By Veronica Jolley and Isaac Tellechea
On Oct. 7, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched Operation al-Aqsa Flood, a coordinated assault consisting of land and air attacks into multiple border areas of Israel outside the Gaza strip. Hamas militants surrounded as many as 22 locations, coupled with multiple rocket barrages, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in decades. Subsequently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed retaliation, stating that the military would be preparing for a “long and difficult war.” Israel formally declared war on Hamas on Oct. 8, swiftly mobilizing its military. What has followed has included daily rising counts of innocent Israeli and Palestinian citizens wounded and killed, various governments across the globe pledging allegiance to one side or the other and an increase in worldwide anti-Arab and anti-Jewish sentiments.
The Gaza Strip refers to a narrow strip of land, roughly 25 miles long and 7.5 miles wide, that is wedged between Israel and Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea. The strip forms the smaller of the two Palestinian territories—the other being the West Bank. Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in Palestine and in 2007 seized control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. The United States and the European Union, among others, do not acknowledge Hamas’ electoral victory, as the group has been considered a terrorist organization by Western governments since the late 1990s. Today, with more than two million Palestinians living within roughly 140 square miles, Gaza is “one of the world’s most densely populated territories,” according to Gisha, an Israeli nongovernmental organization. The Palestinian Authority, specifically Fatah, maintains administrative control of the West Bank.
In order to provide reliable and effective coverage on the current escalating violence involving Israel and Palestine, an overview of the history between the two is essential. The Catalyst conducted a virtual interview with Visiting Assistant Professor of Social Sciences David Ellis to better understand the historical context behind recent events. The Catalyst is thankful for his guidance in developing the timeline.
“The general issue is whether or not different states have the right to exist,” Ellis said. “This goes back to how the majority of the world’s states were actually formed in the process of decolonization, starting after World War II in particular.”
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire, already in a phase of being dissolved, sided with the Axis powers. Throughout the course of the war, the Ottomans were effectively driven out from much of the region by the British Empire. With the Ottoman Empire no longer laying claim to the land, the future of Palestine, among many other Middle Eastern territories, was up in the air. According to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, because of the holy places, Palestine would become an international zone free from rule by the British or the French. Despite this agreement being discussed between the countries of Great Britain and France, with the assent of Russia, British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour wrote what is now known as the Balfour Declaration. In a letter to prominent Anglo-Jewish leader Lionel Walter Rothschild, Balfour wrote a statement of British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Subsequently, Jewish nationalists perceived the Balfour Declaration as the foundation for the future Jewish national home.
The Balfour Declaration was seen as not only a contradiction to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but also to the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence during World War I. This refers to a correspondence between the Emir of Mecca Hussein ibn Ali and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon. In the letters, McMahon writes about a proposed trade of British support for an independent Arab state in exchange for the launch of the Arab Revolt in opposition to the Ottoman Empire.
Following the end of World War I, the Allied powers drafted a mandate, later approved by the League of Nations in 1922, which ushered in what is now known as the British Mandate period. The preamble of the document reads:
“Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The mandate was not viewed as satisfactory by all parties affected. As a result, sentiments of Arab and Jewish nationalism rose over the years, even culminating in violent incidents such as the 1920 Palestine riots occurring in Jerusalem, resulting in the deaths and injuries of multiple Jews. These respective nationalist movements continued to grow as tensions between Palestine and Israel grew. With these intensifying nationalist tendencies in the Middle East, discussions of state legitimacy became larger, more important conversations. Particularly in the Arab sphere, feelings of nationalism that started at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire fed into a desire for Middle Eastern independence over the course of decades.
Following World War II and the Holocaust, the majority of European powers were unable to hold onto their colonies after spending so much time, money and resources on waging a war. This led to decolonization and independence for many African and Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. At the same time that Arab countries were moving towards independence, there was also an increase in a desire for the establishment of a safe Jewish homeland in light of the devastating violence towards Jewish people.
In 1947, the United Nations acknowledged the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, and in an attempt to resolve the issues via a two-state solution, recommended that the United Kingdom adopt and implement the Plan of Partition with Economic Union. The resolution proposed the partitioning of Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states, as well as the establishment of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, Latin for “separate entity,” to be governed by a special international regime. The Jewish people initially approved of the resolution, yet Palestinian Arabs rejected it, citing unfair population balances in the proposed land allocations. What followed the Plan of Partition was a period of violence. In November of 1947, a civil war broke out in Mandatory Palestine between the Jewish people and the Palestinian Arabs. Over the course of this civil war, thousands of Arabs and Jews were left dead, the British withdrew from the Middle East with few interventions in the conflict and the Partition Plan was left unfulfilled. This civil war is considered to be the first phase of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the first war of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On May 14, 1948, former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, a day before the British Mandate was set to expire. The declaration was immediately recognized by then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman and by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Days after, four of the seven Arab League countries including Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq invaded the former Mandatory Palestine to attack Israelis. This was the start of a lack of Arab recognition of Israel as a legitimate state. Though the attack was coordinated, cooperation among the Arab League countries was not very effective. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war ended in armistice, with Israel’s casualties standing at about 6,000 killed and about 15,000 Arabs were killed. About 10,000 Jews were forced to evacuate homes in Israel and Palestine. Over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced, with the figure not including those still living in Israeli territory. These displaced people made up the beginnings of the Palestinian refugee camps that are still seen today across the Middle East. These refugees were not integrated into the respective countries they fled to, according to Ellis.
“Remember, at this point, Gaza is a part of Egypt and the West Bank is part of Jordan,” Ellis clarified. “So, it’s not like they’re [Palestinians] stateless.”
Ellis explained that in 1956, tensions between Israel and Egypt ramped up because Egypt closed off the only Red Sea port they had. This blockade, which Ellis described as an “act of war,” was the beginning of a second regional war, now known as the Suez Crisis. Closing off the port, coupled with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nesser’s action of nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, a collaboration between the British and French established in 1869, created significant tensions. The disharmony was primarily caused by Western powers’ outrage at Nesser’s actions, and Nesser’s own beliefs that Western governments were motivated by colonization. This political turmoil was only escalated by the British and French governments’ military consultations with Israel, a state that felt Nesser was a threat to its safety. The three parties then constructed a plan to overthrow Nesser.
Israel invaded Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 29, 1956, with British and French troops joining days later “under the pretext of protecting the Canal from the two belligerents.” U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration worried that prolonged violence could persuade the Soviet Union to aid Nesser. Through political pressure, the United States convinced Britain and France to agree to a United Nations ceasefire on Nov. 6, 1956. In the aftermath, Nesser solidified himself as a prominent figure of the growing Arab nationalist movement. The conflict lasted a total of nine days. Egypt reported the highest number of casualties, with a death toll as high as 3,000. Israel reported 231 deaths, the British recorded 16 and 10 French deaths were reported.
These conflicts are included in a group of seven major Arab-Israeli wars that have led to the current violence unfolding in the Middle East. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, five more major conflicts ensued, each resulting in more Israeli and Arab deaths, as well as thousands and thousands of displaced Palestinians, scattered across international refugee camps. Each of these conflicts has paved a way for violence to endure the test of time, to the point that it is still an international humanitarian crisis decades later.
In his first official statement following the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas, President Joe Biden announced that the United States and his administration’s support for Israel’s security was solid and unwavering.
“The United States unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel,” Biden said.
A second statement was released by his administration with added support from President Macron of France, Chancellor Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister Meloni of Italy and Prime Minister Sunak of the United Kingdom, stating that there is no justification or legitimacy to Hamas’s actions. It was noted in the statement that the leaders recognized the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people,” but that Hamas was not a representation of those aspirations. Efforts to reach Palestinians in need in Gaza and coordination with partners in the region to ensure safe access to food, water, medical care and other assistance required to meet humanitarian needs was announced nearly two weeks later.
In his visit to Israel, Biden likened the Oct. 7 assaults to the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. He warned Israel to not let their rage consume them, claiming that despite the justice the United States got after Sept. 11, there were mistakes made on their part. Biden voiced resolve for Israel while attempting to diminish the likelihood of a wider war, and provided assurances that he was not overlooking the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Israeli defense minister Yaov Gallant reportedly declared to the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command that “there will be no electricity, no food, no fuel,” in Gaza. The move immediately worsened the dire humanitarian situation in the territory, where 80 percent of the population was already in need of international aid. As of Oct. 27, Gazan officials say about 45 percent of housing units in Gaza have been left destroyed, uninhabitable or damaged since the start of the conflict. Despite ordering Palestinians to head south of Gaza for their own safety, Israel has continued strikes against what it says are Hamas targets in southern Gaza. In a preliminary analysis, UNOSAT, the United Nations Satellite Centre, reported that it had identified more than 270 road sections that look as if they have been affected by craters or debris, slowing access for aid and emergency services. Analysis of damage outside urban areas suggests dozens of agricultural greenhouses have been damaged or destroyed, affecting Gaza’s ability to grow its own food. Gaza’s power grid is without electricity after its sole power plant shut down and fuel supplies from Israel were suspended. As of Oct. 21, about 80 percent of homes, schools and health facilities in Gaza are likely to be without power. The only buildings with electricity are those with generators, such as some hospitals and UN shelters, and fuel for those is about to run out.
Biden promised Israel an “unprecedented” $14.3 billion aid package, of, including funding for air and missile defense, military financing and embassy support. And $9.15 billion has also been requested from Congress that would go to Israel, Gaza and Ukraine for humanitarian causes, although how the funds will be distributed will depend on “where the need is greatest,” according to White House budget director Shalanda Young.
Amid the conflict between Israel and Palestine, neighboring countries including Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, as well as Iran and Qatar, are currently navigating domestic and international pressures in their response. The Egyptian government has been involved in the 16-year Israeli blockade of Gaza, enforcing tight controls on what comes in and out of the land through the border crossing at Rafah, Egypt’s eastern border city with the Gaza strip. Rafah is now the only escape route for people trying to flee Gaza and the only point of access for much-needed humanitarian aid for the territory’s 2.2 million residents. A United Nations (UN) deal has allowed some trucks carrying aid into Gaza from Egypt—many more trucks wait on the Egyptian side, but it is unclear when Israel will agree to permit their entry. Only 94 trucks have been able to arrive through the Rafah crossing as of Oct. 21, but Israel has not allowed any fuel into Gaza, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Depending on the scale of the Israeli offensive, many Palestinians in Gaza may seek to exit through Rafah, although it is uncertain if Egypt will let refugees in. Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-backed militant and political group in Lebanon, and the Israeli army have exchanged fire on a daily basis since the start of the Gaza conflict. If violence continues to escalate between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah, which stands in solidarity with Palestine, could enter the war from the north—committing Lebanon to a military confrontation with Israel and shattering the fragile peace the countries have held since 2006.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has condemned Hamas’s attack but noted that Palestinians “have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation” and that the attacks “did not happen in a vacuum.” Guterres’s comments at the UN Security Council meeting sparked outrage from Israel, whose ambassador, Gilad Erdan asked the UN boss to resign, accusing Guterres of justifying terrorism. Guterres has called for a ceasefire in the region on multiple occasions, expressing concern for civilians and for the release of at least 230 Israeli hostages in Gaza.
Despite the concern being expressed over the escalating violence, as of publication, the UN has yet to agree on a resolution to enforce international law. Two resolutions have been proposed; The first by Russia did not get enough votes, and the second, drafted by Brazil, was vetoed by the United States. Brazil’s resolution would have condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel while calling for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The United States was the sole vote against the resolution on Oct. 18, with 12 members voting in favor and Russia and the United Kingdom abstaining. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield explained the veto was because “this resolution did not mention Israel’s right of self-defense.”
Professor Ellis provided insight into the feasibility of possible solutions to the conflict, with protests for a ceasefire spreading across the globe.
“Without the willingness to recognize one another, there is no two-state solution. It is a perpetual state of conflict,” Ellis stated.
Ellis concluded the interview by providing a reputable source of updates on the conflict as it continues. Visit www.al-monitor.com for coverage on the crisis.