Israel has launched a massive retaliation against the Hamas group following an unprecedented attack by the latter. The militant outfit had fired over 5,000 rockets towards Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in just 20 minutes after it declared Operation Al-Aqsa Storm.
Over 300 Israelis were killed and at least 1,800 wounded in surprise infiltration by Hamas. There were also reports of many Israelis being abducted by the militant outfit.
In retaliation, at least 313 Palestinians have been killed as Israel struck 426 targets in Gaza, its military said, flattening residential buildings in giant explosions. Among those killed in Gaza were 20 children. About 2,000 others are wounded, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said more than 20,000 Palestinians left Gaza’s border region to head further inside the territory and take refuge in UN schools.
Why is Israel fighting Hamas? What is at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The foundation of Israel traces its roots to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, where the United Kingdom, which captured Palestine from the Ottomans in World War I, declared its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The support for a Jewish nation grew significantly in the aftermath of World War II, as the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust of Jewish people came to be fully known. Thus, Israel was born in 1948 with the support of the United Nations and the British, who had taken over control of the region after the Ottomans. As per the Partition Plan adopted by the UN in 1947, the British territory of Palestine would be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state. However, a war soon broke out between Zionist settlers, who had been thronging to Palestine, and Arabs.
The first Arab-Israeli War ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory and the displacement of 7,50,000 Palestinians. The territory was divided into three parts: the Jewish Israel, the Arab West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, this failed to resolve the conflict which continues to date.
Israel has fought multiple wars against its Arab allies as well as dealt with uprisings in Palestinian territories over the last 75 years. Israel, meanwhile, has rapidly modernised and strengthened itself, with the support of the West, and expanded its occupation of Palestine beyond the boundaries outlined in the 1947 UN plan.
Some observers have referred to the latest escalation as the beginning of the “Third Intifada”. Intifada is an Arabic word that means to “shake off”. It came into popular usage in December 1987, with Palestinians using it to describe their uprising against the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, in a 1989 essay titled ‘Intifada and Independence’, described the intifada as the response of a people pushed to the wall by the “bare-knuckled” Israeli attempt to rob them of their history, land and nationhood.
The First Intifada lasted from 1987 to 1993, and the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. These were extremely popular uprisings spearheaded by Palestinian youth sick of the treatment they faced from the much more powerful Israeli settlers in their homeland.
Many have been wary of a ‘Third Intifada’ for years, especially amid the rise of the ultranationalist far-right in Israel with its extreme position on Palestine. As per the think tank Council on Foreign Relations, “2022 marked the most conflict-related deaths for both Israelis and Palestinians since 2015, and violence has continued to escalate in 2023, with the West Bank on track for its deadliest year since 2005 amid almost daily Israeli incursions.”
Israel has also carried out multiple raids at the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem this year, further heightening tensions and eventually leading to Hamas’ latest operation, named after the mosque.
What is Hamas?
Hamas or Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiyah, is a Sunni Islamist terrorist organisation that operates as the de facto leadership of the Gaza Strip. Founded in 1988 during the First Intifada as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas set two long-term goals: the end to the Jewish state and the creation of an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its more immediate goal is the “liberation of Palestine” and the “return” of the Palestinian people.
Hamas as a whole, or in some cases its military wing, is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, the European Union and the UK, as well as other powers. While its origins are with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has reportedly been funded, armed, and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iranian armed forces since the early 1990s.
Hamas opened an office in Tehran in the 1990s. Despite its longstanding ties with Tehran, the Palestinian terror group has had a rocky relationship with the Islamic Republic in recent years. In 2012, Iran cut off funding to Hamas after it refused to support the al-Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.
However, Iran resumed financial assistance to Hamas in 2017. In 2020, the US State Department reported that Iran had provided more than $100 million annually to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas recently announced a rapprochement with Syria, with the renewed ties being brokered by Tehran and Hezbollah.
Supplied by Tehran, Hamas has used the rockets and funding to launch several wars against Israel from its base in Gaza, including in 2008, 2009, 2014, and 2021. Each of these attacks witnessed thousands of rockets being fired toward Israeli cities and towns, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. Hamas has also used Iranian know-how to help build its extensive network of “terror tunnels” throughout the Gaza Strip and underneath the Israel-Gaza border to carry out terror attacks.
Hamas’ name is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Under its charter, Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel.
Hamas originally had a dual purpose of carrying out an armed struggle against Israel — led by its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades — and delivering social welfare programmes.
However, since 2005, when Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza, Hamas has also engaged in the Palestinian political process. It won the legislative elections in 2006, before reinforcing its power in Gaza the following year by ousting the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, militants in Gaza have fought four major conflicts with Israel, which along with Egypt has maintained a blockade on the strip to isolate Hamas and to pressure it to stop attacks.
What is the Gaza Strip?
The Gaza Strip is a 41 km (25-mile) long and 10 km wide territory between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It is home to about 2.3 million people and has one of the highest population densities in the world.
Israel controls the air space over Gaza and its shoreline and restricts who and what goods are allowed in and out through its border crossings. Similarly, Egypt controls who passes in and out through its border with Gaza. About 80% of the population of Gaza depends on international aid, according to the UN, and about one million people rely on daily food aid.
What is Hezbollah and why it is backing Hamas?
Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group based in Lebanon, where its extensive security apparatus, political organisation, and social services network fostered its reputation as “a state within a state.”
Founded during the Lebanese Civil War in the early 1980s among Lebanese Shia Muslims, the group carried out the devastating US Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1984 that killed 63, including 17 Americans.
The Iran-backed group is driven by its opposition to Israel and its resistance to Western influence in the Middle East. With its history of carrying out global terrorist attacks, parts of Hezbollah — and in some cases the entire organisation — have been designated as a terrorist group by the United States and many other countries.
In recent years, long-standing alliances with Iran and Syria have embroiled the group in the Syrian civil war, where its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime has transformed Hezbollah into an increasingly effective military force.
Hezbollah maintains significant — and often controlling — influence over the Lebanese government. The group was established on the ideology of antisemitism. Its founding principles are rooted in the hatred of Jews, the elimination of a Jewish state, and the determination to deny Jews their right to self-determination or nationhood.
Even though Hezbollah calls the Middle East home, it has established an extensive terror infrastructure in Europe along with terror networks in Latin America and Africa that enables it to carry out terrorist attacks on international soil.
In addition to the attack on the AMIA Centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85, Hezbollah bombed a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012 and attempted to carry out attacks on Israelis in Cyprus. Authorities have discovered Hezbollah safe houses throughout Europe, some of which were found to contain huge quantities of chemical materials used to manufacture powerful explosives.
In 2016, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah explained that the organisation’s budget, supplies, and weapons all come from Iran. Captured on tape, Nasrallah confirmed that the organisation regards itself as a “soldier” of Iran’s supreme spiritual leader. Through its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Iran has used Syrian territory to supply Hezbollah with weaponry. Over the last several years, Israel has repeatedly targeted Iranian arms shipments in Syria.
The terror group today presents an acute threat to Israel, with an estimated 1,50,000 missiles and rockets aimed at the Jewish state.