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Explainer: What is happening in Gaza?

Lost in the media coverage of the ongoing conflict? Let us fill you in.

Israeli soldiers stand behind a tank as heavy smoke rises from the Gaza.
Israeli soldiers stand behind a tank as heavy smoke rises from the Gaza.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

Originally published 26 July

IN THE LAST 18 days, over 800 people have been killed in clashes in the Gaza Strip.

The recent outbreak of fighting has centred on what Israel calls its “right to defend itself” against rockets fired into its land by Hamas militants, but in reality, is about much more than that.

The situation is subject to claim and counter-claim, rhetoric and counter-rhetoric, deep division, and entrenched opinion on both sides.

But what is happening and why? Take 8 minutes (estimated) and get filled in.

Let’s go from the start; what is the difference between Israel and Palestine?

Understanding this is crucial, because it is at the base of a conflict that is nearly 70 years old.

And it is perhaps the most difficult question to answer, because it all comes down to who you ask. Officially, there is no border that divides the two states, because the international community considers Palestine one of many things.

Some consider it an independent state, some an occupied territory and some don’t recognise its existence at all.

1376px-Palestine_recognition_only.svg This map shows which countries recognise the state of Palestine. Source: Wikimedia

Israel is, effectively, what British-owned Palestine was in the early 20th century.

After World War II, a plan was implemented to create a Jewish state on what was historically Jewish land. While this was arguably a noble idea after the horrors of the Holocaust, housing one refugee population on someone else’s land only created a second refugee population.

The Jewish state founded created, in practice, a country that grants privilege to Jewish citizens, who account for 5.9 million of the country’s 7.8 million people.

Laws around land ownership and citizenship are heavily weighted in Jews’ favours, activists argue.

Today, Palestinian refugees are mostly in the West Bank, parts of Lebanon and Jordan and the Gaza Strip. So, despite what you might hear, this is not a religious war – it’s a land war.

While this image does not tell the full story – it leaves out reasons behind the conflicts, the fact that Arabs rejected the UN plan and conflates Mandatory Palestine with modern Palestine- it gives a scale of the changing landscape.

palestine-loss-of-land Source: Al Arabiya

The Gaza Strip is where the fighting is, right?

Yes.

And the Gaza Strip is…

Mideast Israel Palestinians Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City Source: AP/Press Association Images

The problem with Palestinian land nowadays is that it is actually two tracts of land on opposite sides of Israel.

Confusingly, the West Bank is in the east of the country (it is on the western bank of the River Jordan) and the Gaza Strip is in the west, on the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Up to then, the territories had been more or less controlled by Jordan and Egypt. In the war with its Arab neighbours, Israel also took Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Israel withdrew settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, but maintains a blockade that human rights organisations say makes the strip – which is just 40km long and 12km wide – an open-air prison.

Since 2012, Gaza is governed by Hamas, while Fatah governs the West Bank.

Hamas are fighting with Israel, aren’t they?

MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS Palestinian militants from Hamas in 2009. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Yes, at least the armed wing of Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, are. Israel reckons there are about 10,000 operatives in the armed brigades.

In their 1988 charter, Hamas referenced “the raising of the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine”, but added “Under the wing of Islam, it is possible for the followers of the three religions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—to coexist in peace and quiet with each other.”

However, the same charter also provides religious texts that justify the killing of Jews in Israel and leadership have spoken of their desire not to see Israel on maps. Some believe that Hamas is incapable of a reconciliation with Israel and is merely biding its time until it can liberate historic Palestine.

Hamas has accused Israel of war crimes in this conflict, but is no stranger to violence itself. After the 2009 violence, Hamas was accused of summary executions, beheadings and limiting the access to wounded people of neutral observers and medical staff.

So why is this outbreak of fighting happening?

This fighting is the worst since 2009 and started with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month.

Source: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

In response, Israel arrested Hamas members in the West Bank and launched airstrikes on Gaza. A Palestinian teen was killed in an apparent revenge attack. His cousin was then beaten in police custody.

On the morning of 8 July, Hamas launched a wave of 40 rocket attacks into Israel. These attacks are generally shot with little aiming, but create a climate of terror in Israel, where warning sirens pierce the air with regularity.

It was the first time that Hamas had claimed responsibility for an attack on Israel since 2012, the last time there was serious fighting.

In response, Israel aimed to “make Hamas pay a heavy price” and began air strikes. Within six days, more people had died than in the 2012 violence.

Last week, Israel upped the ante considerably, launching a ground offensive on Gaza. Israel says that this move was necessary to defend itself from so-called “terror tunnels”, a hidden network of passages that Hamas uses to sneak into Egypt and Israel.

That has also increased the body count massively.

PastedImage-71851 Source: OCHA

The UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that as of Friday, 789 Palestinians -578 civilians and 119 militants – and 37 Israelis have died.

PastedImage-86806

Those death counts are pretty one-sided, how come?

Mideast Israel Palestinians Source: AP/Press Association Images

This is one of the most divisive issues in the argument.

The significantly smaller number on the Israeli side is down to the Hamas rockets being fired aimlessly and the Iron Dome. That system is designed to intercept rockets and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) says it has taken down 87% of missiles.

On the opposite side, Israel claims that civilian casualties in Gaza are caused by Hamas storing rockets near civilian areas, such as hospitals and schools. Indeed, the UN Relief and Works Agency says that they have discovered Hamas rockets in their schools.

Israel says that this is tantamount to taking human shields.

However, Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN this week that that is impossible to quantify.

“It would be impossible at this point to say how much truth there is to the human shield argument.

“That’s not going to be possible to do in the heat of the conflict.”

Mideast Israel Palestinians Source: AP/Press Association Images

However, the Israeli army is one of the top 15-best-funded defence forces in the world. It has at its disposal some of the most hi-tech weaponry ever seen but has still killed nearly 500 civilians in two weeks.

Coupled with that, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth and is surrounded by Israel and Egypt, both of whom have closed their border crossings.

The IDF has at its disposal around 176,000 active personnel and 450,000 reserves. This makes it the 34th largest army in the world. It has over 4,000 tanks, over 60 warships and hundreds of aircraft.

There has been some argument that Hamas is deliberately goading Israel into the fight in order to secure international condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last week, an Israeli spokesperson said that Gazans were free to evacuate to beaches.

Mideast Israel Palestinians Palestinian relatives of four boys from the same extended Bakr family, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Gaza City. Source: AP/Press Association Images

There was a ceasefire and a peace deal, though?

There was a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire last week that was broken by Hamas after just two hours. There was also an Egyptian-backed peace deal that Israel accepted but Hamas rejected, stating that because it did not propose ending the Israeli blockade, it was not a true peace deal but rather just a downing of arms.

Israel doesn’t want to lift the blockade because it says that it has repeatedly intercepted weapons bound for Gaza at border crossings.

While that is a completely justifiable stance, the blockade makes life extremely difficult for regular Gazans.

Why is the US involved? What does Ireland think of the whole thing?

The US is involved because it sees Israel as an absolutely essential ally in the Middle East. It backs the Israeli military to the tune of $3 billion every year. Officially, it backs a two-state solution, but it is staunchly pro-Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has officially said that US “supports Israel’s right to defend itself,” but seemed frustrated by the killing of civilians while on microphone for a US news show.

Source: BringInTrends/YouTube

Ireland’s official stance is:

“A two state solution allied to a return to pre-1967 borders unless amended by agreement between the two parties, an agreed solution to the issue of Palestinian Refugees who fled/left their houses in 1948 and 1967, Israel to cease settlement activities and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.”

What are the solutions and why has this been so hard to find?

The ideas for solutions are vast, but most states and moderate parties in the Middle East agree that some form of two-state solution would be best. The problems here lie in the division between Gaza and the West Bank. In the West Bank, Palestinian leaders have committed to peace and compromise, but with Hamas in control of Gaza, compromise will be difficult.

Hamas-supporting Gazans will also look at the West Bank and see growing Israeli settlements and a never-ending military occupation and wonder why they would compromise.

The longer the situation drags on, the wearier both sides become and the more likely either side are due to become radicalised, meaning that a single-state solution is largely a non-runner. Demographics make the one-state solution more and more difficult: Jewish Israelis are unlikely to form a state in which they would be quickly outnumbered.

Germany Israel Source: AP/Press Association Images

Even the two-state solution carries with it massive issues that are unlikely to be bridged the longer this goes on.

Chief among these is the status of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock, in the centre of the picture below, is one of the holiest sites in Islam and sits atop the ancient Temple Mount ruins, the Western Wall of which is the holiest site in Judaism. That, in a nutshell is how difficult this situation will be navigate.

The other option is the destruction of either state, but that would be the elimination of millions of people in a bloody war.

Mideast Travel Trip Five Free things Jerusalem Source: AP/Press Association Images

There are also the issues of the undefined West bank borders, the future of relations between Israel and Palestine, extremism, security, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the division of resources, and the not inconsiderable matter of seven million Palestinian refugees.

The situation in Israel and Palestine is big, complex, nuanced and messy and the likelihood of a solution in the near future is not great.

What humanitarians hope is that some temporary solution can be found to end the bloodshed.

For everything on the conflict thus far, click here

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