The History of the Gaza Dispute
by Kassie Kelly
The Middle East is a destabilized region with many ongoing violent conflicts between nations. Like most of the conflicts present in the Middle East, religion plays a large role in the conflict currently occurring in Gaza. Gaza, a 139 square mile strip along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is the home of 1.8 million people, mostly Palestinian Muslims. These people were displaced or are descendants of previously displaced people who originally inhabited the land that is now recognized as Israel, a largely Jewish state. The dispute between Israel and Gaza is a part of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. While religious differences may be the underlying reason behind the conflict between Muslim and Jewish people, the chronic violence present between Israel and Gaza in the past seventy-five years revolves more broadly around territory and desired ownership and sovereignty over such land mass.
In 1917, the United Nations (UN) Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, wrote a letter to a leader of the British Jewish community declaring a portion of Palestine a national home for Jewish people. This letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, promised Britain’s support for a national home to the Jewish People. Britain wanted Palestine for geo-strategic reasons – ensuring its lifeline to India – as well as the desire to be on the side of the global Jewish community. A large influx of Holocaust survivors migrated to Israel in the late 1940s, further angering Arabs who had inhabited the land for centuries. Shortly thereafter, the UN voted and passed a partition in 1947 defining Jerusalem, one of the most religiously sacred cities in the world, a “corpus separatum.”10 The following year, an Arab-Israeli War erupted, resulting in Israel’s independence. The war and subsequent creation of Israel caused displacement of thousands of Palestinians.4 Shortly thereafter, Israel assumed control of seventy-eight percent of Jerusalem with the 1949 Armistice Line.
The turbulent past and present is driven largely by territorial disputes.
The Six Days War, a preventative war, was fought two decades later in response to increasing tensions along the border of Syria.3 During this war, Israel began its occupation of Gaza, which would become a source of conflict between the two territories for five decades to come. In 1980, Israel’s legislative body passed a law declaring Jerusalem the state’s capital; however, the UN unanimously voted it “null and void,” in spite of an abstention from the U.S.10 Israel’s attempt to pass this law demonstrates Israel’s sense of entitlement to the city of Jerusalem, perhaps without acknowledgment of the city’s significance to other countries and their people’s faiths. Israel’s attempts at control and sovereignty in the region surely contributed to the creation of the group Hamas in 1987 during an uprising by Sheikh Yassin. Their main desire was, and remains, the creation of an Islamic fundamentalist Palestinian state. Their charter calls for jihad against Israel due to the sentiment held by this group and its supporters that Israel is an occupying force in the region and that Palestinian liberation is crucial.7
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After Israel’s occupation of Gaza ended in 2005, Hamas quickly stepped in and assumed control of the strip by 2007. While Israel still controls some of Gaza’s borders, coast, and airspace, Hamas holds a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council and has an annual budget. Hamas has a fully functioning bureaucracy that operates schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, religious institutions, and orphanages in Gaza. Because of the impoverished conditions in the area, these humanitarian actions contribute to the group’s popularity within Gaza’s borders. However, most Western countries view Hamas simply as a terrorist organization.7 This claim is warranted: in 2008, 2012, and 2014, major conflicts erupted between Gaza and Israel for reasons including the deployment of soldiers in each other’s territory in 2008, offensive operations in 2012, and the kidnapping of innocent civilians in 2014. In June, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank, and Israel accused Hamas of the malicious action. Later, the leader of Hamas confirmed his group’s involvement, citing Israel’s continued occupation of other Palestinian territory as the reason for its attacks.3 Israel arrested more than 300 Palestinians in response, and on July 2, the burning of a Palestinian teenager was perceived as an act of retaliation.1 This murder caused riots in East Jerusalem, and three Israelis were charged with the crime. On July 8, the Israeli Defense Forces called up 16,000 reserves to join the 65,000-member military force.1 Military expansion indicated Israel’s willingness to sustain the conflict. A month and a half later, shortly after airstrikes intensified, Egypt sponsored a cease-fire accord on August 26, 2014, which the U.S. strongly supported. Under the accord, Gaza’s borders with Israel were opened to allow reconstruction aid. Despite the destruction of homes, displacement of people, and large death toll of over two thousand people caused by the outbreak of violence, people in Gaza cheered in the streets at the announcement of the accord. One mother, Nabila Salem, described it as “a great victory for the Palestinian people,” noting that though “the pain is difficult, we’ve gotten used to pain, and it’s the only way to win.”2 This commonly held sentiment toward the conflict between Israel and Gaza points to its continuity.
Political leaders and international organizations have attempted to resolve the issue, especially the disagreement over the ownership of Jerusalem. Most of the attempts have been met with little success. The UN’s passage of the 1947 partition mandated international control of Jerusalem so no one state controlled the holy land. The creation of the Armistice Line in 1949 had the potential to create an equal division, yet Israel assumed control of a larger part of Jerusalem than it previously had. Subsequent negotiations for peace were unsuccessful because of faulty language used in the previous resolution; according to the previous resolution, Israel must withdraw from territories acquired in the Six Day War, but it was not specific with regard to which territories. As a result, Israel used this loophole to only relinquish some territories instead of all. The single closest attempt at peace occurred in 1993 under the Oslo Accords hosted by President Bill Clinton. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat agreed upon the goals of the declaration: complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and West Bank, grant Palestine the right to govern those territories, and cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The peace process stalled after several years following elections in Israel and a shift in power and the majority ideology. Many attribute this shift to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish ultra-nationalist, an event that eliminated the momentum for peace. After Rabin’s assassination, the Israeli political climate became decidedly right of center. Another attempt at a peaceful conclusion occurred under the Camp David negotiations in 2000 between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, mediated by the U.S.; however, the actors could not agree because conflict over Jerusalem stood in the way of negotiating civil relations.
The cease-fires Egypt implemented following conflicts in 2012 and 2014 worked for a short period of time, but obviously failed. The citizens of Israel and Gaza continue to retaliate against each other through means of occupation, demolition of property, and detainment of the enemy’s civilians and military personnel.8 Political actors who facilitate agreements between the two conflicting states, such as Egypt, face difficulty in keeping the two from forsaking their written promises. The same difficulty occurred after the Six Days War when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution prohibiting Israel from altering the status of Jerusalem, but Israel proceeded to occupy more land.9
Despite these past setbacks, there is hope for a future solution. Contrary to its charter’s commitment to the destruction of Israel, in recent years, Hamas stated it would consider a long-term truce with Israel, so long as its desires are met: lifting the blockade in Gaza, an end to Israeli aggression in Palestinian territory, and a deal that encompasses multiple concessions, not a stage-by-stage plan to peace. Israel’s desires, on the other hand, consist of a permanent cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza and the demilitarization of Gaza. Both Hamas and Israel claim to be fighting in self-defense for the safety and survival of their respective civilians.7 In order to meet both entities’ desires, an involved solution is necessary. Armed forces, including Hamas’ military group, Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, should be replaced with impartial UN peacekeepers. Ideally, a UN Security Council resolution would employ these peacekeepers to the region.
This demilitarization would be made possible by lifting the Israeli imposed blockade on Gaza, allowing the people of Gaza to more fully participate in the global economy. Hamas’ tunnels, used in the past to exacerbate the conflict, should be destroyed, a stated goal of Israel as of February 2016.5 In order to make Jerusalem equally accessible to people of all faiths, the UN should reinstate its 1947 partition. By designating Jerusalem a “corpus separatum,” no faith is considered favorable over another as expressed by possible state ownership of the city.
A potential setback to this solution exists; the international community, especially the UN Security Council, could express bias for one state or the other, ruining the goal of impartiality. Additionally, the joint signature of a permanent ceasefire by both parties is crucial in order to avoid broken promises, as was in past ceasefire agreements. In order to ensure the success of this complicated solution, the U.S. should recognize Palestine as a country in an attempt towards a two-state solution. Because of America’s close ties with Israel, this recognition would be difficult to achieve. Lobbying groups like the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) punish representatives who stray from support of Israel, contributing to a long history of the U.S. protecting Israel in spite of international criticism. The slightest criticism of Israeli policy in American politics is widely viewed as a taboo, and is quite obvious when it does occur.
The U.S. should recognize Palestine as a country in an attempt to achieve the two-state solution.
Regardless of precedence, recognition of Palestine as a country is in the U.S.’s best interest. It will exemplify the U.S.’s commitment to human rights law to the rest of the Middle East, despite denouncing a close allies’ desires. This action will go beyond Israel and Gaza and may garner support from other countries in the Middle East. If the U.S. does indeed gain support, it could begin to repair the region it helped to destabilize.
The fight over the territory and displacement of Palestinians is clearly the cause of this Arab-Israeli conflict. The initial mistake was the displacement of Palestinians post-World War II when they were forced out of the land they had inhabited for centuries. This choice cannot be undone. Instead, the international community must look for a solution that recognizes both parties in order to bring peace to the territorial disputes in the Middle East at large. C