What role for the UN in post-conflict Gaza?

Palestinian children sheltering in an UNRWA school in Gaza, February 2024 - UNRWA photo by Ashraf Amra Palestinian children sheltering in an UNRWA school in Gaza, February 2024 - UNRWA photo by Ashraf Amra

With the Israel-Hamas conflict still possibly having months to run and with even the outlines of an end state still far from clear, trying to chart a course for the UN at this juncture is challenging. It is nevertheless possible to identify certain lines of action and rule out others.

No role for peacekeepers

Let’s start with the easy bits first and eliminate unrealistic prospects. To begin with, there will be no role for UN peace-keeping forces. While UN peacekeepers and observers have operated and still operate in Sinai, between Israel and Egypt, on the Golan, between Israel and Syria, and along the Israel/Lebanon border, this is by way of buffer forces to reduce chances of friction between sovereign adversaries through close proximity. Geography and politics do not lend themselves to this approach in tiny and besieged Gaza. Israel has publicly toyed with the idea of creating a buffer zone, presumably in northern Gaza. It is unlikely, though, that the same Israel, which makes a fetish of mistrusting the UN, would agree to UN peacekeeping forces being given a role within territory that it believes it rightly controls, and it is hard to see what incentive the Palestinian side would have to agree to such UN deployment.

Who will rule Gaza?

Here we bump up immediately against the problem of identifying what the ‘Palestinian side’ would look like. The challenge for the UN will look greatly different whether the Western powers get their way and some sort of ‘reformed’ Palestinian Authority (PA) is installed (‘reformed’ here presumably meaning better at repressing resistance forces) or the Palestinian resistance emerges more or less intact and in control/legitimised, even if with a new cadre of leaders, fewer fighters and fewer tunnels and rockets.

The first scenario is less likely, since even if Hamas and the other armed resistance forces ger decimated they will still probably have sufficient muscle to resist any other Palestinian force, unless the Israelis literally take into Gaza many thousands of PA forces in tanks, an unlikely prospect. The idea the Israelis have also publicly mooted of clan leaders policing Gaza is another non-starter: clan leaders would be assassinated if they tried to go against Hamas or Jihad.

In all probability, therefore, post-conflict Gaza in political terms will look much like pre-conflict Gaza, with Hamas ruling in coalition with other armed resistance forces and with humanitarian agencies effectively co-managing with the Hamas administration essential services.

UNRWA’s crucial role

What can and must be ruled out at this point is the idea of any other UN body taking over the central role which UNRWA has played in Gaza since 1948. Much as Israel might like it, UNRWA is too important to be shoved aside. Its expertise, its large locally-recruited and local-society-connected work force and its infrastructure (what’s left of it after Israel’s rampage) are irreplaceable. Some Western countries might but Arab countries will not acquiesce in UNRWA being destroyed on an Israeli whim.

On previous occasions, when the US had again put UNRWA on a punitive starvation diet, Gulf countries stepped up to the plate. They can do so again, although the mere prospect of them doing so would probably be enough to spook the US into realising that the power its money gives it to decide what goes down in UNRWA is not lightly to be tossed aside. A large UN agency with the financial independence to be able to face down US-Israeli pressures is not a prospect the US could envisage with equanimity, and not a precedent it would wish to see set with other UN agencies in mind and an emerging new world order beginning to manifest itself.

Key role for Arab donors

Arab donors will also be key in rebuilding Gaza. While the level of destruction this time has been an order of magnitude greater than in previous Israeli incursions, Arab donors, both bilaterally and through UNRWA and UNDP, have already in recent years helped to rebuild entire neighbourhoods in Gaza as well as many schools, hospitals and clinics, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Can Hamas be a partner in rebuilding Gaza?

Of course it can, and will. As before, entry of construction materials into Gaza will be a major challenge, especially if Hamas remain in charge, with Israel able to control all access, even through Egypt. If the Egyptian/Israeli peace accords survive an Israeli onslaught on Rafah, this will be a problem, probably insuperable as long as Netanyahu is in power. Most observers believe, however, that Netanyahu will not survive long politically after the end of the current fighting.

Even while Netanyahu does survive to persecute Gaza beyond an IDF withdrawal, much can still be done. In the first instance, the overwhelming priority for months is bound to be emergency humanitarian assistance in the new tent cities. With no hostage situation remaining to justify continuing siege by Israel, such assistance is not likely to be blocked.

Not all reconstruction need be kept on hold in the early months. Experience after earlier Israeli bombing sprees in Gaza has shown that self-help can achieve surprising results. Just give a Gaza head of household $20,000 and they can restore a badly damaged dwelling. Large scale self-help programmes can provide employment for many thousands, refloat small businesses, recycle materials and generally contribute to economic revival. Such help also bypasses the need to deal with local authorities. Donors generally prefer large scale projects with high visibility for their generosity. If they wish to see Gaza recover, however, they will, like the Gazans, have to adapt. Western donors with so much to atone for will surely not withhold such assistance.

In some ways the situation will be like 1948, with huge displaced populations needing survival assistance. Unlike in 1948, however, the skeleton of an infrastructure will still be in place, the UN machinery will be in place, and funding should be available. To the chagrin of Israel and at least part of the West, a local administration is also likely to be in place to formulate its own plans for recovery and play an essential role in coordination. Donors have been practising work arounds for decades now to handle the issue of Hamas administration, and the UN has been central to that effort. It will be again.

Back to the future

The role of the UN in the post-conflict era will therefore look very much like its role after previous Israeli attacks, only on a much bigger scale and with a much greater and longer lasting humanitarian component compared to a developmental component. The security and political aspects will probably remain tenuous – among the Palestinians, with Israel, and vis-à-vis the broader set of actors and the UN – for a while longer.

Peter Ford served as a British diplomat for 35 years. An Arabist, he was Ambassador to Bahrain (1999-2003) and to Syria (2003-6). Between 2006 and 2014 he was Special Representative of the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). His primary role was fundraising with Arab donors. He is currently Deputy Leader of the Workers Party of Britain (WPB).


  1. 18 February, 2024 @ 17:10 Kathryn Hayman

    This sounds encouraging but as Craig Mokhiber, recently resigned from the UN, states there must be a one state solution. This may take decades but Palestinians will not give up even as so many have been slaughtered, indeed because of the sla and their heartbreaking suffering for so long. In the short term Gaza must be made habitable again and Isreal must withdraw. Hopefully many Jews who’ve come in in recent years from Europe and elsewhere will decide that actually their lives are better off back in Europe. Who wants to live in a forever war-torn country. Israel will slowly collapse and become the world’s pariah state.


    • 19 February, 2024 @ 11:34 Georgios Kostakos

      The two-state solution, as a starting point at least, addresses exactly that — mutual recognition and a decent existence in peace and prosperity for both states, as was foreseen in the original UN partition plan of the late 1940s. Suggesting that one or the other side should give up and go away is encouragement at mass migration and potentially carries genocidal elements, therefore I would suggest to Ms Hayman to rethink that part of her earlier comment. Eventually, a two-state arrangement that is given some time to work may lead to a realization that a confederal or even a federal state makes more practical sense, but that should be left to the two sides to work out. For now, a ceasefire in Gaza and release of the hostages, mutual security guarantees with external monitoring, urgent humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, plus a short timeline for a peace conference and the implementation of the two-state solution should be the priority of all reasonable actors and carried out under the auspices of the international community in its entirety, as manifested in the United Nations. Of course, the role of UNRWA is indispensable and has to continue with broad support.


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