The Israel–Hamas War in Context
A tricky past, a bloody present, and a future in the dark
By Keren Setton/The Media Line
On October 7, it was an early Saturday morning when hundreds of Hamas terrorists stormed the border with Israel, tearing down barbed wire and ramming tractors into the barrier between the Gaza Strip and the Jewish state. Consumed with decades of disdain toward Israel, they raided communities on the border, killing approximately 1,200 Israelis, wounding thousands more, and abducting around 240 people, taking them into Gaza as hostages.
Israel immediately vowed to retaliate, launching a massive air offensive on the Gaza Stripand preparing for a ground invasion that began three weeks later. Since then, according to the Health Ministry of the Hamas-run government in Gaza, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed and 27,000 injured.
Hamas and Israel have been enemies for decades. An organization that has championed armed resistance against Israel, Hamas is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis throughout the years.
The Gaza Strip was captured from Egyptian military rule by Israel in the 1967 war. Thousands of Israelis then settled in the territory, living amid over 2 million Palestinians. The late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally evacuate the territory in 2005, leaving it to the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the Fatah party. Soon after, the internal Palestinian rivalry materialized in a historical split that has divided Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas had won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 with a 44% plurality of votes and 56% of the seats, and a power-sharing deal with Fatah was unattainable. The rivalry between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party peaked in 2007 when Hamas violently took over Gaza from the hands of Fatah. Since then, attempts to reconcile between the sides have failed. There have also been no elections in the PA or Gaza since.
Founded in the late 1980s, Hamas is an Islamist group—a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Many countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Japan, and Israel, as well as the supranational European Union, have designated the group as a terrorist organization.
“Hamas was born out of the failure of the Palestinian national movement to put an end to the Israeli occupation,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “They advocated a return to Islam because other movements did not succeed.”
“The Palestinians wanted their cause to stay alive,” Abusada added. In the aftermath of the 1967 war in which the Arab countries that attacked Israel were defeated; Islamic nationalism was appealing to the Palestinians.
Hamas has since been backed by Iran, both by funding, material support, and training of its militants.
Its founder was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an Islamic cleric who was born in 1936 in British Mandatory Palestine, before the establishment of the State of Israel.
“Hamas took the Muslim religion and imposed it on the Palestinian national movement,” said Dr. Ronni Shaked, author of Hamas-the Islamic Movement and Middle East and Islam Research Unit coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “Their armed resistance against Israel thus became a jihad, representing a nationalism that seeks the destruction of Israel.”
Yassin served time in Israeli prisons and was released as part of a deal in 1997. Israeli forces assassinated him in 2004. Under Yassin, Hamas was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis as a result of suicide bombings during the years of the Second Intifada.
Other than being a resistance movement, from its inception Hamas took a social role in Palestinian society, performing charitable work. Over the years, as the PA’s popularity declined, the popularity of Hamas increased. Wary of its growing strength, Israel continued to fortify its border with the Gaza Strip. It also continuously operates against Hamas in the West Bank territories, including those under full control of the PA.
Hamas’ leadership is currently split between Gaza and Qatar. Yahya Sinwar is Hamas’ leader on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Sinwar was sentenced to jail in Israel for killing two Israeli soldiers. Among Palestinians, he became known for his cruel treatment of Palestinians who were suspected of collaboration with Israel. He was released in a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas. The 2011 deal saw Israel release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many with blood on their hands, in exchange for one Israeli soldier who was held by Hamas for five years.
Since 2012, Hamas has run a political office in Doha, Qatar. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and Khaled Mashal are all rumored to lead a life of luxury in the Qatari capital, traveling frequently, raising money for Hamas, and directing its operations in Gaza from afar.
Israel’s disengagement from Gaza
In 2005, Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip. Jewish settlements were dismantled, with its 8,000 residents dispersed throughout communities within Israel and the West Bank. Israel’s military presence on the ground in Gaza was also dissolved. Israel retained control over the border crossings with Israel, including control over its airspace and territorial waters.
On the other side of Gaza’s southern border lies Egypt. Gazans may expect more from Egypt, which has taken a harsh stance against Hamas, pragmatically preferring its peace with Israel.
The unilateral move was initiated by then-Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, who believed Israel should gradually separate from territories that would likely not be part of the Jewish state in any future settlement with the Palestinians. The move was welcomed by the left wing of Israeli politics but largely condemned by the right. Some thought Israel had a historical right to the territory, others believed leaving it to Palestinian control would increase terrorism from the territory.
All the while, Gaza residents remain highly dependent on Israel.
“Israel disengaged from Gaza, but Gaza stayed in Israel,” said Shaked. “Israel supplies most of Gaza’s electricity, water, and goods to the great benefit of the Israeli economy which gained another 2 million customers.”
Palestinians have entered Israel to work since Israel captured the Gaza Strip in 1967. The number of permits has fluctuated, often symbiotic with the rise and ease of tensions.
Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world and also one of its poorest. Each escalation with Israel further exacerbated the situation.
“The unilateral move was a strategic mistake made by Israel,” Abusada told The Media Line. “They did not coordinate with the PA which was exhausted after the years of the Second Intifada. Hamas took advantage of this and promoted Israel’s withdrawal as a victory for the Palestinian resistance and a defeat for those who believe in peace with Israel.”
After Hamas violently took over the Gaza Strip, Israel imposed its harshest blockade on the area. Before that, there were intermittent blockades barring goods from entering the Strip and Palestinian laborers from entering Israel. Israel has often restricted the entrance of what it calls “dual usage” materials, that can be used both for civilian and military purposes, claiming Hamas often seizes items such as fuel and other construction goods in order toadvance its military preparations.
Attempts to break the blockade have led to increased tensions between Israel and Hamas, who have fought several wars since 2007.
In the lead–up to the current war, Gaza residents approached the security fence with Israel, demonstrating against the blockade. Israel in response barred the entrance of Gaza laborers into the country for a short period. In an attempt to diffuse the tensions, Israel then lifted the sanction, allowing workers in. Days later, the Hamas embarked on its surprise offensive, a move that will likely change the balance of power on the border for the coming future.
Hamas-Fatah rivalry and the hostile takeover of the Gaza Strip
As long as the Palestinians were under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat, founder of the Fatah party, the divisions between Hamas and the more pragmatic Fatah were contained. His death in 2004, saw a rise in the tensions between the two political entities.
Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip saw the perpetuation of the rift between the two factions. There were casualties on both sides as hundreds lost their lives in the internal strife. One of the scenes sketched in the memories of Palestinians was an officer from Abbas’ elite Presidential Guard being thrown from the roof of Gaza’s tallest building.
“Hamas sought to take over Fatah, in order to take over the whole rule of the Palestinians,” Shaked told The Media Line.
Repeated attempts at reconciliation have been futile. Hamas retained power in Gaza, driving out Fatah supporters. Fatah, led by Abbas, continues to control some of the West Bank territories not controlled by Israel. Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank continues to rise, posing a threat to Abbas and to Israel. This has also led Abbas to repeatedly delay elections for over 15 years, due to fear of losing control to Hamas in the West Bank.
The international community has never recognized Hamas as a sovereign in the Gaza Strip.In addition to a stringent blockade enforced by both Egypt and Israel, Hamas was an isolated movement.
“The rejection by Israel, and others, of the 2006 election results, led to the radicalism of Hamas,” said Abusada. “Had they engaged Hamas, we would not be in this situation today.”
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to power for his second term in 2009, the rift played into his plan to deny Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu has been quoted as saying that keeping Hamas in power in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“Netanyahu seeks to annex the West Bank and has been doing so gradually,” said Shaked. “In order to do this, he was willing to see Gaza ruled by Hamas. He knew but he didn’t really understand what Hamas is.”
The day after the war
Speaking to Israelis on Saturday, Netanyahu ruled out the return of the PA to rule in Gaza once the Israeli operation is finished.
Until then, it remains to be seen whether Israel will be able to topple Hamas as it has set out to do. Such an outcome will leave a power vacuum in Gaza.
On the one hand, a weakened Hamas may be pushed to reconcile with the PA. On the other hand, Abbas will have a difficult time bringing Hamas back in as international opinion against the organization is largely negative in light of its attack against Israel.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” Abusada summarized.”
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