See if you notice a pattern:
The ongoing conflict in the Middle East has added another milepost with Israel’s initiation of Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is retaliation for rocket attacks launched by Hamas against Israel. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has said those rocket attacks were designed as a retaliation for the continued occupation and blockade of Gaza by Israel, which does not recognize Hamas as a legitimate government of the Palestinian territory.
This cycle — one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict retaliating for actions by the other side, which were retaliations for previous actions — is a familiar and dispiriting one for neutral observers to watch. A look at just the recent history of the conflict makes clear that both sides in the conflict have taken offensive actions — in both senses of the word — and that both have legitimate grievances against the other. Unfortunately, that means both sides have reason to mistrust the other, and both sides can persuade themselves that they are the aggrieved party in the conflict.
Here’s just the last six years in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hamas wins Palestinian legislative elections over Fatah. Israel and western nations cut off aid and imposed sanctions, because Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organization, due to their refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
The imposed sanctions caused the economy of the Palestinian territories to crumble, and led to bitter infighting in the Palestinian Authority between Fatah and Hamas. While a government of national unity was ultimately formed, the pairing was unstable, not least because Israel and America quietly supported Fatah, allowing arms to flow to the presidential guard of President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah.
Things came to a head in 2007, when armed hostilities broke out between Hamas and Fatah, with Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip, while Fatah maintained control of the West Bank.
Israel and western nations eased sanctions on the West Bank after the Battle of Gaza, but Israel also imposed a blockade on Gaza itself, aided by Egypt, which sealed its border with Gaza. Israel took the action because Hamas, which it viewed as a terrorist organization, had seized power by force. Hamas, on the other hand, believed that they had avoided an attempted coup d’état supported by Israel.
Israel’s ongoing blockade led to a crisis in Gaza. Israel limited the flow of food, medicine and fuel into the Gaza Strip. Hamas responded with rocket attacks on Israel, which Israel used to declare Gaza an “enemy entity.” By December 2007, the Red Cross described conditions in Gaza as “alarming.”
In January of 2008, Hamas militants destroyed the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah, and Palestinians poured into Egypt seeking food and supplies. It was estimated that almost half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people entered Egypt during the crisis.
Egypt soon secured the border again, but the government of Hosni Mubarak declared that they would allow passage through the border to alleviate a humanitarian crisis. The border was eventually resealed, after Israel agreed to allow more food, medicine and fuel into Gaza.
In June of 2008, Hamas and Israel agreed to a cease-fire, which held until November of that year. On November 4, Israel launched a military strike on a tunnel on the Israel-Gaza border, which Israel said was being used to infiltrate Israel and abduct Israeli soldiers. Israel defended its action, saying it was not a breach of the cease-fire, but Hamas responded predictably, resuming rocket attacks on Israel.
On December 13, Israel said that they supported an extension of the cease-fire, but after a December 17 attack by Israel that killed a Palestinian, Hamas announced that it would not agree to an extension of the cease-fire.
On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a military invasion of Gaza, meant to destroy the capability of Hamas of attacking Israel.
The Gaza War
The Gaza War achieved its aim, at least in the short-term. The three week war ultimately led to about a 75 percent reduction in rocket attacks in 2009. But the war was not without cost. For the Palestinians, the war was far more damaging. About 1300 Palestinians died in the invasion, including as many as 900 civilians. 5300 Palestinians were wounded. And the already creaking infrastructure in Gaza was severely damaged. Israel targeted police stations, mosques and medical facilities.
For Israel, the material damage was less severe. 13 Israelis died in the war, including 3 civilians; 518 were wounded, including 182 civilians. Their infrastructure was largely untouched. While Israel won a tactical victory, they did not win a decisive one.
While Palestinian rocket attacks dropped in 2009 and 2010, violence between the two groups did not. Israel bombed two tunnels on the Israel-Gaza border, wounding two Palestinians. Hamas, still stung by the Gaza War and the continuing blockade, launched a series of attacks against Israeli targets, including Israeli police and motorists, killing four.
In May, a flotilla of six ships were launched from Turkey, carrying supplies for Gaza. The flotilla’s mission was well-publicized as an attempt to test the Israeli blockade. Israeli forces attacked the flotilla in international waters, shooting and killing nine activists and wounding ten more. The activists fought back on at least one ship, using iron bars and knives; ten commandos sustained injuries.
The attack on the flotilla brought widespread condemnation on Israel, and pushed Israel to make some concessions on its continued blockade.
As the Arab Spring continued to influence the Middle East, Hamas stepped up rocket attacks on Israel again. 375 rockets were fired at Israel in 2011, the first increase since the Gaza War. Those numbers spiked in 2012, with almost 800 rocket attacks by Hamas.
Israel’s response to this was predictable; on November 14, they began an aerial bombardment of Gaza; a ground invasion remains a very real possibility. To date, three Israeli civilians and as many as 66 Palestinian civilians have been killed; 65 Palestinian militants have been killed and 10 Israeli soldiers have been injured.
Whatever the next few days hold, one thing is clear: both sides will continue to blame the other for the escalation in fighting, and both sides will point to events surrounding the conflict as a reason to keep fighting. In the process, innocent people on both sides of the conflict will keep dying, and the cycle of violence will continue, until someone decides that keeping innocent civilians alive is more important than avenging their deaths.
Update (11/29/2012): A few changes have occurred since this was first posted. First, Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire, brokered by Egypt. Will the cease-fire hold? Well, it’s the Middle East, so probably not forever, but at least for the moment, the two sides have stopped shooting at each other.
The second major development came in New York, where the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state.” From a practical standpoint, the move makes little difference; previously, Palestine was a non-member observer entity, and the semantic change will mean very little with regard to their rights within the UN.
From a symbolic standpoint, however, the decision is enormous. By recognizing Palestine as a state, the UN gives legitimacy to the Palestinian aspiration for a homeland, bolstering the case for a two-state solution. There was additional symbolism to the vote, in that it came 65 years to the day from the original United Nations vote that partitioned Israel, effectively creating the Israeli state.
Palestine remains a long way from statehood. While only nine states voted against Palestinian statehood, (Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama), 41 other nations abstained from the vote. While the vote represents a step forward for Palestine, it is still crystal-clear that there can be no end to the struggle without agreement from Israel, and that appears no closer today than yesterday.
Image Credit: Gigi Ibrahim
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