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Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

A Primer on the Israeli-Hamas-Palestinian Conflict

When listening to international news, it may seem apparent that Israel is at the epicenter of violence in the Middle East. However, this perception is misleading. In addition, while it’s tempting to simply portray the Israel-Hamas conflict as a political struggle between Palestinians and Jews, with Israel retaliating tit-for-tat, a more authentic picture emerges when examining the situation beyond the surface destruction in Gaza. Finally, it is crucial to become accurately familiarized with Middle Eastern chronology and facts because some pro-Hamas advocates are deliberately manipulating the Palestinian narrative and unfortunately succeeding to sway well-meaning but susceptible gullible public opinion to their extreme stance.

Let’s look at the facts in the Middle East context:

Violence and devastation in the Middle East: Violence, and loss of life in the Middle East extend beyond the Hamas-Israel conflict. The 13-year Syrian civil war has displaced over 12 million people, resulting in about 800,000 deaths, including 4,000 Palestinians. In Yemen, internal conflicts have claimed over 150,000 lives, with an additional 227,000 deaths due to an ongoing famine. Sudan faces internal war, causing around 9,000 deaths and having displaced 5.6 million. Despite the global spotlight focused on Israel, the broader Arab Middle East has experienced significant casualties on a much larger scale.

The political characterization of Middle East countries: The Arab and Muslim Middle East countries are all non-democratic, totalitarian regimes. They are characterized to various degrees by the lack of free and fair elections, a lack of press freedom, repression of political opposition, lack of an independent judiciary, repression, and restrictions on women’s rights along with unequal treatment of minorities. In contrast, Israel, which includes Arab Israelis who form 20% the population, functions as a full-fledged democracy. It is not an apartheid state.

The plethora of radical Islamic groups: Hamas is only one of several radical Islamic regimes in the Middle East. There are numerous Hamas like groups including Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. These groups together are termed the Axis of resistance against Israel.

The declared goal of many of the radical Islamic groups:  Many of the groups like Hamas, call for the non-negotiated destruction of Israel. Invariably they are also anti-Western.

The influence of oil revenue: There is a surplus of oil revenue in the Middle East exemplified by OPEC’s 2022 net revenue, estimated at $622 billion.

Use of oil revenues to fund radical Islamic groups: There is large-scale funding of these radical regimes, with the money emanating mostly from oil income. Iran, for example, supplies Hamas with $70-100 million annually. Qatar has provided $1.3 billion in aid support to Gaza since 2012 and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Arming of radical Islamic groups: There is also widespread arming of Hamas and Hamas like radical groups. Iran is one of the major suppliers of arms to Hamas. Iran supplied weapons were used against Israel on October 7 to commit the Hamas atrocities. Many of the thousands of rockets and rocket launchers used by Hamas are from Iran. The widespread devastation in Gaza, in large part comes from Israel’s eradication of those many sites.

The characteristic of regimes targeting Israel: Many regimes hostile to Israel, not only oppress their citizens but also violate basic human rights. In Iran for example, in September 2022, the death of Mahsa Amini, who refused to wear a headscarf, triggered widespread protests resulting in the killing of over 400 protesters. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood.

Israeli occupation of Arab lands: Israel occupies the land roughly outlined by the 1948 UN Partition plan, where a Palestinian state was also intended. However, no Palestinian entity emerged on the West Bank or Gaza as local Arabs chose to join neighboring Arab countries in opposing Israel, leading to failure. From the war until 1967, Jordan controlled the West Bank, and Egypt controlled Gaza, yet no movement to establish a Palestinian state in these territories occurred during that period.

Palestinians and Hamas are not the same: Two Palestinian regimes exist: Mahmoud Abbas leads the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in the West Bank, elected in 2005 and indefinitely in 2009. In Gaza, Hamas, led by Ismail Haniyeh since 2007 and was replaced by Yahya Sinwa in 2017. Neither the P.A. nor Hamas recognizes the other, and both have not held elections for at least 16 years, raising concerns for those advocating a free and democratic Palestinian state.

 

The Six Day War missed opportunity for a Palestinian state: In the aftermath of the six-day war of 1967, initiated by President Nasser of Egypt, and joined by Jordan and Syria, Israel gained control of the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza Strip. Offers of withdrawal for peace were turned down categorically by all the Arabs at an Arab League Conference held in Khartoum.

 

The West Bank Settlements: Since 1967, and in the absence of any willingness on the Palestinian side to progress towards a peaceful resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict, Israeli Jews who felt a tie to the biblical land of Israel began establishing Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Expansion of Israeli settlements is controversial even among some Israeli and supporters of Israel.

Gaza settlements: In 2005, Israel withdrew from four small settlements in the Gaza Strip, established after the 1967 war. Since then, there has been no Israeli presence in Gaza. It’s important to note that Israel has never occupied Gaza.

The pan-Arab stance on the Palestinian issue: Most Arab states publicly exclusively blame Israel for the Palestinian predicament, refusing to address Palestinian causes. However, in private, some do blame the corrupt and incompetent Palestinian leadership for much of the Palestinian woes including stonewalling the peace process.

The Hamas initiated war against Israel October 7: The unprovoked murder of 1,200, primarily civilians, coupled with atrocities before and after the killings, the abduction of over 200 hostages, and the continued bombing of Israeli cities are each considered acts of war. It’s difficult to envision any country agreeing to a ceasefire before the opposing side commits to halting the bombings and releasing the hostages.

The Arab public and private response: Many Arab states publicly support Hamas, urging Israel to agree to a ceasefire without condemning Hamas for the bombings and hostage-taking. However, the leader of Bahrain has publicly criticized Hamas for its atrocities on October 7. However, many Arab leaders privately were appalled by the Hamas atrocities.

The Palestinian response: A recent survey by Birzait University in the West Bank found that 75% support the recent atrocities, with 98% expressing pride in being Palestinians since the events. Furthermore, 90% believe that coexistence is increasingly impossible, presenting challenges for advocates of peaceful coexistence.

Western leaders: Western countries such as the US, England and France have been unconditionally critical of the Hamas atrocity actions. Their leaders have all visited Israel.

International and UN response:  International condemnation of the October 7 atrocities, including from the UN and Pope Francis, has been notably lacking. The targeted Israeli assault on Gaza is framed as retaliation rather than a goal of stopping bombings and freeing the hostages. Many governments have overlooked that urging Hamas to cease bombings could have been the most effective way to halt Israel’s military response. Calls for a unilateral ceasefire from Israel, rather than addressing the bombing of Israeli cities and the capture of hostages, have been unfortunately prominent. Even resolute efforts to compel Hamas to allow Red Cross visits to hostages, a violation of the UN Charter, have also been absent.

Pervasive Militarization of Gaza within the civilian infrastructure: Convincing evidence reveals that thousands of military sites, including rocket launchers and tunnels were embedded within civilian infrastructure in Gaza, such as schools and medical facilities. The widespread destruction caused by Israeli actions is attributed the need to destroy these military installations. Recent findings in Shifa, the main Gaza Hospital, show weapons and tunnels on-site, with video evidence of hostages being detained. These discoveries suggest broader complicity, indicating that many Gaza citizens, as well as UNWRA and other UN institutions, were aware and complicit with Hamas, at least through their silence.

Hamas’ war against Israel has destabilized both Israel and the broader Middle East. The group’s polarizing actions distort the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pushing both sides toward force instead of negotiations. Analysis of Hamas leaders’ statements and manifesto reveals a clear objective focused on the destruction of Israel as the only acceptable solution.

If Hamas doesn’t change its stance, Israel will be compelled to continue to renew its warfare to forcibly stop the bombing and secure the release of all of its hostages, regardless of  international protests. However, even a military victory won’t solve Gaza’s governance issue. To avoid destruction, removing Hamas is key. International and Arab efforts to disarm the group rather than calling on Israel to make a unilateral ceasefire are crucial to minimize further damage to Gaza. Strong actions will facilitate a quicker transition to alternative governance in Gaza and also addressing the broader Palestinian cause. Who knows? Despite this pessimistic conclusion, perhaps the present Hamas-Israel negotiations over hostages and prisoners release will lead to a positive development negating the need to renew hostilities.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with interests in end-of-life care and the Israeli political scene. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in Israel.