A raging conflict - GulfToday

A raging conflict

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City.

Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Gaza Strip was peaceful coastal bridge between Egypt and the Levant. In his memoir, Palestinian author Edward Said wrote of boyhood drives from sweltering Cairo through Gaza and Palestine to summer in the cool Lebanese mountains.

Israel turned Gaza into a permanent theatre of war by seizing most of Palestine’s Gaza district, allocated to the Arab State in the 1947 UN partition plan, and expelling into the Egyptian-held narrow coastal strip 160,000 Palestinians from other areas, trebling its population.

Determined to return to their homes refugee fedayeen mounted attacks on Israeli colonies and military positions, prompting brutal Israeli retaliation. During its occupation of the strip from 1956-57, Israel wreaked havoc and killed several hundred Palestinian civilians.

However, Gaza remained largely quiet, protected by UN troops, for nearly a decade. During this time I visited Gaza twice, picnicked above Gaza City’s white sandy beach where a Palestinian woman in traditional dress walked her camel, discussed the situation with a bearded tribal shaikh beneath the grape vine in his postage stamp sized garden, was taken by Gaza Mayor Rashad Shawwa to see his orange groves, and caught the train from Rafah to Cairo.

After conquering Gaza along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel adopted contradictory policies. It appropriated for its settlements and military bases, one third of the strip’s densely populated territory as well as a disproportionate share of its water, in an effort to compel Palestinians to emigrate, but also permitted Palestinians to work in Israel in low wage jobs, providing them with the means to stay put. Many left for employment in the Gulf and elsewhere, sent money to their families, and returned for visits. The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty provided for Israeli withdrawal from Sinai but left Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem at the mercy of the Israeli occupation.  

The First Intifada, the uprising of the stones, erupted in Gaza in December 1987 when an Israeli lorry struck a Palestinian car, killing four. The rising began as a grassroots movement with demonstrations and civil disobedience, initially led by Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) figures on the ground in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Founded by the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas emerged as an armed resistance movement which Israel, mistakenly, attempted to use as a foil against Fatah, which dominated the PLO. During a visit to Gaza a few months after the Intifada broke out, I was told by a Palestinian activist who had served time in Israeli jails that Hamas members had not been detained early in the uprising. 

Following the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the situation in Gaza and the West Bank eased.  PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat established the Authority’s base in Gaza, investment poured into the West Bank and Gaza, the handsome tower blocks demolished by Israel last week rose above the low buildings in the upmarket Rimal quarter and along Omar Mukhtar Street, Gaza’s main thoroughfare. New hotels and restaurants sprouted on the sea front. The route to East Jerusalem and the West Bank was open. Arafat won the 1996 presidential election and Fatah the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. Gazans looked forward to quasi normal lives, despite the continuing Israeli occupation. Hamas glowered in the shadows.

Israel’s refusal to withdraw from Palestinian territory and implement the terms of the Oslo accords precipitated the Second Intifada, the 2000 rising of the guns and bombs. The situation in the occupied areas deteriorated dramatically when Israel reoccupied the Palestinian-administered West Bank enclaves in 2002 and clamped down on restive Gaza.

Following Arafat’s death in 2004, successor Mahmoud Abbas, who renounced the armed struggle, has failed to secure Palestinian objectives through negotiations. Israeli colonisation and repression has continued apace in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel’s withdrawal in August 2005 of soldiers and colonists from Gaza has produced continual conflict because Israel retained total control of the strip from land, air, and sea as well as the flow of goods and the provision of water and electricity. Instead of freedom from Israeli domination, self-governing Gazans found themselves trapped with no political horizon in an open air prison 45 kilometres long and 6-12 kilometres wide.

Parliamentary elections in January 2006 produced an unhealed rift between Fatah and Hamas after it won a substantial majority in the Palestinian legislative assembly, dividing the Palestinian front against Israel. The rift deepened when Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in June 2007 and Israel imposed a tight siege and blockade.

This forced Hamas and private contractors to dig 1,500 tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle arms, money and essential goods. The tunnels provided Gaza with food, fuel, medicines, building supplies, clothing, fertilizers, cars, and livestock and Gazans with jobs. While Gaza’s economy grew, Israel maintained its siege and blockade which Hamas tried and failed to lift by means of rocketing Israel in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. Israel responded with massive firepower killing and maiming several thousand Palestinians and destroying homes, factories, commercial buildings and infrastructure while incurring light losses.

Egypt closed the tunnels in 2013, denying Gazans the ability to rebuild. Gaza became a land of ruination and suffering where 80 per cent of the population of two million relies on international aid for sustenance. The UN warned that Gaza would be unliveable within a few years.

In March 2018, independent activists mounted a mass resistance movement, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” by staging weekly demonstrations along the fence separating Gaza from Israel. Although Hamas and other armed groups sent fighters to join the protests, they remained popular rather than organised by any faction. Tens of thousands of mostly young Gazans took part until the end of 2020. Israel responded with rubber coated bullets, live fire, water cannon, and tear gas. At least 183, the majority civilians, were killed and thousands wounded.  One Israeli soldier was lightly injured. Israel was widely criticised for using disproportionate force to quell the demonstrations.

This month’s 11-day round marked a major change. Hamas was not fighting for Gaza. Hamas’ objective was to strike Israel after its security forces attacked Palestinians at prayer in al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in the Muslim world, and attempted to oust Palestinian refugees from their homes in Shaikh Jarrah quarter in occupied East Jerusalem. Israel’s provocations reunited Gazans with Palestinians there, the West Bank and inside Israel and relegated the impotent Palestinian Authority to the sidelines. It remains to be seen if Palestinians maintain unity or revert to the territorial divisions imposed by Israel.


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