The recent escalation of the bloody conflict in the Gaza strip between Hamas and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have again drawn the attention of the world’s community towards this battle-scarred zone. Gaza strip is badly impoverished, with extremely poor living conditions and to compound, the problem is very densely populated. The recent episode of violence started during the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. From small communal clashes between the Palestinians and the Jews, the situation quickly flared into a major clash on 10 May, when Israeli Police entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque the third holiest site for the Muslims. The significance of the day is not lost on both sides as this marked Jerusalem Day which commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in June 1967. This incursion into the mosque caused outrage and infuriated the militant groups to fire rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The massive barrage of rockets was fired by Hamas and Islamic Jehad another militant group active in the Gaza strip. Israel responded massively using its firepower of the Airforce to hit targets inside the densely populated areas causing major destruction and casualty. Entering into the second week, while de-escalation possibilities are bleak, while international efforts are underway calling for a ceasefire and both Egypt and Jordan have agreed to mediate, however, given the intensity of the conflict, are the available options enough for resolution? To understand the complications in the situation, it is important to delve into the historical and geographical relevance of Hamas and Gaza respectively.
Geography of Gaza
The Gaza Strip is situated on a relatively flat coastal plain, it is a small wedge of land between Israel and Egypt. The total area is just around 360 square kilometers, making it almost the same size as Gurugram a suburb of Delhi. The length is around 40 kms with a width ranging from 8 to 12 kms. It is located on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and shares a small border of about 11 kms with Egypt on the South West and a larger border on the North and East of around 51 kms with Israel. It is separated from West Bank with Israeli territory in between. It is densely populated and is rated as the third most populated state in the world. It has been de jure part of the sovereign state of Palestine. The population is mostly poverty-stricken and even lacks basic amenities.
History of Gaza
The history of Gaza has been tumultuous since the end of the Ottoman Empire post World War I (1914–18), the Gaza area became part of Mandate Palestine under British rule. Before this mandate ended, the United Nations in November 1947 accepted a plan for the Arab-Jewish partition of Palestine under which the area of Gaza was allotted to the Arabs. The British mandate ended on May 15, 1948, and on that same day, the first Arab-Israeli war began. Egyptian forces soon entered the town of Gaza, which became the headquarters of the Egyptian expeditionary force in Palestine. As a result of heavy fighting in the war of 1948, the area around the town under Arab occupation was reduced to a strip of territory and it began to be called the Gaza Strip. It remains so to date.
The Gaza strip was under the direct control and rule of the Egyptian military practically from 1949 to 1967. The people caught in this quagmire were never made citizens of Egypt and at the same time, Israel did not allow them to move back to their old homes and land. Abject poverty and with no future in sight, many turned their desperation towards radical ideology and became fedayeen fighters against Israel. The area was briefly taken over by Israel in 1956 during the Senai campaign but handed back to Egypt under strong international pressure.
The six-day war of June 1967 proved decisive and the Gaza strip was taken over by Israel and remain under direct rule till they decided in 1994 to hand over the control to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) under the terms of the Oslo Accords that were signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. The PLO was led by Yasser Arafat, who headed a much secular organization, which recognized the state of Israel. Meanwhile the restive radical and militant elements had already started the first Intifada (uprising) against Israel in 1987. Gaza Strip’s control was taken over by Hamas in the aftermath of the Battle of Gaza in June 2007.
History of Hamas
Hamas established in 1987, is an acronym of Harakat Al-Mukawama Al-Islamiya, meaning Islamic Resistance Movement. It has its origins in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, which had been active in Gaza since the early 1950s and gained influence through a network of mosques and the large number of charitable and social organizations. In the 1980s, the Brotherhood emerged as a powerful political factor, challenging the influence of the PLO. The irony is that Israel supported Hamas for many years as a hedge against the secular PLO.
Hamas is composed of three main wings – political, military, and social, working in their respective spheres to advance the organization’s mission and objectives. The three wings working in tandem have popular support and that is well reflected in Hama’s electoral majority in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Elections wherein it scored 44.45 percent of the total votes cast in the elections and secured 74 seats. Thus, it enjoys the people’s mandate and that has strengthened its position in the Palestinian issue.
On the other hand, the military branch of Hamas named the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade was raised in 1991. Although the brigades are an integral part of Hamas, they operate independently, many times conflicting with Hamas’s policy. Nevertheless, the mission of Hamas has remained constant throughout its history:
- Jehad against Israel by using violent means.
- Rule of Allah over every inch of Palestine territory.
- Complete destruction of the state of Israel.
- It has always opposed the recognition of Israel and its right to peaceful coexistence.
Hamas has always refused to accommodate or even reconsider its fundamental stance with respect to the use of violence against Israel. That is the reason it has been designated as a terror organization by the US, Russia, the UN, and many European Union countries. On one hand, it was fighting Israel with suicide attacks and other means of violence, on the other, it has been at war with Fatah, the secular wing of PLO. In fact, all aid to Gaza was suspended by international aid agencies when it refused to agree to the three quartet principles for recognition of Palestine government after its election victory of 2006:
- Recognise the state of Israel.
- Stop all terrorist activities.
- Adhere to all previous agreements.
Hamas has been escalating violence levels at regular intervals with Israel, thousands of people have been killed in deadly reprisals by the IDF. Each time Hamas takes a beating and its leadership eliminated, it regroups after few years to start a new cycle of never-ending violence. The support it enjoys among the poverty-stricken population of Gaza remains intact. It is also important that it gets a lot of covert support from many countries but the main financial supporters are Turkey and Qatar. As per intelligence reports, Iran though a Shia nation does provide military hardware including the rockets to Hamas, a predominantly Sunni organisation. There are a lot of other organizations in the Arab world which give financial aid to Hamas. The irony is that in one of the most densely populated regions of the world, the people live in despicable conditions and deprived of proper drinking water, health, education, and basic infrastructure.
The vortex of violence keeps going up with every cycle of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Hamas is not ready to recalibrate its views on Israel at any cost and is prepared to continue to engage in jihad for total destruction of the state of Israel. The IDF response, likewise, is always massive and likes to punish as possible before a ceasefire is promulgated. Israel uses all its power of air, sea, and ground forces to bring untold havoc in an attempt to break down the resistance. The scale of destruction and human casualties is simply horrendous. This cycle of violence only hardens the radical elements for another pitched fight.
Peace Initiatives and Options
The current flare-up is worst since 2014, now having entered the second week shows little signs of de-escalation. The casualties and destruction scale keeps shooting upwards each passing day. The US holds the cards for not only calling for a ceasefire but also ensuring some modicum of peace and tranquillity. It has finally called for a ceasefire but has blocked any resolution by the UN Security Council. Jordan and Egypt are at the forefront in brokering a ceasefire from both sides, however, there appears to be no real urgency among both sides till they achieve their own political objectives. Netanyahu was on a sticky wicket unable to form a government, this crisis helps him to consolidate power and rally the people around his leadership. Hamas on the other hand has been upset with President Mohd Abbas calling of planned elections. With each such crisis, Hamas continues to tighten its hold over the Palestinians. Few options available at this stage are:
- The US gets involved and with help of Egypt calls for a ceasefire followed by back-channel talks.
- The US takes action against countries using Hamas as a proxy to fight Israel, namely Iran and Turkey.
- Israel halts its aggression since this can spiral into another regional conflict with the involvement of other groups like Hezbollah.
- An independent body, nominated by the UN, must carry out an urgent objective assessment of the situation such as, to seek reasons for conflict escalating to becoming a high-intensity state, and measures to deescalate the situation, to ensure international law norms are respected and prevent unilateral actions by either side.
- The international community and the US to initiate the two-state solution. However, it is noteworthy that the Oslo accord signed in 1993, even though brought peace, however, it was signed between PLO and Israel and was opposed by Hamas and other right-wing organizations in Palestine. Therefore, given that Hamas is now the dominating political force and does not adhere to any of the old agreements; a two-state solution may not be agreeable to it. Thus, it does not seem like a viable option unless there is a peace agreement between the warring parties.
Israel needs to be flexible to agree to any reasonable solution to this perpetual conflict festering for over seven decades. Hamas on the other hand is out but not totally down as it continues to gain power over the entire Palestinian territories. Unless there is a fundamental change in the ground reality, wherein Israel changes its objectives and Hamas totally capitulate, no peace appears possible on the horizon. Arab nations must provide developmental assistance to the otherwise deprived region of the Gaza strip. This effort will not only help in changing the people’s mandate towards Hamas as the support garnered by Hamas is primarily because of the impoverished conditions in the Strip. The UN and the world community must work together to analyse the conflict comprehensively and bring peace and stability in the region, the earlier the better.