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Gaza’s Past and Present Explained


Israel, Gaza and the West Bank
Israel, Gaza and the West Bank

A reported 1,200 Israeli civilians, including women and children as young as infants, were slaughtered in Hamas’ assault on Southern Israel last weekend. Many Israelis are still unaccounted for.

In response, Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” on the Gaza strip. “No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” will be let in for the more than 2 million Palestinians living there under Hamas rule, he said.

Newsreels out of Gaza have made the rounds on social media: stark scenes of Palestinians navigating bloody rubble in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes.

As of October 15, Palestinian authorities have reported that about 2,330 people and counting have been killed in Gaza since October 7, meaning more Gazans have died already than in the entire 2014 Gaza War.

Understanding the chaos unfolding today in Gaza requires knowledge of its history.

Colonial rule and founding of Israel

Gaza was controlled by the Ottoman Empire until 1917. In 1922, Palestine fell under British colonial rule for the better part of three decades. During those years, Jews fleeing religious persecution immigrated to Palestine en masse, mostly from Eastern Europe, where Nazism was gaining traction.

Proponents of Zionism sought to create a national home for Jews in Palestine, citing a historical connection to the biblical land of Israel. The British government recognized Zionism and gave commitments that a Jewish nation would be founded in Palestine.

After the Nazis were vanquished, Britain handed the United Nations authority to divvy up Palestine. In 1948, the United Nations approved a two-state plan that was roundly rejected by Arab leaders. Nevertheless, Israel announced its founding.

During World War II, Allied Powers guaranteed Arab leaders independence from colonial rule in exchange for wartime support. Many Arab Palestinians saw Israel’s creation as a reversal of that promise.

In May 1948, war between Israel and five neighboring Arab states broke out. Israel won and expanded its territory tremendously, including in Jerusalem — a holy city for Muslims and Jews alike.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom were driven from their villages, fled to Gaza, a narrow stretch of coast 40 kilometers long that had just been captured by the Egyptian army. Gaza’s population tripled to about 200,000 as refugees flooded in.

Egypt ousted from Gaza

Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip for two decades under the command of a military governor. During that period, Palestinians were free to work and earn an education in Egypt.

For years, the fedayeen, a group of Palestinian so-called freedom fighters, carried out repeated military assaults on Israel and were met with a number of costly counterattacks.

Israel took the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war and ousted its Egyptian ruler. The Israeli military oversaw the territory as large numbers of Gazans began to work in manual labor in and around the settlements that Israelis had erected just outside of Gaza.

Seeing the land that once belonged to them now owned by Israelis pained many Palestinians — and still today “the occupation,” as many human rights activists call it, is a source of bitter resentment.

Birth of Hamas

Civil unrest boiled over in 1987 after an Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, truck slammed into a civilian car, killing four Palestinian workers. Gazans viewed the deaths as a premeditated attack, a claim that the Israeli government has denied. Strikes and stone-throwing demonstrations ensued.

Capitalizing on the unrest, the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization based in Egypt, created a spin-off militant group in Gaza called Hamas. In short order, Hamas became a formidable challenger to Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO.

Hamas’ stated mission is the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic government in its place. The language in its original charter, which called for violence against Jews everywhere, has been widely denounced.

Oslo Accords

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, an unprecedented peace deal establishing the Palestinian Authority and giving it curbed power over Gaza and Jericho, a city in the West Bank. Arafat was even allowed to return to Gaza after a decades-long exile.

The Oslo Accords promised statehood, but in the following years, the plan fell through as the Palestinians allegedly failed to honor various conditions. As Israel continued its settlement-building, Hamas gained more sway among disillusioned Gazans.

The 21st century

The turn of the century saw the rift between Israel and Gaza widen as Hamas’ suicide bombings and shooting sprees in 2000 were met with curfews and checkpoints all across the strip.

Overnight, Israel virtually shuttered Gaza’s fishing industry, a hallmark of the local economy. Israel’s rationale was that Hamas was smuggling in weapons used in terrorist attacks on fishing boats.

By August 2005, the Israeli army had completely abandoned Gaza, having evacuated several settlements in the territory in what was billed as a land-for-peace deal. The strip, surrounded by barbed-wire fences, was stimulated by black market trade. In the absence of the warehouse jobs Israel brought into Gaza, smugglers hauled goods in and out of the area through underground tunnels to Egypt.

In a total upset, Hamas swept parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006 and wrested control of the enclave from Arafat loyalists.

Hamas has not held a single election since, and Israel has kept a blockade on Gaza for more than 15 years. The United Nations in 2009 criticized the longstanding restrictions as “causing devastation.” But Israel has argued that without tight control of what goes in and out of Gaza, Hamas could strengthen itself by acquiring more lethal weapons.

Egypt also has placed tight restrictions on its border with Gaza and has destroyed tunnels linking the two out of fears for national security.

In 2014, Hamas lobbed rockets at Israeli cities. Israel ruined neighborhoods in Gaza with retaliatory airstrikes. More than 2,100 Palestinians died, the majority of whom were civilians. Hamas often embeds itself in urban centers and has used human shields in conflicts as far back as 2007, according to NATO’s Center for Strategic Communications.

What is happening today?

The bloodshed that Hamas unleashed on Israeli civilians on October 7, the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, has made headlines all over the globe.

After Hamas tore through Israeli towns, fired on a music festival and captured dozens of civilian hostages, Israel blasted Gaza with airstrikes, leveling entire neighborhoods.

Iran reportedly supports Hamas with tactical drills, instructions on how to assemble missiles with advanced guidance systems and up to $100 million per year — all of which contributed to the sheer magnitude of this attack, U.S. government officials have said.

Analysts say Israel is readying a full-scale military invasion of Gaza. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesperson, said that October 7 is “by far the worst day in Israeli history … a 9/11 and a Pearl Harbor wrapped into one.”