Recently, the eyes of the world have been watching as the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict has unfolded between the State of Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, mostly in the territory of Gaza. While a ceasefire was agreed on the 21st of May (despite both sides claiming victory), many people see this ceasefire as just another plateau point on this 100-year-old issue; a break, not an ending.
But why? What’s the history behind this conflict? And can it ever be resolved?
After the Ottoman Empire fell in World War One, Britain took control of the area known as Palestine, a land inhabited in by an Arab majority and a Jewish minority. The international community pressured Britain to establish a “national home” in Palestine for Jewish people as it was their ancestral home, but this upset the Palestinian Arabs who resided there and so they resisted the move. This created conflict both with the British rulers and between the Jews and Arabs. These clashes only increased as more Jews arrived in Palestine, particularly as Jewish persecution in Europe increased between 1920s and 1940s. In the early 1930s alone, more than 100,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Palestine from Nazi Germany and Poland.
The growing tensions forced the UN to make a decision to try and stop the conflict from exploding even further. In 1947, they voted to split Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The decision was accepted by Jewish leaders but rejected by the Arabs, and therefore it was never implemented. In 1948, Britain left Palestine, leaving the Jews and Arabs to fight it out between themselves. The Jewish forces prevailed, and in May 1948 the State of Israel was declared, establishing the first Jewish state in 2000 years. This conflict is remembered by Israelis as the War of Independence- but by the Palestinians as The Catastrophe. The day after Israel was declared and was recognised as a state by the USA, forces from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq invaded. Despite being less well equipped, the Israelis prevailed and seized key territory, such as Galilee, the Palestinian coast and a strip of territory connecting the coastal region to the western section of Jerusalem. In 1949, UN-brokered ceasefires left the State of Israel in permanent control of the territory they conquered.
During the war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had left the country. This left Israel with permanent territory and a substantial Jewish majority. The rest of Israel was divided between Jordan-occupied West Bank and Egypt-occupied Gaza. Jerusalem was also split between Israeli forces in the west and Jordanian forces in the east. Despite this, Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its own, and the USA recognises their claim to the whole city. They have built settlements in these areas over the past 50 years housing over 600,000 Jews, which Palestinians say is illegal under international law. Israel denies this.
Most Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in Gaza and West Bank or in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. Neither they nor their descendants have been allowed by Israel to return to their homes- Israel says this would overwhelm the country and its services and would threaten its’ existence as a Jewish state.
Gaza is currently ruled by Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas. Under its charter, it’s committed to the “destruction of Israel”, for example via suicide bombings like the bus bombings in February and March of 1996 which killed nearly 60 Israelis. This attack was in response to the assassination of Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash. On top of this, Hamas also develop social welfare programmes (such as organising clinics and school) and are involved in the Palestinian political process. The group is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the EU and the UK, as well as others.
The actions of Hamas have caused Israel and Egypt to tightly control Gaza’s borders, but Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank say they’re suffering because of these actions and restrictions. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation for the 2 million Palestinians’ in Gaza has deteriorated- the strip’s economy has collapsed, and there are water, electricity and medicine shortages. These factors, plus the threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, has contributed to rising tensions and anger within Palestinian communities.
The recent outbreak of violence commenced on the 10th of May 2021 and continued through to the aforementioned ceasefire on the 21st of the same month. The conflict ranged from riots to rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups to Israeli airstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip.
This was triggered by the previously mentioned evictions coming to a head over the anticipated decision of the Supreme Court of Israel on the eviction of six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem. On the 10th May, after a decision was made to delay the ruling on the evictions by 30 days, Hamas gave Israel an ultimatum- withdraw security forces from Sheikh Jarrah by 6pm or there would consequences. When the ultimatum expired without response, Hamas and other groups launched rockets, some of which hit residences and a school. Israel responded with rocket attacks on Gaza.
As a result of the violence, at least 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and 13 Israelis (including 2 children) were killed. On top of that, more than 1900 Palestinians were injured and at least 200 Israelis. As of the 19th May, 72,000 Palestinians had been displaced.
On the 13th May, Hamas proposed a ceasefire that was rejected by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, on the 18th of May, France, Egypt and Jordan announced their filing of a United Nations Security Council resolution for a ceasefire. This means that a resolution is adopted if 9 or more of the 15 Council members vote for that resolution, and if it is not vetoed by any of the 5 permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK and USA). The ceasefire was accepted by both sides on the 18th, ending the 11 days of conflict. However, on the 16th of June, Israeli aircraft struck Hamas sites in Gaza in response to incendiary balloons that were launched from the Strip that caused 20 fires in open fields near the Gaza border. This undercuts the ceasefire less than a month after it was agreed, however luckily there were no reported casualties on either side. Despite this apparent regression, the Egyptian-mediated truce did not appear to be threatened by the flare-up, with the overnight Israeli airstrikes giving way to calm by morning. Talal Okal, an analyst in Gaza, said that the ceasefire “is very fragile. The current calm may give the Egyptians a chance to try and cement it.” While many see this to be unlikely, the international community and civilians can but hope.
While the Egyptian truce is a hopeful step forward, a Hamas spokesman, while confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem. This alludes to a continuation of the recent conflict in months and years to come, until an agreement or settlement may finally be reached. The issues here are not just over one topic; there are many things Israel and Palestinians can’t agree on- such as what should happen to Palestinian refugees, whether Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank should stay or be removed, whether the two sides should share Jerusalem and whether a Palestinian state should be created alongside Israel. Peace talks have been taking place on and off for 25 years, and so far no real change has been affected. For many, the current issues seem to only be the next “close call” at obtaining peace in the region. The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, says the latest round of violence was the fourth big war between Hamas and Israel since 2008; “I can tell you one thing for certain- that if the status quo does not change favourably, there will be another round of this.”
By understanding the past and future of this conflict, we can all work to DO MORE to help the innocent, oppressed civilians who are unintentionally in the middle of this war. They need aid, they need safety, and they deserve peace.
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