Gaza is in ruins, with Israeli forces laying siege to the entire strip and leveling swaths of the enclave. An estimated 80% of its population of 2.2 million has been displaced — the majority now trapped in the south, increasingly pressed toward the Rafah border with Egypt.
Palestinians in Gaza say life has become a cruel choice between death and displacement. Yet an urgent question persists: What will Gaza’s future be after this war ends?
Several experts told NBC News that options being discussed by diplomats and officials range from workaround solutions, which ignore long-standing failures, to the catastrophic.
In one scenario, the Palestinian Authority, which runs the occupied West Bank and is increasingly unpopular, would reassume control of the territory. In another, Arab Gulf countries would fund efforts to rebuild Gaza and an international peacekeeping force would retain oversight. In a third, Palestinians would be displaced to Egypt or other countries — a path raised by Israeli lawmakers even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the war in Gaza is aimed at crushing Hamas, not expelling Palestinians.
In the shorter term, it is unclear whether the estimated 1.9 million Palestinians who fled to southern parts of Gaza will ever be able to return to learn if their homes are now rubble. Humanitarian relief groups will probably be the only entities providing basic necessities in a decimated landscape that will require decades of rebuilding.
“They will live in tents, that’s how they will be,” said Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. “There will be no water, no electricity, no health care delivery. Gaza becomes a tent city.”
Regional experts are wary of forecasting Gaza’s future, given the volatile situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making the exercise all the more unpredictable.
What is Israel hoping to achieve in Gaza?
Predicting outcomes of this war are challenging because “Israel’s goals are still vaguely defined,” said Nathan Brown, a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
What is clear, Brown said, is that “they are defined in such a way that they suggest that Israel will have an ongoing security presence in Gaza. So this isn’t about designing how Gaza will be governed when the Israelis withdraw — because they’re not talking about withdrawing,” he said.
There has been mixed messaging on the global stage. While some Israeli officials have said they have “no desire to govern” Gaza, other former Israeli officials have told NBC News of their intentions of carving out a heavily fortified “buffer zone” in northern Gaza to protect Israel from any future attacks.
Brown said that Israeli officials are being “slightly diplomatic” with messaging that focuses on guaranteeing Israel’s security, but he believes there are no legitimate alternatives that would be acceptable to Israel that don’t entail their boots on the ground.
“So you’re really talking about an Israeli occupation,” he said, adding that this would likely be less intrusive than that of the West Bank.
Gaza has not been occupied by Israel’s military since 2005, when Israel unilaterally withdrew its security forces and 21 illegal Israeli settlements after growing international pressure. But as Israeli forces continue their ground invasion of Gaza — parts of which are already a wasteland — Brown said postwar Gaza would likely have military checkpoints to monitor the movement of goods and people living there and “periodic raids” by soldiers.
Meanwhile a growing number of far-right Israeli politicians have made loud calls for the mass displacement of Palestinians into Egypt’s Sinai desert or to other countries in what would be seen by many as a new “Nakba” — the expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
“I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the efforts to physically displace people across the Egypt border,” said Daniel Levy, a former official Israeli peace negotiator at Oslo and Taba. “Many Israeli government ministers make no bones about this being their goal.”
Egyptian officials have remained steadfast in their opposition to even consider such a plan, and Biden’s administration has been more vigorously pushing back on the idea of forced relocation recently — but the increasingly hostile rhetoric shouldn’t be dismissed, some experts warn.
“We need to take them seriously,” said Mairav Zonszein, who is based in Tel Aviv and a senior Israel-Palestine analyst at the think tank Crisis Group. “They’re in positions of power and they have a very large base.”
Will the Palestinian Authority take control of Gaza?
Many are dubious that Israel will be successful in eliminating Hamas, which has been the de facto governing body in Gaza since 2007. Others say that the Oct. 7 attack shows that Hamas never intended to retain administrative power.
“They of course had every intention of remaining the overwhelming military force inside Gaza, but not the governing force,” said Levy, who is also president of the U.S./Middle East Project, an independent policy institute.
Instead, some U.S. and former Israeli officials have suggested the Palestinian Authority could govern Gaza.
But a recent poll found 80% of Palestinians are calling for its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to resign. Experts on the Middle East doubt locals would accept such a proposition since Palestinians broadly view Abbas’ party as corrupt and ineffective in securing an independent state.
“People in the West Bank already think of them as complicit through security cooperation with the Israelis, without having gotten anything in return,” Slim, of the Middle East Institute, said.
For its part, the Palestinian Authority likely wouldn’t agree to returning to power with Israel’s backing because that would give it little credibility to govern, she added.
“Any arrangement negotiated for Gaza — if such an agreement is, despite the odds, negotiated — would likely involve Palestinians only in a pro forma way,” Brown said.
And the future of Palestinians, who view this as a war with several fronts, extends beyond Gaza.
In a sharp escalation of violence since Oct. 7, more than 240 people have been killed, 3,300 injured and 1,000 people already forcibly displaced in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the United Nations.
“We’re seeing skyrocketing violence in the West Bank, attacks by far-right Israeli settlers who are backed and protected by the Israeli military,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a U.S. policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, an independent Palestinian policy think tank. He added that settlers are egged on by leaders from Israel’s conservative Likud party.
If there is no de-escalation in Gaza or the West Bank soon, Levy said, there could be a “dramatic shift towards a Palestinian assertion of the refugee right of return,” where Palestinians are able to form a new leadership and disrupt the Palestinian Authority’s administrative governance.
He added that he doesn’t expect to see “extended periods of relative calm in this conflict anymore” if there is no addressing Israel’s occupation.
But peace of any kind has long been elusive for Palestinians, who have a history marred by continuous displacement, oppression and occupation. The current war only adds to that.
“It has become undeniable that Israel is not only at war with Hamas, it is at war with the Palestinian people,” said Kenney-Shawa, referring to what he believes is the indiscriminate nature of Israel’s military campaign.
How will Gaza be rebuilt and who will rebuild it?
Another very real piece of the puzzle lies in the sheer destruction wrought on the landscape of Gaza. “There’s going to be no Gaza to return to,” Kenney-Shawa said.
The United Nations estimates that so far two-thirds of Gazans won’t have homes to return to once the violence stops. Experts said the reconstruction estimates are unfathomable at this stage given the unrelenting scope of Israeli bombardment, which has surpassed all previous conflicts in Gaza.
Even prior to this war, reconstruction efforts in Gaza were already choked with challenges and far from complete, “despite billions in aid pledges and distribution aid,” according to Yara Asi, a fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Funders often pledge more than they end up giving, and due to Israeli import restrictions, getting the material for reconstruction into Gaza is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.”
Asi and others estimated it will take decades to rebuild Gaza, and she added that there is a “real possibility that the literal geography of Gaza” may change based on territorial ambitions stated by the Israeli military and far-right politicians.
“There is no aspect of civilian infrastructure that has been untouched,” she added, listing medical equipment, road construction materials and housing materials as goods needed to rebuild, but which must be approved for import and could emerge as major stumbling blocks.
Power asymmetries in this conflict mean Israel will have an outsize role in determining whether Gazans will be allowed to return to northern areas, experts said. As it is, there are no real guarantees they will.
Slim said that Western powers will undoubtedly call on wealthy Arab Gulf nations — namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to do the rebuilding, but they have little appetite for it.
“These countries now are saying, ‘We are not going to rebuild something and put billions of dollars in it today, when tomorrow, this thing will repeat itself and we will waste all this money,’” she said.
The same goes for peacekeeping efforts.
“I do not see anyone being dumb enough to position themselves as the security arm of the Israelis in Gaza,” Levy said.
That leaves the provision of basic necessities to humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies “to just try and keep these people alive, sheltered, fed,” he added.
Meanwhile, those in Gaza have long borne the brunt of this protracted conflict, making them excruciatingly aware that their wishes will factor little in any potential resolution. Seeing their neighborhoods reduced to rubble underlines the difficulties still ahead — even in the hard-to-imagine day when daily suffering and death finally end.
“We don’t have a choice in our life. We are forced to die, forced to starve, forced to be hungry,” Dr. Ebraheem Matar, 27, told NBC News by telephone from Al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza.
“As we say, the real war starts after the end of the war.”