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Decades of histories inform the combatants

  • Article by: MAX FISHER
  • Washington Post
  • November 21, 2012 - 9:46 PM

The violence between Israel and Gaza is three things: complicated, confusing and important. History looms large in the Israel-Palestine conflict. For every one incident, there are decades of Israeli and Palestinian histories that inform both sides' interpretation of that incident and its deeper meaning.

The Gaza Strip is a small Palestinian territory, about twice the size of Washington, D.C., located along the Mediterranean coast between Egypt and Israel. Palestinians are ethnic Arab and majority Muslim. It is deeply impoverished, kept in isolation by the Israeli military and ruled by Hamas, an anti-Israeli terrorist group.

In 1948, the United Nations declared that the British territory known as Palestine would be divided into two independent countries: Israel and Palestine. Arab leaders rejected the declaration and invaded to maintain a unified, independent Arab Palestine. They lost, and by the time the fighting ended, Israel controlled even more of the land than the U.N. declaration had granted the new country. One of the areas still under Palestinian control was the Gaza Strip. Israel occupied the territory in 1967, after another failed invasion by Arab states, but withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005.

Hamas is an Islamist militant group based in Gaza, where it won a 2006 U.S.-backed election. The United States and other countries have designated it a terrorist organization. It formed in 1987 as a "resistance" effort, pledging to destroy Israel and replace it with an all-Palestinian state. It has since significantly softened its demands to an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, but it still does not formally recognize Israel as a legitimate country and still commits violent acts against Israeli troops and civilians.

Hamas regularly fires unguided rockets into nearby areas of southern Israel. Although they rarely kill Israelis, they terrorize the largely civilian neighborhoods and generally make life unpleasant. Last Wednesday, Israel launched an airstrike to kill a senior Hamas military commander, which set off a series of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and significantly accelerated Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. Some analysts fear a repeat of the 2008 fighting, which escalated into a full ground war.

Operation Cast Lead (Israel's name for it) culminated in a January 2009 Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, which resulted in 13 Israeli deaths and either 1,417 or 1,166 Palestinian deaths, depending on Palestinian or Israeli sources.

Some analysts describe Israel's strategy toward Hamas as "mowing the grass." Instead of finding a long-term solution, in this thinking, Israel would attack Gaza every few years or so to cut down their ability to terrorize Israelis. Hamas, for its part, does not seem to have changed strategies, either.

No one is sure whether the present fighting will lead to a repeat of the 2008 ground war or will end with another uneasy cease-fire. But many analysts say that, in the end, the violence will likely not have brought either Israelis or Gazans any closer to peace. And they worry that both Israel and Gaza are following short-term policies detrimental to long-term progress.

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