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Arab nations warm to peacekeeping force for Gaza

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Arab nations have begun to swing behind the idea of a multinational peacekeeping force for Gaza and the occupied West Bank, as they scramble to develop a viable postwar plan for the region.

The draft proposals, which have been relayed to the US, are among multiple options being debated as Arab and western states, desperate to see an end to the conflict, struggle to lay out a path towards regional stability and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Arab officials previously said they would not support an international or regional force going into Gaza, insisting it should be administered by Palestinians. Many capitals were wary of being accused of riding in on the back of Israeli tanks and getting sucked into an insurgency.

But an Arab diplomat said reservations in some capitals had softened in recent weeks and raised the possibility of Arab involvement as countries sought to show their “commitment to the peace process”. “We know that Israel has security concerns about [a Palestinian state], so this is saying that ‘we are ready to help,’” the diplomat said.

Another Arab diplomat said any force would have to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, and be deployed for an interim period to give Palestinian authorities time to develop their own “capable” security forces.

Despite more openness to such a deployment, it remains unclear which states would be willing to take part. A third Arab official said it was an Egyptian-backed initiative and that other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, were against deploying Arab peacekeepers.

Another official said there was agreement on the need to present an alternative to Israeli troops remaining in the strip. But they added the key question was: “what is the force?”

The idea was raised with US secretary of state Antony Blinken when he met Arab counterparts in Cairo in March. Arab states have for months been attempting to draft a broad “vision” to address the crisis triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza.

Their core demand would be for the west and Israel to take “irreversible” steps towards a two-state solution to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They want the US and other western states to recognise a Palestinian state and support its full UN membership, arguing it should be part of the process, not an outcome.

But postwar planning for Gaza is being undermined by uncertainty over Israel’s intentions, including how long it will keep troops in the shattered strip; who it would accept as an administrator; and how long its offensive will continue.

Even if a ceasefire deal can be negotiated, Israel has insisted it will maintain overall security over the strip. Benjamin Netanyahu has also ruled out the western and Arab backed Palestinian Authority — which Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007 — playing any role or any moves towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Some Israeli officials, such as defence minister Yoav Gallant, have expressed support for the idea of an international presence in Gaza after the war, but Netanyahu’s far-right government is highly likely to reject any such move in the West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live.

Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the Crisis Group, said Israel was “actively creating the scenario of chaos [in Gaza] and doing absolutely nothing to fill that vacuum”.

“So people are stuck and throwing out lots of ideas, there’s a lot of churn and desperation,” Hanna said. “It’s hard to imagine what [an end to the war] practically looks like, so you get these ideas that seem very far-fetched.”

At a conference in Riyadh this week, Arab foreign ministers largely offered ambiguous replies to questions about the peacekeeping mission.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat, said it was “very difficult” to engage on the issue without “clarity on the other elements”. Ayman Safadi, his Jordanian counterpart, warned that any peacekeeping force would risk being “perceived to be consolidating the misery that this war has created”.

Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry said Cairo would be “willing to play our role fully” subject to the “risk and reward” and “the overall evaluation of the end result”.

The Biden administration’s prime focus has been on pushing an agreement that would lead to Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel in the hope that it would convince the Jewish state to make concessions towards a Palestinian state. It was edging towards a deal before Hamas’s October 7 attack, which would have included the US agreeing to a defence pact with the kingdom and supporting its nuclear ambitions.

Washington and Riyadh have continued to discuss a deal. Prince Faisal said this week they were “very close” to an agreement on the US element. But he reiterated that there also needs to be “a pathway to a Palestinian state” that is “credible and irreversible”.

“Nobody has a clear plan,” Hanna said. “There’s no real concrete thinking beyond the rhetoric about how to deal with the question of Palestine.”

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