On the morning of Oct 7, the nation of Israel was attacked by rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel. The missile attacks acted as a screen as thousands of Hamas militants viciously attacked towns and cities in southern Israel, killing more than 1,000 Israelis and kidnapping many others.
The attack was the single bloodiest day in the nation’s history and was carried out by a group known as Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel but seen as the legitimate government in the Gaza Strip. While there is no place for this type of violence, and Israel has the right to retaliate as aggressively as they feel necessary, I have found that the question my students have asked the most is why Hamas would commit such acts knowing the repercussions? I have found myself telling this story to each of my classes in the past weeks and thought it worth sharing.
The Gaza Strip, in southwestern Israel, borders the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt’s Sani Peninsula. It was originally part of the Ottoman Empire from 1285 to 1917. After WWI and the defeat of the Ottomans, the land was given over to Great Britain as part of the Palestine Mandate.
The British agreed to allow European Jews escaping persecution to settle in Palestine after the war. In the beginning, there were no issues between the Jews and Palestinians, but as more Jews arrived and bought up more land, displacing the Arabs, Palestinians began to resist. This caused the British to cut off immigration.
However, after WWII and the Holocaust, Britain and the United Nations once again opened the doors to Palestine for Jewish settlement. At first, the U.N. tried to divide Palestine into two regions, but in 1948, the Jews declared themselves the Nation of Israel, and their military drove the majority of the Palestinians into refugee camps in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip.
In 1967, when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan amassed armies on their borders in preparation to attack, Israel struck first with precise accuracy, taking out the armies of the aggressive nations. Israel then moved into and acquired more land, including the Gaza Strip. Israel controlled the Gaza Strip and its two million inhabitants until 1993, during which the first Intifada occurred, and Palestinians rose in protest of the Israeli control. In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton helped broker the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
The Accords established a path to peace as the PLO recognized the State of Israel, and Israel recognized the PLO as the official representatives of the Palestinian people and acknowledged they had a right to self-rule. A month later, Israel pulled its forces out of Gaza and left the PLO in charge.
In 2006, Gaza held elections, and Hamas won. No elections have been held since. In 2007, when Hamas refused to renounce violence against Israel, both Israel and Egypt (who have been fighting the Brotherhood in their own nation for years) set up a blockade of Gaza, cutting off most of their water, food, and electricity. The blockade has caused severe hardships in Gaza and has been criticized by the U.N.
During the Israeli occupation of Gaza, specifically during the Intifada, Hamas came into being. It was founded by Ahmed Yassin, a quadriplegic nationalist scholar. Born in Palestine, Yassin was injured at age 12, leaving him paralyzed. He was educated in Egypt and was introduced to the Muslim Brotherhood. He returned home to Gaza and became a teacher while also establishing an Islamic charity associated with the Brotherhood. In 1985, he was arrested for stockpiling weapons and then, during the Intifada, established Hamas to destroy Israel and establish an Islamic state in Palestine.
1993 was an important year for Hamas as it detonated its first suicide bomb and began its fight against Fatah, the leading organization in the PLO, who had been working towards peace with Israel as part of the Oslo Accords. Hamas denounced the Accords and detonated bombs in Israel to try to disrupt the process. Over the next several years, Hamas continued its campaign of terror while Israel continued to respond, including the 2004 rocket attack that killed Yassin. Yassin’s death did not stop Hamas’ attacks. As new leaders emerged, many live outside of Israel. As said before, Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and Hamas won the election in 2006 and kicked out Fatah in 2007. Fatah had changed from being the most infamous terrorist organization to one seeking peace.
In the years that followed, Hamas and Israel have continued their hostile relationship. Hamas continued to attack Israel while Israel retaliated. Israel has come under condemnation from some international human rights groups, claiming their retaliations are out of scale. An example was in July of 2014 when Hamas killed three Israeli teenagers. Israel responded with a two-month attack that left 2,100 Palestinians dead. Another example is during a very violent May in 2021 when Israel responded to an attack with missiles that collapsed a 13-story residential building. However, in each case, Israel justified their actions as necessary as organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention nations like Iran, have pledged its destruction.
It is true that Gaza is a hellish place to live and that the Palestinian situation started when the Jews kicked them out of their homes in 1948. Yet now, 75 years later, the situation is what it is. Israel is there to stay, and that is not going to change. The only solution seems to be a two-state solution, even if that may seem unfair. Even groups like Fatah have agreed that peace is more important than holding out for the right of return.
I know this is easy for me to say in my comfortable home, far away from the situation. Instead, I will end with an Israeli perspective – the best and fairest I have ever read. Sandy Tolan’s “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” gives an excellent true story account of the Israel/Palestine situation. Tolan’s principal character, Dalia Eshkenazi, presents what she thinks is the only way forward. Dalia survived the Holocaust as a young child before arriving in Israel and receiving a home of an Arab family that had been forced out. She believes the answer is the three As: Acknowledgement, Apology, and Amends. Jews must acknowledge what they did in 1948 and the pains they caused, but the Arabs must also acknowledge they are not innocent with the many acts of terrorism they have committed. For amends, she said, “It means that we do the best we can under the circumstances towards those we have wronged.” For Dalia, amends could not mean the full right of return, as she said, “the Palestinians have the right of return, but it is not a right that can be fully implemented because the return of millions of Palestinians would effectively mean the end of Israel.”
James Finck, Ph.D., is a professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He can be reached at HistoricallySpeaking1776@gmail.com.