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  • Writer's pictureWill Grice

Israel-Hamas: How Did We Get Here?

On 7 October 2023, terrorist group Hamas launched a major offensive on Israeli communities: according to estimates by the BBC, over 1,200 people were killed in a single day and hundreds of Israelis, including small children, were taken hostage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed “mighty vengeance” against Hamas in a video address to the people of Israel and, since then, Israel has coordinated a series of attacks on the Gaza Strip with the aim of eradicating Hamas completely - fearing that the abhorrent October attacks could easily be repeated in the future. However, the bombing of the Gaza Strip has itself been a humanitarian catastrophe. In accordance with recent numbers from Reuters, air and artillery strikes have resulted in the deaths of more than 28,000 Palestinians. This includes mothers, fathers and innocent children. Many of whom harbour no grudge against the people of Israel, and organisations such as the UN in an October 2023 report stated that both Israel and Palestine are responsible for committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip. This includes ‘taking civilian hostages and using civilians as human shields.’ Moreover, the UN has openly called for a ceasefire, warning that time is running out to prevent a genocide in Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel is arguing that its military is doing its best to make sure that any civilian casualties are minimal - whilst condemning calls for a ceasefire - with Prime Minister Netanyahu comparing calls for the latter to a surrender to the terrorism committed by Hamas. Additionally, Israel believes that it is their right and responsibility to respond to these attacks by Hamas to protect their people. There are no signs of a ceasefire on the horizon, and the land of Palestine has been a significant point of contention since the end of World War One. So how did we get here, and how could this conflict continue to evolve in the future?

Palestine was originally under British control after the First World War on account of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat. The land was made up by a majority-Arab ethnicity, as well as a smaller number of Jewish people. The foreign secretary at the time, Arthur Balfour, came up with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which declared that there should be a Jewish settlement in Palestine because many Jews then felt that Palestine was a spiritual home for them. This is how the Zionist movement first began, but it is also the origin of the still-growing tensions between Arab Palestinians and Jewish communities in Palestine. The agreement came into effect in 1922 with the formation of the League of Nations (the League of Nations was the precursor to the United Nations). The move faced criticism from many Palestinians who felt that Israelis had no right to the land. On the other hand, Jews believed that Palestine was the safest place for them at a time when they were facing persecution in many areas of the world, most prominently the genocide committed by the Nazis against the Jewish population in the Second World War. Over six-million Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust.

In 1947, the United Nations Resolution 181 proposed that Palestine would be split into separate states - and that Jerusalem would be a corpus separatum. This means that it would have a special, separated status without being a sovereign state. The proposal was adopted by the United Nations, passing with thirty-three votes in favour. However, in practice, the proposal fell apart because the Arab population rejected the motion since they disagreed with the Israelis that they had any claim to Palestine. As a result of this motion’s failure, there was a significant increase in fighting among the Arabian population and the Israelis because of increased hostility between the two sides. Nevertheless, on 14 May 1948, David-Ben-Gurion, the former Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed the state of Israel. In retaliation, the Arabian forces launched air attacks on Tel Aviv and fighting continued until February 1949 - when an armistice was agreed between the two sides. The bordering nations maintained a ceasefire and the Gaza Strip was kept in the control of Egypt and Jordan. The control of Jerusalem was split between East and West, with Israel having its forces in the Western part and Jordan’s in the East (BBC News). Despite multiple ceasefire agreements between Israel and Palestine, though, peace has never lasted for more than a few decades.

There was yet another escalation in 1967, during the Six-Day War. Israel launched air strikes against the Egyptian air force and their military in Gaza and Sinai, and it also led an attack on Jordan’s military in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel defeated the Arabian armies, including the Egyptians and the Jordanians, and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank - which included East Jerusalem (Britannica). However, in the process, there were more than 20,000 Arabian fatalities and the Palestinian refugees have not been allowed to return, of which there were more than 245,000 seeking refuge by December 1967. Furthermore, tensions between Israel and the Arabian states intensified greatly with the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This was a joint operation by Arabian nations, mainly Egypt and Syria, where over 2,500 Israeli soldiers were brutally murdered in a matter of weeks.

Israel has continued to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is against international law - but Israel claims to have a biblical claim to these settlements. Not all Jews agree with these sentiments and do not see themselves as belonging to a ‘settler’ group. Israel’s critics state that by breaking international law, Israel is only stoking tensions between the two sides and furthering the likelihood of escalation. This is again lowering the chances of a lasting peace. In 2005, Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, ending the occupation, and, moreover, organisations like the European Union and the United Nations argue that Israel still occupies Gaza because of the technological hold they have over supplying Gaza with humanitarian aid - despite not having military boots on the ground.

The most significant progress made in the talks between Israel and Palestine was with the 2000 Camp David Summit, between then-U.S President Bill Clinton, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat, who was the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. From 1993, Israel and Palestine had been engaging in incremental discourse through the Oslo process - a series of secret negotiations happening behind the scenes. However, Ehud Barak believed that this approach was taking too long and he was looking for a long-term solution. The US administration was drafted to be a mediator between the two sides in trying to reach a formal agreement, along with President Arafat. The offer would have resulted in a splitting of the land between Israel and Palestine, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip being home to the creation of a new Palestinian state, Jewish settlements being returned to Palestine, as well as the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Unfortunately, the deal failed for numerous reasons. Most prominently, there was a distrust on both sides. President Arafat did not trust the then-Israeli PM, as Barak’s government was on the verge of collapse, and there was a fear on the Palestinian side that Israel wanted a deal rushed through to claim a political victory. Moreover, there was an unwillingness to compromise on Arafat’s side of the negotiations, fearing that he would be seen as a traitor by the Palestinian people. Both sides came to the negotiating table with ulterior motives that ultimately led to a breakdown of the agreement. Some have argued that the agreement would have never succeeded, and that this is why President Arafat refused to negotiate and rejected the offer made by Israel. Others have argued that Arafat never had honest intentions in his negotiations with the Israelis. According to his memoir, President Clinton remarked to President Arafat as he was preparing to leave the White House: “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.” The Camp David Summit was seen by many as the closest point for Israel and Palestine to have achieved peace, but again there was no agreement reached. Further peace talks have continued and broken down since then, with both sides unable to agree on a compromise.

A temporary ceasefire in December 2023 ended after seven days - there was hope that the pause in the conflict would allow reflection and reconsideration on both sides. However, the pace of the fighting has only intensified since then. Yemen-Houthi rebels have carried out attacks in the Red Sea, leading to further instability across the world. This is having huge ramifications for world trade, as - according to the International Chamber of Shipping - twenty-percent of container ships are now choosing to avoid the Red Sea because of the unstable nature of the route. They are instead taking a longer route, thus slowing down world trade. With the United States and Great Britain carrying out targeted attacks on Houthi rebel military targets in Yemen, there is an even greater fear that the conflict could have further ramifications on global security.

With no plausible route to a ceasefire in sight, and with military action continuing against UN-warnings that one is ‘more urgent than ever’, the rest of the world needs to prepare for a prolonged conflict. Both sides are unlikely to come to an agreement soon: the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October have cemented the position of Israel, with Netanyahu believing that Israel has a moral duty to eradicate Hamas. However, the increasing scale of Israel’s response has left many asking - is Israel striking the right balance in Gaza, or has it gone too far in their response?

The momentum in the West seems to be inclined towards at least a cessation, with President Biden calling for a ‘temporary ceasefire’ in Gaza to allow for hostages to be released. There is great concern from the President about a potential ground offensive in Rafah, and Western allies have at points called for Israel to stop many thousands more families from being forced out of their homes (Financial Times). Only time will tell where this conflict goes from here, but if Israel does go ahead with its planned offensive in Rafah it will only further weaken the West’s patience with Israel.


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