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What’s going on in Gaza with Israel and Palestine?

The answer lies in unravelling the decades-long Middle East conflict.

Feb 03,2009
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, center, speaks to journalists in Gaza City on Jan. 20 in front of the United Nations compound that was struck by Israeli bombing during Israel’s offensive. Ban visited the Gaza Strip, voicing shock at stark scenes of destruction. Israel was poised to withdraw its troops before the U.S. presidential inauguration later that day. [REUTERS]
If you have just glanced at recent international news reports, you’d probably have read stories about Israel’s latest attacks on the Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip, from the close of 2008 and relentlessly carried out for weeks into the new year. In the 360-square-kilometer area, more than 1.5 million people hunkered down while more than 100 tons of bombs showered their homes, hospitals, schools and whatever else was standing in the city.

Since Israeli forces kicked off the offensive on Dec. 27, named “Operation Cast Lead,” more than 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, more than half of them children and women. On the Israeli side, 13 died - 10 soldiers and three civilians.

So why did this tragedy occur and why is it continuing (with separate ceasefires already broken twice) despite the high number of civilian deaths? The easy answer may be that Israel is simply the “bad guy” while Palestinians are innocent victims.

But the real answer to such a complex question lies in unraveling the decades-long conflict that has plagued the Middle East region since the early 20th century.

At first glance, the latest clash stems from the enmity between Israel and Hamas, an extremist Palestinian movement that has gained political and military control of Gaza through elections that Israel and Western powers refused to recognize. Hamas has been firing rockets and mortar shells out of Gaza across the border, which Israel said poses serious threats to its people.

The two sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire in June 2008, and it lasted until early November. On Nov. 4, Israeli forces killed six Hamas gunmen in a raid in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas responded to with a barrage of more than 190 rockets toward Israeli territory. Israeli forces bombarded Gaza with tons of bombs from its warplanes with Hamas militants shooting mortar shells toward the Israeli cities that surround the Gaza Strip.

Some may be wondering how this began. Why is the Gaza Strip locked down by Israeli forces, and why are Palestinians there not allowed to go anywhere else?

To answer, you first have to look at the history of present-day Israel and Palestine, whose territory bordered Egypt on the south, Jordan on the east, the Mediterranean Sea on the west and Syria and Lebanon on the north, until early in the 20th century. Palestinian territory has now been reduced to only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, about 20 miles northeast of the Gaza Strip. Both are surrounded and occupied by Israeli forces.

These two areas, heavily populated by Palestinians and increasingly occupied by Israelis as well, have long been riven by an unending series of clashes, hostility constantly flaring up into terrorism and fighting between Palestinians and Israelis.

The history of conflict can be traced back to the first world war in the 20th century, when Britain, one of the so-called Entente Powers, was scrambling to lure more states join its fight against German-led Central Powers in World War I. Back then, Britain promised Arab states struggling to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled a large part of the Middle East, that it would support their efforts to establish their own nation. The Ottoman Empire was a German ally in the war.

But in the meantime, Britain made conflicting promises - the Balfour Declaration - to help establish a Jewish homeland in the area that was their country 2,000 years ago in exchange for support of the Entente Powers.

After the war was over and the dust settled, it turned out there were simply too many parties making claims to the same small area of Palestine. Subsequently, the area was first put under British control, while a growing number of Jews started flocking there with the hope that they would finally have their own homeland. The snowballing influx of Jews into Palestine, which further accelerated before World War II, inevitably spawned intense clashes with the Palestinians who had been living in the area, and began the subsequent decades-long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians and Arab states that support Palestine.

After wars between Israel and Arab states, Israeli authorities and leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 reached a breakthrough peace agreement called the Oslo Accords. In this, Palestinians for the first time recognized Israel’s “right to exist” in Palestine. The accord also allowed Israel to maintain military control of the Gaza Strip’s airspace, land borders and territorial waters. That, unfortunately, was not the end of the region’s conflicts, as waves of resistance movements against Israeli occupation and settlers’ encroachment on Palestinian lands fueled continuing conflict.

Israeli has been constantly criticized for confining Palestinians within the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, both of which are criscrossed and boxed in by concrete walls and numerous military checkpoints run by Israeli forces. At the same time, extremist Arab groups that still refuse to acknowledge Israel have constantly staged terrorist attacks, including random bombings.

The latest standoff, one of many confrontations repeated over the past decades in various forms and intensities, stems from mutual rejection by Israeli authorities and Hamas, an armed Muslim Palestinian movement that won a majority seat in the Palestinian parliament in 2006.

Major donors to Palestine, including the United States and many European nations, refused to accept Hamas because of its religious leanings and connection with past terrorism cases.

They cut off all funds to Palestine, an action that resulted in more widespread poverty and despair among the Palestinians, which, ironically, helped Hamas gain more popularity as it also offered much-needed social welfare services to the needy population.

This is a very brief and simplified account of the region’s long and complex history. The sentiment in the international community for now is sympathetic toward Palestinians as Israel’s attacks on Gaza, which Israeli authorities said were unintentional, destroyed many civilian installations including schools, hospitals and places where foreign aid was stored. The ever-rising number of civilian casualties and the enormous humanitarian crisis it has caused could not be seen to help Israel’s cause.

Israel last month declared a temporary ceasefire but resumed attacks on Feb. 1, unnerving the international community and Palestinians, who are afraid the already-high Palestinian death toll may rise again.



By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@joongang.co.kr]


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