As Buffalo Springfield put it, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” In world politics and conflicts, it’s often easy to lose track of (or not know to begin with) the origins of a given conflict. We hear the big, breaking news but don’t know why or how this round of fighting got started. It’s especially difficult to get a clear picture of fault lines in a crisis that has been going on continuously for a century with roots that reach back thousands of years. So what do we need to know to understand the latest round of fighting in the world’s oldest blood feud? Let’s take a look…
First, some quick geography. The State of Israel is located in the heart of the Middle East, on the eastern bank of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered on the south by Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, by Jordan on the East and across the Dead Sea and Jordan River, on the Northeast by Syria, and on the North by Lebanon. It borders internally the Palestinian Territories of the Gaza Strip on the Southwestern edge, and the West Bank, named for its location on the Western bank of the Dead Sea. Though it was not and is not always this way, the primary points of conflict (at least since 1948) have been between Israel and the (occupied) Palestinian Territories. Though certainly not existing in a historical vacuum, the most recent conflict finds its roots in the kidnapping and execution of 3 Israeli students on June 12 in the West Bank. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) began an operation to locate the teenagers and PM Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas, which Hamas denied. The two and half weeks that followed were comprised of heavy raids in many areas of the West Bank, finally producing the bodies of the three victims on June 30. Then, with tensions still high, on July 2 the body of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was found burned to death. The suspects were arrested by Israeli police within a few hours but later that night a series of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel and Israel’s July 3 airstrike response began a familiar pattern of back-and-forth destruction. On July 17, the IDF began its present ground incursion into Gaza called Operation Protective Edge, with one of its primary goals being the destruction of the Hamas tunnels running from Gaza into Israel (and expertly explored by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer here).
I think this is a good place to pause for a brief history lesson. You can’t get where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been and the start of this seemingly unending struggle goes back at least a century. We could no doubt journey back further but let’s start with World War I when what would be known as Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Though the Arab population had been promised independence in exchange for aiding the Allies against the Ottomans, as victory neared in 1916 the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the region between the Allies, with Britain gaining control of Mandatory Palestine. Much of the conflict’s roots come from this colonial mentality, and for many it’s difficult to shake the feeling of Israel being an extension of that era. The notion of Zionism, the idea that world’s Jewish population after millennia of oppression and exile deserved a homeland of their own, had begun to take hold and with the 1917 Balfour Declaration the idea became the somewhat official stance of the British. The next 20 years saw more than 250,000 Jewish citizens immigrate to Palestine and by the 1930’s seeds of dissension had hit the region, with two separate ethnic populations (Arab and Jewish) beginning to revolt against their British controllers. In 1947 the British decided to leave Palestine, turning the increasingly unsettled region over to the U.N. who then voted for a partition into a Jewish state, an Arab state and a special international designation for Jerusalem. This measure was rejected by the Palestinian population and violence broke out. In May of 1948 the British mandate expired and the independent State of Israel was declared, officially creating for the first time a Jewish state. The power vacuum that now existed with the exit of the British was quickly filled by the surrounding Arab nations (TransJordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon) invading former Palestine and attacking Israel. The Arab-Israeli War ensued, resulting in large territorial gains for the Israelis, while Jordan seized control of the West Bank and Egypt control of the Gaza Strip. No independent Arab state was created and it is here, in 1948, that the Palestinian struggle finds the origin of its isolated identity, the battle for a stolen homeland. The war saw nearly 700,000 Palestinians flee/expelled from Palestine, and in the decade and a half that followed the struggles of these refugees would morph and grow into a formidable force.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 the tone of the struggle changed forever. With Arab independence tensions bubbling since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the PLO was committed to armed struggle as a means to self-determination for the Palestinians, seeking a “right to return” for the Arab refugees and an end to the Zionist movement. The 1967 Six-Day War saw Israel achieve an impressive and perhaps somewhat surprising level of military success, for the first time occupying Gaza and the West Bank as well as taking the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. In the 70’s and 80’s, the PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, was responsible for a series of horrific attacks (including the 1972 Munich Olympics), and laid the foundation for groups such as Fatah and Hamas. It is the true beginning to our notion of “terrorism”, the concept that world’s battles would no longer be fought between nation-states but by shadowy organizations using guerrilla tactics within those countries.
In the era of “making the world safe for democracy” and post-colonial righteousness, the idea of allotting a sector of a conquered land to right a wrong of human history must have seemed a justified step forward. In today’s world view, though, we are provided a lens of clarity, seeing that the citizens of the Middle East are indeed just that, citizens with similar human aspirations to our own. Or perhaps, rather, simply the futility of 70 years of death and destruction makes plain the errors in our ways of thinking. You cannot take away someone’s home and expect them to acquiesce. This isn’t to justify in any way the violent tactics employed by the PLO, Hamas, Fatah or any other Palestinian organization or authority throughout its troubled past. As a bleeding-heart liberal my only hope for the region is an end to the violence and a solution that respects the rights of each population. But by not facing the historical facts and trying to assign blame to only one side, we blind ourselves to half the conflict.
The ever-changing political landscape around Israel and the Palestinian Territories has greatly impacted the tumultuous region. After Mubarak was deposed in 2011, the southern border of Gaza was then met by the Muslim Brotherhood government, providing an ally more concretely aligned with their interests. That alliance changed once again when the Muslim Brotherhood was removed a year ago and al-Sisi came to power. Recent rhetoric from both Egyptian government officials as well their news media has turned against Gaza, going so far as to say that “for the last four years [Gaza] has given us nothing but trouble. It’s not our business what happens in Gaza.”
Throughout human history, conflicts are begun with (relatively) small, singular events at their core that serve as catalyst for feelings and ambitions in need of an outlet. The First Intifada was said to begin with the vehicular death of four Palestinians in a refugee camp which then spread into a region-wide liberation. This most recent round of conflict began with the aforementioned kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students, stirring region-wide tensions, especially amidst claims that Hamas may not have actually been responsible. It was on July 24 that many of us took greater notice of the rising conflict when a U.N.-run school for refugees in the Gaza city of Beit Hanoun was blown up, killing 16 and injuring more than 100, and it still remains a mystery who’s to blame. At first, Israel claimed that a rocket from Hamas misfired and hit the school but then later rescinded, saying it was a shell from an Israeli tank but that it landed in the reportedly empty courtyard and hit no one. While the perpetrators are still a confused mystery, outlets like Twitter give immediate and unequivocal reports of the facts of the situation – the 16 dead, pictures of students on desks as bloody, makeshift beds – reports coming from sources with no vested interest in either side of the conflict and therefore providing the most objective look inside the situation. Representatives for the U.N. inside the school at the time posted horrified reports, including some that stated they had given the exact coordinates of the school to the IDF prior to the attack. Beit Hanoun has long been a hotbed of activity. Its location is convenient for Hamas to fire rockets into Israel and it is the starting point of many of the tunnels that lead into Israel for surprise attacks. This past Monday night, the Israeli government rejected the John Kerry-proposed ceasefire agreement and instead turned to what has been described as the fiercest night of bombing in the conflict thus far. More than 100 were reported dead on Tuesday morning, with the biggest blow being the destruction of Gaza’s only power station.
The long history of the region and its conquer by various groups adds up to a back-and-forth situation that appears never-ending. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question, but can you really ask an egg to somehow pay the debts of the chickens and eggs that have come before, and to pay that debt with their homes and the land on which they live? Between 1917-1948, the Western powers and then the U.N. did just that, constructing a State of Israel to provide the world’s Jewish population a place to call their home once again and finally, after millennia of oppression. The problem, quite simply, is that the land they wanted to give had people living on it, and with their disregard they unknowingly sowed the seeds for a century of fighting. Those seeds would grow into waves of tragedy and horrible violence with staggering casualty numbers (over 1100 Palestinians and 53 Israelis killed since the most recent round of fighting began) and little hope for an end to the bloody gridlock. Can the son really be responsible for the sins of the father and how can the cycle of violence possibly end?