Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A primer on the long-standing dispute over Gaza
Since May 10, more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis have died in fighting in Israel and the occupied territories.
Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, studies the ongoing political change in the Middle East and is author of the blog Informed Comment. He discusses the history behind the current crisis.
What sparked the current conflict in Gaza?
The immediate precipitating cause, I think, was that the Israeli security forces invaded Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the holy month of Ramadan. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Think about it like a foreign army coming into the Basilica of St. Peter during Easter.
They fired stun grenades and flash bombs, and the carpets of the mosque were set on fire. Israelis did this because Palestinians in Jerusalem have been protesting against the Israeli policy of depriving Palestinians in East Jerusalem—which has been heavily Palestinian and still is—of their homes. So there were protests against this kind of slow ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians out of East Jerusalem around the mosque.
And so the Israeli security repressed those protests and then actually went into the mosque, which was seen as very provocative, not only among Palestinians but also throughout the Muslim world. There have been big demonstrations in Pakistan and in all kinds of places against this.
What is Hamas and what does it have to do with this?
Gaza has been ruled since 2006 by a party militia called Hamas, which calls itself an Islamic party. In 2007, the Israelis put a blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is now completely surrounded either by the sea or Israel. There’s a small portion that abuts Egypt, but the Israelis control access to the Gaza Strip. They have destroyed the airport, they don’t have a functioning harbor and there are checkpoints controlled by Israelis.
And so the Gazans feel like they’re in prison. They’re surrounded by the Israelis and they’re under blockade. And Hamas’ response to being surrounded and blockaded has been to take revenge on the Israelis by sending over these mostly small rockets.
I think Hamas took advantage of the tensions over what was happening in Jerusalem and the colonization by the Israelis of the West Bank to cowboy it and send these rockets over to Israel. Most of them land uselessly in the desert but there’s been serious property damage and they’ve killed—in the current round of fighting—at least 10 Israelis, including a child. This is a war crime. Under international law you’re not allowed to send rockets on civilian populations.
What is Israel’s endgame?
You know, they don’t say and I can’t tell you. They have Gaza surrounded, they have it blockaded. The people in Gaza don’t like them as a result. And there’s hostilities from time to time. I think the Israelis think about this as a military issue. And so to the extent that Hamas has a few tens of thousands guerrilla fighters and does have some long range rockets that they’d sent even to Tel Aviv, they want to degrade Hamas’ capabilities.
They just see Hamas. They don’t see Gaza. They don’t see the 2 million people in Gaza. They don’t see that half of the 2 million are children. They recently destroyed the major bookstore in the city, but they’re not thinking about the civilians. I do think they’re thinking: How could we get this guy in Hamas who planned out this covert operation against us?
Now, it is also possible—and I don’t know this, I can only speculate—that they want to make Gaza uninhabitable. And so the horribleness of the way that the Gazans are treated may have partly to do with this single-minded military concentration on military targets in the Strip. But it may also be just the signal to Palestinians: Drop dead. Leave.
Palestinians can’t very easily leave. They are stateless. They don’t have passports. Most countries wouldn’t accept them. They don’t have a harbor. They don’t have proper ships. And so it’s a little unlikely if that’s part of what’s going on, that it will succeed.
Peace talks have been initiated for decades now. What are the stated needs of the two sides?
The Palestinians want a state. And a lot of Israelis view the possibility of a Palestinian state as a dire threat because if the Palestinians have a state, they have a seat at the United Nations. They have legitimacy. What’s to stop them from importing deadly weapons and attacking Israel with them if they’re a state? At the moment, the Israelis control their lives there. They patrol them. They wake them up in the middle of the night in the West Bank, just randomly just to let them know: We’re watching you. But if the Israelis had to withdraw and the Palestinians became a state, they couldn’t do that anymore. And so they’re afraid.
I have compared it to someone who takes a hostage. What do you do ultimately with the hostage? It’s a problem for you. If you let them go, the more they take revenge on you. Without having meant to, I think, the Israelis have taken the Palestinians hostage and then they feel like they can’t let them go. They need a way out of their kidnappers’ dilemma.
The other thing is that the Palestinians need a state. If you’re stateless, you don’t really have any rights at all. Palestinians have no recourse if somebody takes their house, they’re just homeless and they have no basic human rights because they’re stateless. So they want a state and the Israelis are afraid of a Palestinian state. Moreover, the Israelis have developed a taste for colonizing this territory that the Palestinians would want to make a state on. And so the Israelis have become reluctant to give it up. There’s not a good solution.
What’s the United States’ interest in this region?
From the point of view of U.S. national security, the U.S. views Israel as a reliable military and intelligence ally in a volatile part of the world, which has essential resources. We don’t really get that much petroleum or natural gas from the Middle East ourselves. We have allies who do. And as a superpower, it’s kind of our job to see that those energy exports from the Middle East get to our allies.
And so a lot of national security types in Washington view Israel as a kind of Western aircraft carrier in the region. The Israelis have heavily penetrated the Middle East from an espionage point of view, both human intelligence, and signals and cyber intelligence. They conduct covert operations in the region. And so if U.S. interests are threatened, the U.S. views Israel as a valuable asset. This is the standard story that I think is accepted by a lot of people in Washington.
And then there’s a domestic aspect to this and that. There’s a lot of support for Israel in the American public. That support comes not only from American Jews, many of whom are very committed to Israel’s safety and security and prosperity, but also, for instance, from evangelicals who strongly support Israel on the whole.
And then just a lot of general Americans, about 58% of Americans say that they side with Israel in this conflict and only about 30% say they side with the Palestinians.
Is this issue viewed as a race, ethnic or religious issue in the U.S.?
I think we’ve discovered through recent American history that there’s a kind of latent white nationalism in American politics that comes to the fore, sometimes anti-immigrant feelings, anti-Muslim feelings, anti-Black feelings. And in the polling, there seems to be a fair overlap between support for Israel and anti-Palestinian feeling and the groups in American society who have those more white nationalist sentiments. So I think that may be part of what’s going on.
But there are a lot of liberal Democrats who are very pro-Israel. The vast majority of Americans are Christians. They read the Bible. They know what Israel is. They think the Jews used to live there. It’s not so strange that they are there now. They’ve never heard of a Palestinian or an Arab or don’t know much about Islam. So I think that may be part of it, just familiarity from the shared Bible and then they’re pro-Israel.
And factions in American politics are also very well organized. It’s been estimated that a third of the money in U.S. politics comes from pro-Israel groups. And so that’s a domestic factor in U.S. politics.
That’s changing a little bit now because you did have 29 senators send President Biden a letter insisting that he ask for a cease-fire. And you had a number of progressive Democrats give speeches on the floor of Congress about what they see as Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. There is an emergence of an American left that is more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians and more knowledgeable about it.