By Troy O. Fritzhand
(JNS) The Gaza Strip is a complex piece of land that has been at the center of disputes in the Land of Israel dating back thousands of years. The roughly 40-kilometer-long coastal enclave lies at the core of the current war between Israel and Hamas. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the foundation of the State of Israel; now at a boiling point, it is causing myriad deaths.
The population of Gaza has risen from around 185,000 in 1948 to over two million today—a point critical to understanding how it has changed over the decades.
Following Israel’s victory against the Arab armies in the 1948-49 War of Independence, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt and became a refuge for many Arabs who fled their homes during the war. Egypt maintained civic and security rule over the strip of land until the Arab armies again joined forces against Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel handily defeated them, and as a result was able to expand its borders to encompass eastern Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria, and Gaza.
Immediately after the war, a bloc of Israeli settlements, known as Gush Katif, sprung up in the Strip to both expand Jewish settlement and create a security buffer.
For the next 20 years there was intermittent violence between residents, often Arab-on-Arab crime but also Arab-Jewish clashes. Generally, though, there was peace between Jews and Arabs. This all changed in 1987 with the founding of Hamas and the outbreak of the First Intifada, when Gaza figured prominently in the street violence that lasted almost six years.
Outlining the history of the conflict, Dr. Ronni Shaked of the Hebrew University noted that Hamas, founded by Ahmed Yassin, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that was then illegal in the Strip.
Hamas from the get-go described its mission to destroy Israel and Jews. Its charter affirms that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” As well as: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’”
Due to worsening conditions in Gaza, Hamas was able to build up a following, especially alongside the intifada.
The end of the intifada was marked by the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The accords created a new reality in the land between the river and sea, which has carried the conflict since. According to the accords, Judea and Samaria was split up into three administrative zones, and Gaza was mostly under the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Furthermore, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was brought from exile in Tunis with his organization and set up shop in Gaza.
Despite Arafat’s kind words in English, he worked to instigate violence against Israel and Jews all the way up to the Second Intifada that began in late 2000. This was a brutal four-year spat of violence that saw buses and civilian sites blowing up almost daily and resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand Israelis.
It was towards the latter portion of the intifada that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed disengaging from Gaza completely and removing all its Jewish communities and residents. The plan was both supported and pushed by then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
The disengagement was debated intensely in the Knesset and the public, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting daily.
In the end, and despite mass public outrage, the government ordered the IDF to forcibly remove all residents from their homes. The plan, hoped to be “land for peace,” set out for Gaza to become a “Singapore” of the Middle East.
After Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, the Palestinian Authority and the ruling party Fatah became the new leaders of the Gaza Strip. This rule was short-lived, as elections held in January 2006 resulted in Hamas winning the most seats. This upset Israel, the U.S. and Europe—all of whom worked to keep the P.A. in power. A war broke out in the Strip that led to Hamas butchering Fatah leaders and setting up its own dictatorial rule that exists to this day.
After Hamas took over, Israel imposed a land and sea blockade—a right to do so was implicitly granted under the Disengagement Plan. Egypt soon joined the blockade effort. Hamas for its part immediately started engaging in hostile behavior, including the construction of its tunnel system and firing rockets at Israel.
Alongside this, Hamas began its indoctrination of the population of Gaza. Due to the Strip’s young population—more than half are under 35 years old—Hamas was able to recruit children to join the fight against the Jewish state.
The first instance of war came in the summer of 2006, during the IDF’s “Operation Summer Rains,” carried out in response to rocket fire by Hamas, as well as the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. This was followed by “Operation Autumn Clouds” in November of the same year, which saw IDF troops enter the Strip.
A number of clashes followed before the Gaza war that broke out at the end of 2008 (“Operation Cast Lead”). The goal was to stop the rocket fire, but in the end, the three-week war was just the first example of Israel “mowing the lawn,” of bombarding Gaza to hold off its war-starting capabilities for months or years.
The next notable conflict was the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 after activists tried breaking the sea blockade. The ship refused to turn back and was boarded by members of Shayetet 13, Israel Navy commandos. Ten of the activists were killed after they attacked the soldiers with knives. The raid produced an international nightmare for Israel.
Shalit was released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners (including the present head of Hamas Gaza, Yahya Sinwar), many of whom had killed Jews. This in turn encouraged future extortion efforts by Hamas.
“Operation Pillar of Defense” broke out in 2012, again after a spate of Hamas rocket attacks. Again, Israel “mowed the lawn” until the next, much bigger war in 2014.
“Operation Protective Edge” in 2014 lasted one and a half months and was in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas terrorists in Judea. Israel’s goal was to again stop the rocket fire and destroy the terrorist group’s tunnel systems.
In the end, Israel was able to destroy some, but at the cost of IDF deaths—67 soldiers—and the severe economic cost made the war seem like a loss in the eyes of many.
Since then, Hamas had sporadically shot rockets towards Israel, which was always met with air force bombardments in the Strip.
In fact, for the past few years, Hamas operated under the radar and let other terrorist groups do most of the fighting. On the surface, it projected an image of trying to prioritize civic matters. This, of course, was a decoy designed to surprise Israel when it began its massacre on Oct. 7.
Now, Hamas and the Gaza Strip find themselves in their worst predicament yet. For Israel, it could be an opportunity to end the cycle of “mowing the grass” and instead move towards a reality that ensures the security of the residents of the south—giving Israel full control of security in the area. That is if the government can avoid the pressure it has faced in the past and refuses a ceasefire. This is possible, as the toll—1,400 dead in one day, mostly civilians—will be a tough pill to swallow if it means returning to “normal.”
Where does this all go from here?
Palestinian affairs analyst Khaled Abu Toameh says the current situation is unique because it “seriously harmed Israel’s deterrence capability.” The result of this, he says, is that “it has emboldened those in the Arab and Muslim countries who believe that Israel can be eliminated,” as well as those “among the Palestinians that believe in the armed struggle against Israel.”
As war now rages full force in the Strip, the pages in the history of Gaza are still being written, though Shaked says he isn’t sure this will be “a new page in history,” meaning the public should be prepared for more violence coming from the coastal enclave in a few years—if the IDF leaves before the job is done.
CAP: Hamas terrorists march along the Israel-Gaza border fence, July 19, 2023. Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS.