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More questions than answers as Israeli PM Netanyahu seeks security control over Gaza

By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration this week that Israel would take control of security in Gaza for an indefinite period has added to uncertainty over the future of the besieged enclave, more than a month into the war.

Israeli officials have since tried to make clear they do not intend to reoccupy Gaza, from which Israeli forces withdrew in 2005, but there has been no clarity on how to ensure security without maintaining a military presence in the territory.

Only one thing has been stressed repeatedly - Hamas, the Islamist movement which launched a surprise attack on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed some 1,400 people and saw militants drag more than 240 Israelis and foreigners into captivity, must be destroyed.

"They cannot be here," former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who joined Netanyahu in an emergency unity government last month, said on Wednesday. "We can come up with any mechanism we think is appropriate, but Hamas will not be part of it."

Gantz, who said Hamas presented an existential threat to Israel, told reporters Israel would have to ensure "security superiority" around Gaza but the specifics remain vague in the absence of any coherent idea of the political future.

Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu's closest aides, who like Gantz is in the inner war cabinet, said Israel would have to play an active role in the oversight of Gaza, but much would depend on how the enclave was governed in future.

"Will there be a force that will prevent terrorism from emerging there? Will there be a Palestinian force that will build and govern Gaza the way it should for the people of Gaza, and not just to destroy Israel? That remains to be seen," he told U.S. network NBC on Tuesday.

With more than 10,000 Palestinians killed in the relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip by Israeli jets, according to Palestinian officials, the war is already among the bloodiest episodes in decades of conflict.

Whole swathes of the densely populated coastal strip have been flattened and more than 1.5 million people, some two thirds of the population, have been forced from their homes, according to United Nations figures.

Rebuilding the physical infrastructure and reconstructing the governance of the area will present a colossal challenge which will force Israel to work with the Palestinians, diplomats say, despite the bitter enmity on both sides.

As the war has ground on, there have been calls from Western countries, including the United States, for a renewal of stalled efforts to agree a two-state solution, with an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"Now, the reality is that there may be a need for some transition period at the end of the conflict, but it is imperative that Palestinian people being central to governance in Gaza and in the West Bank as well," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference in Tokyo.

"It's also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza," he said.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Israel originally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, drawing the wrath of hardline settlers who were forced to leave with the army when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided the costs of maintaining a presence were too high.

The challenges that are likely to confront any reshaped Israeli security mechanism have already been clearly demonstrated during more than 18 months of increasingly violent clashes in the nearby occupied West Bank.

Some diplomats have mooted the possibility of a reshaped Palestinian Authority (PA) - the body set up under the Oslo interim peace accords 30 years ago - playing a role in the administration of Gaza, if Israel succeeds in its aim of dismantling Hamas.

The PA used to run both Gaza and the West Bank, but was forcibly ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, and now only governs sections of the West Bank, which is dotted with ever-growing Jewish settlements.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh recently told foreign reporters that the PA would not return to Gaza "on the back of an Israeli tank", throwing serious doubt on speculation that Israel will seek to off-load responsibility for the day-to-day running of the enclave onto its previous masters.

In any case, the PA has long struggled to impose its authority even in the West Bank, where it is in theory responsible for order but is mistrusted by both Israel and large sections of the Palestinian population.

In its place, the Israeli army has largely taken the job of combating militant activity.

Over the past 18 months, Israeli troops have killed hundreds of Palestinians - hardened militant fighters, stone-throwing youths and uninvolved civilians - and made thousands of arrests across the West Bank. In the same period, dozens of Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.

Cities such as Nablus and Jenin, which earlier this year was the scene of a two-day battle involving hundreds of Israeli troops backed by drones and helicopter gunships, have become strongholds for militant groups including Hamas.

Dermer said that while Israeli troops had physically entered West Bank towns, they had essentially been absent from Gaza for the last 17 years. "Obviously, we can't repeat (this). So after Hamas is removed from power ... Israel is going to have to retain overriding security responsibility indefinitely."

Jordan's former deputy prime minister, Marwan Muasher, told Reuters he had seen no convincing initiative on how Gaza might be governed once the conflict ended.

"I don't think that there is any clear thinking yet about what to do with the day after," said Muasher, who is vice president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Additional reporting by John Geddie in Tokyo and Samia Nakhoul in Dubai; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Daniel Wallis)