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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

The Israel-Gaza War: Context and History

Editors’ Note: The current Israel-Hamas war is part of a long and complex history. The issue is emotionally and politically charged which makes it all the more difficult to discuss the current situation in a rational and unbiased manner. Recognizing this, we nonetheless consider it important to debate and raise awareness on ongoing events and to provide a platform for diverse perspectives. In doing so we seek to be as reflexive, objective, and critical as possible while taking a firm stand against all forms of discrimination and injustice – racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or otherwise. If you think that there is a mistake or problematic statement in our content, we are always open to feedback which you can send to us through our contact form.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched an attack on Israel which, according to Israeli authorities, killed approximately 1,200 people – including civilians – and took more than 200 hostages. Hamas stated that the attack was a response to Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza, the desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as well and Israeli attacks on women. Israel reacted to the attack by declaring war on Hamas and launching air strikes. A consequence of this response is the worsening of the already critical humanitarian situation in Gaza, and there are concerns that the war could spread across the Israeli/Palestinian borders due to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s (in Lebanon) support of Hamas. While the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for decades, what sets apart this spike in violence is the number of Israeli fatalities and hostages as well as it being the first time since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that Israel faced their adversaries on its own territory. Between October 7 and November 10, more than 1,200 Israeli deaths have been reported while at least 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

The Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth. With 140 square miles in size, it is roughly the size of Detroit. Yet, whereas Detroit has a population of ca. 639,000 people, roughly 2 million people live in Gaza most of whom are descended from refugees who were forced to flee their homes in the area that is now Israel in 1948. In 1967, Israel captured Gaza, which until then had been under Egyptian control, but withdrew its troops in 2005. Two years later, Hamas took control of Gaza following a brief civil war. Both Israel and Egypt – sharing a border with Gaza – imposed a siege on the region.

While Israel claims to only target weapon storages and infrastructure held by Hamas, air strikes have led to numerous deaths of civilians and have caused vast damage to and destruction of residential areas, schools, mosques, and medical facilities in Gaza. The complete siege of the territory cuts off its population from electricity and water, as well as access to food, fuel, and medicine which worsens an already critical humanitarian situation in which 95% of the population is deprived of access to clean water and 80% rely on humanitarian assistance. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that Gaza’s healthcare system is at a breaking point, and with the region’s only power station no longer working, hospitals might soon run out of fuel.

Human rights groups are voicing their concern that Israel might be committing war crimes in Gaza. Amnesty International, for instance, appealed to Israel to lift its siege, condemning it as a collective punishment that holds civilians responsible for Hamas’ attacks. Human Rights Watch called Gaza an “open-air prison” since Israel closed its two crossings with Gaza and the Rafah Crossing, which connects Gaza and Egypt and is also closed, has become the only point at which people and aid can possibly enter or leave the territory. This also leaves Palestinians with limited options of refuge as, preceding an expected ground invasion, Israel has ordered more than one million people in northern Gaza to move south on October 13, giving them no more than 24 hours. The UN has warned of “devastating humanitarian consequences.” As of October 15, half of the population of Gaza has been displaced within the territory.

How Did We Get Here? An Overview

After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Great Britain took control over Palestine which then was inhabited by an Arab majority and a Jewish minority alongside other smaller ethnic groups. Based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Jewish claims to Palestine as their ancestral home, it became the responsibility of Britain to facilitate the establishment of a “national home” in Palestine for the Jewish people. Palestinian Arabs opposed the project and tensions between the two peoples began to rise.

Until the 1940s, more and more Jews moved or fled to Palestine, many due to anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, particularly the Holocaust. During this time conflicts between Jews and Arabs and opposition to British rule further intensified. Eventually, in 1947, the United Nations decided that Palestine should be split into two separate states – one Jewish, the other Arab. The plan was never implemented as Jewish leaders accepted the proposal but Palestinian Arabs opposed it. Unable to resolve the situation, Britain withdrew from Palestine in 1948 and Jewish leaders declared the creation of the State of Israel. A day later, five Arab countries attacked.

Following these events, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in what came to be known as Al Nakba – the Catastrophe. By the time both parties agreed upon a ceasefire, Israel had achieved control over most of the territory with Jordan occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt being in control of Gaza. There never was a peace agreement and more wars and fighting erupted in the decades that followed.

One of these wars was the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (also referred to as Yom Kippur War). The war lasted 19 days and began when Egyptian and Syrian military forces attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday, in an attempt to force Israel into negotiations. Following a ceasefire which ended the war, Israel handed back the Sinai peninsula to Egypt as part of a peace treaty that the countries signed in 1979.

1987 saw the creation of Hamas during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas is an Islamist organization that split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas opposes Israel as it sees it as an occupying power from which Palestine is to be liberated. Yet, unlike other Palestinian groups who resist Israeli occupation, Hamas refuses to negotiate with Israel and is defined as a terrorist organization by the US, the EU, and Israel. When the Oslo Accords – aiming at peace between Palestine and Israel – were signed by Israel’s leadership and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, Hamas opposed it. In 2000, Israel and Palestine failed to conclude a final agreement at a summit in the US, and two months later protests developed into a Second Intifada.

Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving the Palestinian Authority (PA) in charge of the territory. When Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, Israel and the US stopped aid to Palestine. A year later, after a short civil war against Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas took over Gaza.

Following these events, Israel imposed a blockade in Gaza in 2007 which was expanded into a complete sealing off of the territory in 2008. In the same year, as well as in 2012 and 2014, Israel launched military operations against Gaza.

In 2016, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Israel’s settlement activities. In the resolution, the UN Security Council deemed Israeli settlements on Palestinian land “flagrant violations” of international humanitarian law.

After several weeks of tensions during Ramadan in 2021, Israeli police clashed with Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque. The tensions resulted from a legal case that threatened eight Palestinian families with losing their homes in East Jerusalem to Israeli settlers. During the conflict, Hamas demanded Israel withdraw its security forces and fired rockets into Israel. Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza that destroyed a 13-story residential building and a 12-story tower block where international news media were located- Several hospitals and health care centers were destroyed or damaged as well. Violence increased in mixed Jewish-Arab communities including several attacks on synagogues.

Today, Israel still occupies the West Bank and claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital – which is recognized as such by i.a., the US. Over the past five decades, has proceeded to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – an action which is illegal under international law.

If you are interested in learning more about the conflict between Palestine and Israel:

  • The Law in These Parts is a 2011 documentary on the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. It investigates in particular the legal frameworks – both in text and in practice – that uphold the occupation, enable Israeli settlers to move to the occupied territories, and shape the life of the Palestinian population.

  • Israel vs Israel tells the story of Israelis who are engaged in the struggle for peace between Israel and Palestine and against the military occupation of Palestine. This 2010 documentary takes a closer look at tensions and contestation within Israel’s society.

  • Disturbing the Peace (2016) chronicles the journey of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters as they work together to resolve the conflict through non-violent means and overcome the narratives that have shaped their lives.

  • Tears of Gaza (2010) focuses on the consequences of war paying particular attention to how women and children cope with their everyday life after traumatic war experiences and consequences of the conflict such as poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to water and electricity.

Why Is There Conflict and Where Does the International Community Stand?

To resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine one of the most pressing issues to resolve is the question of whether a Palestinian state should exist alongside Israel and if Jerusalem should be shared by Palestinians and Israelis. But beyond that, other questions need to be answered. Should Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to the area which is now Israel? So far, Israel has been opposed to this idea since its leaders claim that a return of Palestinian refugees would overwhelm the country and threaten the existence of the state. A similar question, the question of whether Jewish settlements in the West Bank should remain or be removed, is yet to be answered.

In the context of the current war between Israel and Hamas, Western countries including the US and member states of the EU have condemned Hamas’ attack and expressed their support for Israel. The US, in particular, is closely allied to Israel and has supported the country with more than 260 billion dollars in military and economic aid. Following the attack of Hamas, the US government has promised Israel additional military equipment and weapons. Meanwhile, Russia and China state that they seek to maintain contact with both sides of the conflict. Iran and Hezbollah are considered key supporters of Hamas.

Why do Zionists claim Israel/Palestine as their homeland?

In the 16th and 17th centuries calls for Jews to return to Palestine emerged, this would eventually lead to the formation of the Zionist movement in the 19th century. Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement that promotes the idea that all Jews constitute a single nation rather than forming a purely religious group. It sees the establishment of a Jewish state (Israel) as the only solution to anti-Semitism, with some Zionists going so far as to claim that Jews living outside Israel cannot live a full life until they move to Israel – a view that is rejected by most other Jews.

While the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement promoted the idea of assimilation into Western secular society throughout the 18th century, Zionism began to emerge in central and eastern Europe as a reaction to pogroms in Russia in the 19th century. Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl argued that assimilation would be preferable but that it was realistically impossible in the given context of anti-Semitism necessitating the creation of a Jewish “national home”. When the Ottoman Empire refused Herzl’s request for Jews to be allowed to settle in Palestine, he turned to Great Britain. In 1903, the British government agreed to make available part of Uganda for Zionist settlers who, however, were determined to settle in Palestine.

Whereas only a minority of Jews supported Zionism before the First World War, the pogroms and repression following the failure of the Russian Revolution (1905) led to an increase in the number of Russian Jews moving to Palestine as pioneer settlers. In 1917, Russian Zionists living in England succeeded in obtaining the Balfour Declaration in which the British government promised them support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Yet, Jewish emigration to Palestine remained slow until the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust which led to many Jews fleeing to Palestine. Others, especially in the US, embraced Zionism even if they had been opposed to it before – some because they held the view that only God should reunite the Jewish people, others because they were worried about losing their rights in the countries they lived in should Jews be recognized as a distinct national group rather than a purely religious one.

Yet, Zionism is not singular and universal in its views. There are different strands, such as Labor Zionism which had been the predominant form from the 1920s to the 1970s and which combines Zionism with socialism. Another form is Revisionist Zionism which receives its name from the aspiration to revise the boundaries of Jewish territorial claims to expand beyond Palestine. Unlike Labor Zionism which was built around the somewhat vague notion of a “national home”, the Revisionist movement openly sought to create a Jewish state early on which they believed could only be achieved with the use of armed forces. These two strands underlie the contemporary Israeli Labor Party (Labor Zionism) and the right-wing Likud Party (Revisionist Zionism) which is much less likely than the Labor Party to consider territorial compromise with Palestinians in order to achieve peace.

A ground for opposition to Zionism, frequently voiced by i.a. Palestinians, is that the characteristic of Israel as a Jewish state results in privileges held by Jews and denied to others. From their perspective, Zionism is a colonial and racist undertaking that appropriates Palestinian land and systematically disenfranchises the Palestinian people.

Written by Merle Emrich.

Cover photo by Merle Emrich.


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