Gregory Harms, author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction looks at the fundamental forces and underlying tensions that form the basis of the Israel-Gaza conflict today.
In 2005, Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip, withdrawing all Israeli presence, civilian and military, from the territory. However, Israel maintains its occupation of the territory externally: the airspace, the coastline, the land border, and even the cellular frequency spectrum.
The following year, the Islamic resistance organization Hamas won the parliamentary elections and assumed control of the Palestinian legislature. Israel, the United States, and the European Union rejected the outcome and boycotted the new government. In 2007, Fatah, the leading party in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, attempted to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza, with US material and financial support. Hamas defeated Fatah in a countercoup and assumed leadership of Gaza. Ever since, Israel has subjected the coastal strip to a blockade, tightly controlling what goods go in and out of the territory. The blockade, or siege (2007-present), has precipitated a humanitarian disaster for Gaza’s 1.7 million people, who live in what is now, in effect, a penal colony the size of Las Vegas.
The Palestinian Authority announced on June 2, 2014, a transitional government based on a pre-existing unity agreement reached with Hamas. The new government is “technocratic”—that is, politically independent—and does not include members of Hamas. The international community welcomed the announcement, including albeit cool acceptance from the White House. Under the transitional government, the Palestinians were now politically unified, with Hamas basically out of the picture. Israel went into panic mode.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers from a West Bank settlement were kidnapped. Israel, in its search for the teens, locked down various West Bank towns, conducted early-morning raids throughout the territory, and arrested hundreds of Palestinians; particular focus was placed on members of Hamas, which Israel blamed for the abductions. Because of the evidence at the site of the kidnapping, as well as a government-issued gag order on the media, it is understood that Israeli intelligence knew full well that the teens were dead shortly after being abducted.
In addition to Israel’s crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, the Israeli military carried out airstrikes on tunnels in Gaza, killing a number of Hamas militants and wounding civilians. Hamas and other groups began firing barrages of rockets from the coastal strip into southern Israel and as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
It is critical to note that Hamas had been adhering to a ceasefire since late 2012, in accordance with the terms set after Israel’s previous major assault on Gaza, named Operation Pillar of Defense.
Israel responded to the rocket fire on July 8 with Operation Protective Edge, an ongoing airstrike assault and ground invasion that has now claimed the lives of roughly 1,600 Palestinians and almost 70 Israelis. Approximately 75 percent of the Palestinian death toll has been civilians. Of the Israelis killed, three have been civilians.
A number of contexts and details are worth bearing in mind as one follows the developments:
1. The three teenagers were placed in harm’s way by their settler parents and should not have been living in the West Bank (as Israeli citizens) in the first place. All settlements are illegal under international law. This does not in any way excuse the kidnapping and murder of the teens; violence against civilians is unacceptable. Yet, the circumstances are crucial to the narrative.
2. Even if Israeli intelligence had not known about the fate of the teens, the search operations in June amounted to Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian West Bank.
3. Though the rocket fire by Gazan militants is immoral, illegal, and politically unwise, it is also unsurprising given the territory’s situation. Israel’s effective imprisonment of Gaza’s inhabitants—who are subjected to occupation, isolation, blockade, airstrikes, undrinkable water, food instability, and frequent lack of electricity—has predictably inspired some to respond violently.
4. Four reasons Israel periodically subjects Gaza to profound destruction: (1) to deplete Hamas’s stockpile of rockets, a process called “maintenance,” (2) to field-test weapon technology such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system, (3) to keep the Palestinians politically divided by encouraging Hamas’s militancy – see “It’s Not about Hamas,” published by Informed Comment, (4) to re-establish credibility and demonstrate a willingness to pull the trigger.
5. Because Israel occupies Palestine, it cannot morally, legally, or logically invoke the concept of self-defense with regard to its current operations.
6. The United States is directly involved in the Palestine-Israel conflict and has played a key role in its perpetuation. For instance, the White House provides Israel diplomatic cover at the UN Security Council and has shielded Israel from censure by the council on over forty occasions since 1970. According to the US Arms Export Control Act (1976), Washington illegally supplies weapons to Tel Aviv, as they are used against an occupied population. Nevertheless, Operation Protective Edge is being carried out with US hardware, money, and authorization.
7. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, Israel has resisted diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict. Over the course of the diplomatic history, Israel has proposed one peace plan, called the Shamir Plan. The proposal explicitly spelled a continuation of the occupation, while allowing the Palestinians to manage their own day-to-day affairs. Though rejected by the Palestinians and Egyptians, both sought to continue the conversation and borrowed concepts from the Shamir Plan to produce new ideas for peace. The Shamir Plan was eventually scuttled by the Israelis. Prevention of a peaceful resolution has been consistently ensured by Israel with US support. What we are seeing now in Gaza is merely an attempt to keep Hamas on a militant footing, prevent Palestinian unity, and prevent negotiations.
Gregory Harms is an independent scholar based in Chicago. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction and Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel and World History
[An earlier version of this essay was originally posted on Gregory Harms’s Facebook blog. This version was revised and expanded for Pluto Press.]