectrum” – with a semi-autonomous state in Iraqi Kurdistan and with a fully sovereign country with the case of Bahrain. In both instances I made the argument that international intervention empowered political elites to consolidate authoritarian rule, leading to tensions between people and their governments. This is not specific to occupied territories or Palestine. Outside powers have engaged with the Middle East region in ways that have been very damaging to democracy and accountability.

No Palestinian in the West Bank or in Gaza has had an opportunity to choose their political leadership or exercise meaningful public pressure on their elites since 2006. To be clear, Palestinians in Gaza very recently protested to the Hamas government about living conditions. They have initiated protest movements in the past that bypassed Hamas, such as the Great March of Return in 2018. But all these attempts have had little impact on their living conditions or political conditions.

So whether the future answer to the “who rules Gaza” question is Hamas or Israeli authorities or some version or affiliate of the PA, things won’t change in terms of public participation. Whoever rules Gaza will rule in a repressive manner. International intervention has prevented Palestinians as a nation from exercising self-determination. International intervention has meant that every Palestinian organization or party that has taken control, or been allowed to take control in the case of the Palestinian Authority, has done so within very narrow parameters – to provide some services, to maintain the status quo. Not to actually represent people’s interests, react to public pressure, pursue a liberation project, or be actually sovereign. 

Saunders: To sum up, one important takeaway from both of your books is that not only does Israel face the problem of “who rules,” but its own prior actions have weakened all the contenders – by design?

El Kurd: I think that’s right. Israel wanted to outsource some of the “rule” (and obligations) that go into an occupation, and by design created a situation where intermediaries maintained the status quo, a status quo that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, spoke about explicitly. He said the Palestinians, in the best-case scenario, would only get something “less than a state.” 

When Palestinians challenged that status quo through the voting booth in 2006, Israel minimized that challenge by imposing the blockade. And the fragmentation in governance between the West Bank and Gaza has served Israeli leaders quite well, by delaying the discussion of a solution to this conflict even further. 

Greenwald: Yes, Israel has an interest in weakening all Palestinian factions that have refused to renounce militancy – including Hamas. In the West Bank, Fatah also seeks to repress these groups because they represent political threats. So, while some groups are materially weakened by repression, Fatah’s collaboration with Israel makes it fundamentally weak in terms of domestic legitimacy.

Saunders: Let’s turn to the perspective of international security. David Edelstein is a professor at Georgetown University and the author of a book titled Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupations, which kind of says it all. 

Saunders: What are the main determinants of success and failure in occupations?

David Edelstein: One main argument I develop in that book is that the external threat environment is critical to understanding why some occupations succeed while others fail. That is, occupations succeed when the occupied territory and its population face an external threat from which the occupying power can protect it. Without that external threat, occupations are more likely to fail because both the occupying power and the occupied population grow impatient with the presence of an outside governing authority. 

Empirically, far more occupations have failed than have succeeded. Successful occupations like the U.S. occupations of West Germany and Japan get a lot of attention – but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In those cases, the United States was able to protect the West Germans and Japanese from the looming threat of the Soviet Union or Soviet-inspired communism – and thus the populations accepted the occupations. And the U.S. was willing to sustain the occupation because of the value of West Germany and Japan to the emerging Cold War.

None of this bodes well for the current situation in Gaza. There is no third-party external threat that will make the population of Gaza welcome the presence of Israel as an occupying power, and there is no third-party threat that will motivate Israel to provide the resources necessary for the occupation to succeed. As a consequence, both sides will grow impatient with the occupation, and Israel will eventually face what I call the occupation dilemma: Either withdraw knowing that you have not accomplished your goals or sustain an occupation that you know is unlikely ever to accomplish your goals. 

Saunders: Turning to Alexander Downes, a professor at The George Washington University and author of Targeting Civilians in War and Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong. These two books are tragically relevant here, too. 

Saunders: Israel has said its goal is to remove Hamas from Gaza, so if we think of that as a case of foreign-imposed regime change, what are the risks for Israel? 

Alex Downes: Just to briefly address the relevance of my book on targeting civilians, what Hamas did on Oct. 7 is unquestionably an act of terrorism: the targeting of civilians to intimidate or influence an audience (e.g., other civilians or their government) in pursuit of some political goal. Israel’s response, unfortunately, has also targeted civilians, both from the air but even more clearly in its blockade of food, water, and fuel to Gaza, the effect of which is to inflict terrible hardships on the Palestinian civilian population. 

My book shows that countries – even democracies – do this to adversaries to coerce them into making concessions or ending the war. In this case, however, as in many cases, it is unclear what the average Palestinian can do to persuade Hamas to give up. 

Turning to the question of foreign-imposed regime change – the forcible or coerced removal of the effective leader and/or government of a country by another country – more than 100 leaders have been overthrown by foreign countries over the past 200 years. The most common method of removal is through invasion, as in Iraq in 2003, but leaders have also ceded power in response to covert operations or threats of attacks.

Many regime change operations initially appear to be successful (hence the “success” in the term “catastrophic success”) but the aftereffects are the catastrophic part. In my work, I found that regime changes are likely to spark civil wars; imposed leaders are frequently overthrown; and relations between the countries involved tend not to improve. All of these are likely to apply in the case of Gaza.

First, even if Hamas is shattered by Israel’s attack, Palestinians are highly unlikely to welcome an Israeli occupation and/or a government imposed by Israel to run Gaza, especially on the repressive, undemocratic terms on offer, as Dana points out. And remnants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which will be unable to flee, will remain to facilitate this resistance.

Second, what are the odds that a puppet Palestinian leader installed by the Israelis would survive in office? As Diana suggests, the prospects for such a proxy to remain in power long are dim. And if Israel takes on the task of running Gaza itself, insurgent resistance will be waiting.

Third, even if a puppet leader in Gaza could survive long in power, relations between Israel and a governing entity would be unlikely to improve because of the pressure from the Palestinian population to break with Israel.

At present it is unclear what Israel intends to do if it achieves its objective of destroying Hamas. As Marc Lynch points out, Israel would be presiding over a territory it has wrecked from end to end and a hostile population it has bombed and starved. My work on regime change and related work on military occupation suggest that is an inhospitable environment for post-regime change stability. Unfortunately, as with many regime changes, Israeli leaders appear preoccupied with the short-term objective of bludgeoning Hamas and punting on what comes after. That was exactly what contributed to the U.S. disaster in Iraq.

Saunders: Thank you all for these insights. One reason to bring you all together is that you study occupations from different perspectives. As international security specialists, David and Alex start from the perspective of the intervener, and both of you were at least partly motivated by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. As comparativists who also look at the international dimension, Dana and Diana start with the local level and examine how outside forces shape the political capacity of those who try to govern under the shadow of occupation or outside patronage. 

A question for all of you: what’s one thing you wish scholars and observers could understand about the politics of foreign occupation?

Downes: There are a couple of basic lessons. First, the very act of regime change and occupation can sow the seeds of resistance afterwards if the target’s military disintegrates. This happened in both Afghanistan and Iraq and contributed to the post-invasion insurgencies in those countries.

Second, and most fundamental, the interests of interveners and the domestic public in targets of regime change are rarely aligned. This places any imposed leader in a no-win situation: responding to the intervener’s demands generates domestic opposition, and vice-versa. There can be mitigating circumstances, like the presence of a shared external threat, as David noted in the context of the postwar occupation in both West Germany and Japan. These conditions are rare, however, and are certainly not present in the case of Israel and Gaza. 

One additional point: What comes after regime change is often an afterthought. Countries considering regime change focus on the change itself and fail to anticipate or plan for what comes next. Sometimes they also have information from biased sources, which makes for unwarranted expectations about the reception they will receive in the target country. 

Saunders: That last point was certainly on display not only in the U.S. lack of planning for post-war Iraq, but in its whole approach to what it used to call “military operations other than war” (MOOTW). This idea that war is separate from what comes after.

Downes: It is hard to resist a reference to Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist whose tome On War is the closest thing to the Bible in the study of war. Perhaps the most important takeaway from his work is that war is an extension of politics, simply with the addition of other means. If war is political, it can hardly be separated from what comes before and what comes after.

Greenwald: While there are multiple definitions of military occupation in the international relations literature, many of them bundle military control with the occupier’s intent that the occupation should be temporary. For IR scholars, I think this maintains a distinction between military occupations and other forms of state domination – i.e., colonialism or imperial state expansion. 

This distinction becomes a problem when it is either difficult to discern the occupier’s intent, or when even a rhetorical commitment to “temporary” control disappears altogether. This has quite obviously been the case with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, particularly since the second intifada in the early 2000s, after which point Israeli politicians rarely even referred to an eventual relinquishment of part or all of the West Bank. 

International relations scholarship is, of course, explicitly interested in understanding when and how occupations end, and this includes when they end by absorption or annexation. However, in order to theorize the effects of military rule on populations that live under it, we would need to define our universe of cases based not on an assumption that the occupation is intended to be temporary, but rather as something that can vary, and thus may be an important explanatory variable in its own right. 

For example, when military occupation is paired with state-backed settlement or signs of de facto, if not de jure, annexation, then the proper universe of cases might not be “all other occupations” but instead “settler colonization” or “attempted state formation via (imperial) conquest.”

El Kurd: I agree completely. With something like an occupation for 56 years in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, you can’t address it as if it’s temporary. I think we also need to understand that these categories aren’t mutually exclusive. It can be an occupation but also be settler colonialism in certain ways. 

And if occupation is not temporary – what does that mean for how we understand the political dynamics? Do we incorporate the discussion of apartheid that human rights organizations and advocates are having? This is not specific to the Palestine case but also applies to places like Kashmir, Artsakh (also referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh), or other nations with unmet sovereignty claims (where the “occupation” has persisted and become the reality). Maybe we need to think about this new category of “occupation+.”

I also think IR literature on this topic can benefit from understanding the literature on authoritarianism, particularly on strategies and practices, to better understand reactions to “occupation+.” The IR literature on conflict looks at militaries and insurgencies, but there’s a lot to learn about reactions from social movement literature as well, and particularly the literature on resistance to authoritarianism.

Greenwald: Yeah, talking to Dana and her work over the years has been helpful in thinking about how all of the rich research on authoritarianism applies here.

Saunders: Yes, and in IR there has been a lot of recent work that examines autocracies as more than just a residual category of “non-democracies,” though a lot of that effort is aimed at interstate war or coercive diplomacy.

Edelstein: The discussion of how to define military occupations is an interesting one. I’ll plead guilty to having defined them as intended to be temporary. I do that because I think the temporary nature of military occupations has consequences for how those within the occupation behave – and a mutual impatience. Neither the occupying power or the occupied population expects the occupation to last forever, and that creates strategic incentives for all sides. 

Here, I would make a quick connection to time horizons, the subject of my other book, Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers (Cornell University Press, 2017). It can be challenging for leaders to sustain the short-term commitment of resources and effort in the pursuit of a longer-term goal of a successful occupation. Patience can be challenging for the leaders of occupying powers, especially when it is difficult to predict how long it will take to achieve the often ambitious goals of occupation.

Now, that being said, I also recognize that judging the intent of an occupying power can be very challenging, and no case illustrates that better than the Israel case. There isn’t scholarly agreement on what Israel’s goals have been in the West Bank or Gaza, let alone agreement among the Israeli population or leadership. Moreover, the goals of occupation can shift and change. What might have once been seen as a temporary occupation may, at some point, lose its temporary nature, or vice versa. 

I also agree with Diana and Dana that the comparative study of occupations can teach us a lot. Prior to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, many focused on the successful cases of Germany and Japan and suggested that the occupation of Iraq would turn out similarly well. In fact, it was that cherry-picking that inspired me to write Occupational Hazards. By looking across a wider set of military occupations across both time and space, we can understand why the successes in Japan and Germany are the exceptions that prove the rule: Successful occupations are very, very rare.

Saunders: Unfortunately you all seem to share a grim outlook on what is coming next. But thank you all for bringing your different perspectives to bear on an important question that is on everyone’s mind.