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The Gaza conflict – how we got here

2 November 20230 comments

More than 1400 Israeli civilians were killed when the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented brutal assault on Israel on October 7, with hundreds of gunmen infiltrating communities near the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military says more than 200 more Israelis were taken to Gaza as hostages.

Since then, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in strikes carried out by the Israel Defence Force in response, reports say.

Israeli forces have launched grounds attacks into Gaza, ramping up fears of more civilian deaths.

Israel has also cut off electricity, water, medicine and food supplies to Gaza, although a few dozen trucks carrying humanitarian supplies have been allowed in.

So, how did it come to this?

The history of this conflict is a long and torturous one, going back more than a century.

Britain took control of what at the time was known as Palestine after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which rule the area, after WWI.

At the time, the land was inhabited by a Jewish minority and Arab majority, as well as other, smaller ethnic groups.

Tensions between the two communities grew when the international community through the League of Nations gave the UK the task of establishing a national home in for Jewish people in Palestine.

This stemmed from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a promise made by the then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the nation’s Britain’s Jewish community.

The declaration was enshrined in the British mandate over Palestine and endorsed by the newly-created League of Nations – forerunner of the United Nations – in 1922.

Jews saw Palestine as their ancestral home but Palestinian Arabs also claimed the land and were against the idea.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, the number of Jews arriving in Palestine burgeoned, with many fleeing persecution in Europe, and especially the Nazi Holocaust in WWII.

Violence between Jews and Arabs, and against British rule, also increased.

In 1947, the UN voted to split Palestine to be split into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem becoming capitol of both and an international city.

Accepted by Jewish leaders, the plan was condemned and rejected by the Arabs and never implemented.

By 1948 the British had been unable to solve the standoff so they withdrew and Jewish leaders declared the State of Israel.

It was intended to be a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, as well as a national homeland for Jews.

After the declaration, fighting between Jewish and Arab groups intensified and the five Arab countries – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – attacked Israel.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes in what they call ‘Al Nakba’, or ‘catastrophe’.

By the time the fighting ended in a ceasefire the following year, Israel controlled most of the territory.

Jordan occupied land which became known as the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza.

Jerusalem was divided between Israeli forces in the West, and Jordanian forces in the East.

Because there was never a peace agreement there were more wars and fighting in the following decades.

In the 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as most of the Syrian Golan Heights, Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.

Most Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The Palestinians who fled and their descendants have not been allowed by Israel to return to their homes.

Israel has argued this would threaten its existence as a Jewish state and overwhelm communities.

Israel still occupies the West Bank and claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for future Palestinian state.

Over the past half a century Israel has built settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where more than 700,000 Jews now live.

Under international law, the settlements are deemed illegal and that is the position of the UN Security Council and many western governments.

There are around 14.3 million Palestinians. Two million live on the Gaza strip, three million on the West Bank, two million in each of Israel and Jordan and half a million live in Syria.

The Gaza Strip is a narrow piece of land sitting between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea and with a short southern border with Egypt.

At just 41km long and 10km wide, it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

After the 1948-49 war, Gaza was occupied by Egypt for 19 years until Israel occupied Gaza in the 1967 war and stayed until 2005.

In 2005, Israel withdrew its troops and settlers although it retained control over its airspace, shared border and shoreline.

However, the UN still considers the territory to still be occupied by Israel.

The current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians boils down to a few issues.

These include: 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 exist alongside Israel.

Peace talks have been held between Israel-Palestinian sporadically through the 1990s to 2010s, amid outbreaks of violence.

A negotiated peace seemed possible at times. A series of secret talks in Norway became the Oslo peace process, symbolised by a ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993 presided over by President Bill Clinton.

In what seemed a breakthrough at the time, the Palestinians recognised the State of Israel and Israel recognised its historical enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), as the representative of Palestinian peoples.

A self-governing Palestinian Authority was set up but momentum was soon lost with the then Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu calling the Oslo deal a threat to Israel’s existence.

Following this, the Israelis accelerated their building of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and Hamas sent suicide bombers to kill people in Israel and wreck the chances of a deal.

Within Israel, polarising arguments over the deal were aired leading to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in November 1995.

In the 2000s there were attempts to reignite the peace process – including in 2003 when a roadmap was devised by world powers with the ultimate goal of a two-state solution. It has yet to be implemented.

Currently, Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an Islamist group which is committed to the destruction of Israel and is designated as a terrorist group by Australia the US, the UK and many other countries.

Hamas won the Palestinian people’s last election in 2006 and seized control of Gaza the following year by ousting the rival Fatah movement of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the intervening years, Hamas and militants in Gaza have fought several wars with Israel, which has maintained a partial blockade on the area.

The idea was to isolate Hamas and try to stop attacks, particularly the indiscriminate firing of rockets towards Israeli cities. In response, Hamas has built a massive network of tunnels under Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza say Israel’s restrictions and its air strikes on heavily populated areas amount to collective punishment.

They say the restrictions and military actions being carried out in Gaza in response to deadly attacks on Israelis are an example of collective punishment.

Some observers say these tensions could be among the reasons for Hamas’s latest attack.

Others say Hamas is attempting to boost its popularity among ordinary Palestinians, including by using hostages to pressure Israel to free some of the estimated 4,500 Palestinians held in its prisons.

Australia, the US, the EU and other Western countries have all condemned the Hamas attack on Israel.

Russia and China have both refused to condemn Hamas.

Israel’s arch-enemy Iran, is a key supporter of Hamas as well as Lebanon-based Hezbollah, whose militants have been skirmishing with Israeli forces almost daily since Hamas’s attack.

Some observers have suggested Questions that Iran was involved in the Hamas’ attack, after reports said it endorsed it days before. Iran has denied this.