Rooted in historical, religious, territorial, and political issues, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a long-standing, deeply complex dispute that has destabilised the political landscape of the entire Middle East region for decades and remains a significant source of tension in the region. Not only has it affected millions of lives on the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the border and their neighbours, but it has also cost thousands of lives on both sides due to the frequent eruption of hostilities.
In the latest developments on this front, armed Hamas militants launched coordinated attacks on Israel from the Gaza side in the early hours of the morning of October 7, 2023. In an unprecedented well-coordinated offensive, Hamas, a US-designated terrorist organisation, launched thousands of rockets within a short span of time on Israel, followed by an on-ground offensive by heavily armed militants against civilians and military personnel deep inside the Israeli territory.
The entire world was stunned at the scale of these attacks, sounding alarm bells across the region and triggering fears of the start of another war and the escalation of hostilities in the area, which has for long been a hotbed of bloody armed conflicts over the last several decades.
The conflict has its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the region that was then under Ottoman rule. The British Mandate governed the region during and after World War I, and the Zionist movement aimed to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, leading to the establishment of Israel in 1948. This event, known as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs whom Israel never allowed to return to their homes and who were forced to take refuge elsewhere and have since been living in poverty. Both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim to the same land, while the involvement of various regional and international powers, including the US and Russia, also adds to the complexity of the matter.
A barrage of rockets fired from Gaza entered Israeli airspace, mainly in south and central Israel, triggering warning sirens and rendering its much-decorated Iron Dome air defence system ineffective. At the same time, heavily armed terrorists broke through the heavily fortified border fences and entered Israel on motorbikes, pickup trucks, and paragliders from Gaza side by speedboats on the coast, attacking civilians and IDF bases in as many as 22 locations in Israeli territory, killing more than 1400 civilians and soldiers and also taking more than 200 hostages.
Israel immediately declared a war on Hamas, launched its counter offensive against Hamas and Islamist Jihadist (PIJ) targets in Gaza and West Bank areas, and served an ultimatum on civilians in Gaza to move out of the conflict zone. Dubbed ‘Open Air Prison’ by international aid agencies, Gaza has been under a continued Israeli blockade since 2007, which maintains strict control over its borders, airspace, and access to the sea.
Israel largely provides and controls the electricity and water supplies to Gaza, which it blocks along with other essential supplies, including fuel and food, to Gaza areas. More than 1.5 million civilians have been internally displaced within Gaza, although they have hardly been able to escape the war and are caught in the crossfire between the warring sides. Even before the start of current clashes, the area has witnessed unprecedented violence this year, with the number of people getting killed on both sides being the highest in the last two decades.
The Israeli retaliatory action in the last two weeks has so far resulted in the loss of nearly 8000 human lives (including 2000 children) and about 20000 wounded on the Palestinian side, most of them civilians. The toll is expected to increase as the area of conflict has been increasing, with the IDF targeting suspected terrorist hideouts in the West Bank and Lebanon and increasing violent incidents on the Syrian side as well. Few other non-state actors in the region, like Hezbollah (operating from Lebanon), view the current conflict as an opportunity to corner Israel and have declared their support for Hamas, firing on Israeli positions in border areas with Lebanon. The continuous barrage of the area through airborne missiles and artillery shelling has left a vast tail of devastation in the Palestinian Territories, with hospitals, schools, religious sites, and even refugee camps coming under attack. Israeli border areas with Lebanon have also seen increased violent eruptions, and people in large numbers have been displaced on both sides of the border.
After being denied food and other basic necessities for nearly three weeks now, the area faces a humanitarian crisis. With about 2.3 million civilians, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and more than 50% of its population is poor and faces continuous food insecurity even during the relatively peaceful periods. Nearly 80% of its population is estimated to be dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance for survival.
Since the Israeli closure of two crossings with Gaza and the blockade of essential supplies, humanitarian aid from the international community has been difficult to reach civilians in Gaza as the Rafah Crossing, the only international crossing Gaza has with any country other than Israel, remains closed due to bombardment on the Gaza side. The Egyptian government remains reluctant to open its borders for the free movement of international aid or Palestinian refugees due to fears of Israeli retaliation.
It has been only after the intense pressure of the international community, including the UN and EU, and some serious negotiations and intervention by US President Joe Biden that Israel agreed to allow limited movement of aid material, restricted to 20 trucks a day, to Gaza from the Egyptian side of the border, although this is likely to increase in the coming days. Even these supplies are grossly insufficient to address the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza. While no fuel is allowed to be carried in relief supplies due to Israeli fears of its misuse by Hamas, hospitals in Gaza are quickly running out of fuel, thus risking the lives of many on emergency support. Israel controls the electricity supply to Gaza and could have restored the same for hospitals, water treatment plants, and other humanitarian purposes, but it is seething from rage and doesn’t seem to be interested at all in providing any relief.
If it is some relief, Israel has, except for some targeted limited-purpose raids (and immediate withdrawal), so far exercised restraint and has not yet launched its planned massive ground offensive in Gaza, which, if it were to happen, is sure to cause scores of casualties among Palestinians and substantially increase the human cost of war. Part of the reason for not going in for the full-scale ground invasion appears to be the safety concern for Israeli hostages Hamas has and also the extensive network of underground tunnels that Hamas has been able to build within Gaza that may endanger the safety of the invading Israeli army. That Hamas has been able to build such a vast network of underground ‘Gaza Metro’ despite continuous Israeli surveillance over all these years tells a different story of the financial and emotional support that Hamas enjoys within the occupied territories.
The international community is also apprehensive of the regional powers, Iran and others, getting directly involved in the armed conflict if the planned ground offensive materialises, further complicating the situation and making it worse. Despite constant emphasis on the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza by every country in the region and in many other parts of the world, the regional powers have so far exercised caution and only observed the developments from a distance.
The growing number of casualties, mainly civilians, has caused concern across the world, and protests have erupted in countries worldwide, including some by Jewish organisations, to stop the offensive against civilians in the area. World leaders are calling for restraint, while the Israeli response has been that “humanitarian efforts cannot be allowed to impact the mission to dismantle Hamas”.
It’s one of the longest ongoing ethnic disputes in modern world history and has been the cause of many violent attacks and wars in the region, including the Arab-Israeli War (1948), the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the Attrition War (1969), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and two Lebanon wars (1982 and 2006) between Israel and other Arab nations. More than 20,000 human lives have been estimated to have been lost in the dispute since 1987, and the number is likely to substantially increase as the hostilities are unlikely to stop if the status quo’ is allowed to prevail.
Israel has been more aggressive ever since its victory in these wars, mainly the 1967 Six-Day War, when it captured large territories in the area, including the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem areas from Jordan. More than 300,000 Palestinians were either displaced or expelled from the West Bank. Whereas the status of Sinai and Golan Heights has mostly been resolved between Israel and its neighbours, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza continue to be under Israeli occupation to date and have seen frequent eruptions of protests.
The fact that Israel has completely annexed the East Jerusalem region, which the Palestinians also claim and want to be their future capital, complicates matters further.
An Israeli law passed after the annexation of East Jerusalem allows Jews to reclaim properties that were Jewish before the formation of the Israeli state in 1948 (Jordan controlled the area between 1948 and the 1967 war), prompting charges of ethnic cleansing against Israel as there is no equivalent right in Israel for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. Tens of thousands of Palestinians continue to face the risk of forced evictions in the occupied territories, even as frequent squatting is continuously witnessed in the occupied territories where state-backed Israeli settlers have been freely encroaching on Palestinian neighbourhoods.
Restrictions have been imposed by Israel on Palestinian family unification between Israeli citizens or residents and their spouses from the Occupied Territories to maintain a Jewish demographic majority, inviting apartheid and ‘war crimes’ charges against Israel from the UN as well as other humanitarian organisations across the world. Amnesty International, in its 2022–23 report on ‘The State of World Human Rights’ stated that “Israel’s continuing oppressive and discriminatory system of governing Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) constituted a system of apartheid, and Israeli officials committed the crime of apartheid under international law. Israeli forces launched a three-day offensive on the occupied Gaza Strip in August, during which they committed apparent war crimes. This compounded the impact of a 15-year-long ongoing Israeli blockade that amounts to illegal collective punishment and further fragments Palestinian territory. Israel escalated its crackdown on Palestinians’ freedom of association. It also imposed arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement and closures that amounted to collective punishment, mainly in the northern West Bank, ostensibly in response to armed attacks by Palestinians on Israeli soldiers and settlers.”
The areas in the West Bank and Gaza remain under continuous Israeli siege, and Israel maintains strict control over its access and has, over the years, established vast settlement colonies—Israeli Jewish civilian communities mainly built on occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza. Although in 2005 it closed these settlements in Gaza, no such withdrawal has been made in West Bank areas, which are estimated to be home to about 0.7 million Israeli settlers. In what many observers view as clear steps in de facto annexation of the occupied Palestinian Territories, nearly one-fifth of the West Bank has been declared a ‘firing zone’ since 1970, exclusively reserved for Israeli military training.
Thanks to the support of its key allies, Israel has for long enjoyed impunity for its actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, actions that go way beyond its ‘right to existence’. But that must change now, as the legitimate rights of people in the area to live a dignified life must be respected and honoured by all. Likewise, there is no place in a civilised society for any kinds of terrorist activities the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah propagate, and all such organisations must immediately be extinguished across the world.
However, it appears that things are changing on the ground because growing concern for the lives and safety of civilians in Gaza and other parts of the Occupied Territories is slowly but surely replacing the overwhelming support and sympathy for Israel that were present during the initial stages of the conflict. Huge rallies are being held in different parts of the world, including the US and UK, calling for immediate suspension of hostilities and relief to the affected populations in the war zone. The UN General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority, also called for an immediate ceasefire to provide humanitarian aid in Gaza. The resolution has been supported by 120 members of the 193-member UN General Assembly, with 14 voting against it and 45, including India, abstaining from it.
Achieving a just and lasting peace will require compromise, dialogue, and the commitment of all sides to disputes, as well as the direct involvement of the international community. A comprehensive approach involving diplomacy, peaceful coexistence, and a humanitarian approach is crucial for creating the desired conditions for building an atmosphere of trust and negotiations to bring everlasting peace to the region.
It is still too early to say how the dispute is going to unfold in the coming weeks, as Israel is adamantly firm on a long and decisive war against Hamas and other terror outfits operating in Palestine. But what is most important here is that the rampant and indiscriminate pounding of civilians currently ongoing in the area, whether by Hamas or Israel, must immediately stop. Civilians in the area, irrespective of their ethnicity, are entitled to a dignified life free of fear and force. Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve the opportunity to live in peace and security, and the International Community is obligated to ensure that innocent people there are in no way denied their basic right to life.