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As Israel declares war against Hamas, what triggered the latest flare-up of violence? EXPLAINED

Hamas targeted Israel with around 5,000 rocket strikes on Saturday as part of its 'Operation Al-Aqsa Storm'. At least five people, including the head of the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council, have been killed in Israel so far.

Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Jerusalem Updated on: October 07, 2023 16:29 IST
Hamas launching rockets from the Gaza Strip towards Israel
Image Source : AP Hamas launching rockets from the Gaza Strip towards Israel

The conflict between bitter enemies, Israel and Palestine, appears to have escalated into a full-fledged war after the Hamas group in the Gaza Strip launched at least 5,000 rockets at the Jewish state followed by an unprecedented infiltration offensive as part of its 'Operation Al-Aqsa Storm'.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement told Israel that it is “at war” with Hamas. The new operation was announced by the elusive leader of Hamas' military wing, Mohammad Deif. "We've decided to say enough is enough," he said, as the operation targeted key positions, airports and military fortifications in Israel. Israeli rescue service confirmed the deaths of 22 people, including the head of the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council, Ofir Liebstein, while around 250 others were injured.

Hamas' offensive was congratulated by the terrorist group Hezbollah, who praised the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes” and said the militants had “divine backing". The attack was launched a few weeks after violent demonstrations across the border in Gaza, where Palestinians threw explosives and stones towards Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military has launched a counter-offensive named 'Operation Iron Swords" in retaliation to the Hamas' surprise attack. "The Hamas terrorist organization made a grave mistake this morning and launched a war against the State of Israel...The State of Israel will win this war," said Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Israel also began striking targets in Gaza in response to the surprise attack. The Israeli military has issued instructions to the residents of towns near the Gaza Strip to remain in their homes, and the rest of the public to remain near bomb shelters. 

It appears that Israel and Palestine are in for a long fight that will undoubtedly lead to several casualties. The decades-long violence, already exacerbated by a military operation in the occupied West Bank region, has already worsened relations between the two arch-rivals.

Simmering hostilities

The latest episode of conflict came after weeks of increasing hostilities along the Israeli border in Gaza and heavy fighting in the occupied area of West Bank. The Hamas group's leader said that the latest assault was carried out in response to attacks by Israeli forces on women, the 'desecration' of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the ongoing occupation of Gaza.

Earlier this year, Israel launched a major operation in the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp, housing many Palestinians, to what they claimed was to destroy and confiscate weapons. At least 12 Palestinians were killed and several more were injured, as per the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Israeli forces had used military bulldozers to tear through the Jenin camp, causing thousands of residents to flee the camps and damaging roads and buildings. The Israeli military said that it had confiscated thousands of weapons, money caches and bomb-making materials.

In 2023, over 200 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank so far, while retaliatory attacks have claimed the lives of 30 Israeli people.

The history of Israel and Palestine

The state of Israel was created in 1948 when the United Nations called for the territory of Palestine to be split into Jewish and Arab states. Both sides have claimed the land for the last couple of thousands of years. When Israel was finally created, several Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria joined forces against Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. 

The war ended in an Israeli victory, and caused thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. Most of the territory was controlled by Israel. By 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The fundamental element of the Israel-Palestine conflict comes down to the city of Jerusalem. Israel claims Jerusalem as the capital of its Jewish, while Palestinian leaders claim it as the capital of a future Palestinian state. 

The religious factor is quite visible in this conflict as both Zionists in Israel and Islamists in Palestine hold Jerusalem as central to their religion and culture. Jerusalem is considered one of the holiest sites for Islam by Palestinians. In 1987, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as part of the first intifada (uprising) staged violent protests against the Israeli government, which was suppressed by 1993.

A second intifada, known as the Al-Aqsa intifada took place from 2000 to 2005, began when then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem with over 1,000 armed police and soldiers on September 28, 2000, outraging Palestinians. The resultant protests, suicide bombings and rocket strikes were again brutally quelled by Israeli forces.

The incident led to the partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories in the West Bank after an agreement between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon, who became Israel's Prime Minister. However, sporadic instances of violence have taken place since then.

The emergence of Hamas

The Hamas group may have been formed officially in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada, but its roots go back to the 1960s when its founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin protested against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War. The group also opposed the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after the first intifada.

The group has demanded Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas and also demanded reparations and free elections. As the conflict worsened, Hamas employed suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israelis. It became the ruling party of the Gaza Strip after winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

Since Hamas came to power, Israel has maintained a blockade over the Gaza Strip. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since the establishment of the blockade. There have also been numerous rounds of smaller fighting between Israel and Hamas and other smaller militant groups based in Gaza.

Scores of Israelis have been killed in bomb attacks by Hamas after the assassination of its leader Yahya Ayyash in 1995 at the hands of the Israeli forces. The conflict worsened when Yassin and his successor Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi were assassinated in Israeli missile strikes in Gaza in 2004.

Hamas has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and Japan among others. A resolution to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organisation was introduced in the UN General Assembly in 2018, but it failed to pass through.

Since coming to power, Hamas has been in a constant state of conflict with Israeli authorities with deadly incidents emanating from both sides of the border. At least 2,251 Palestinians and 73 Israelis comprising civilians and military personnel were killed during 50 days of fighting in 2014.

Previous conflicts between Hamas and Israel

In 2021, six Palestinian families were evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah area annexed by Israel in 1990, causing widespread protests by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The resultant chaos was further exacerbated when Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque and used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters.

Shortly after, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip, and Israel retaliated with a series of airstrikes against the armed group. Several buildings, including those of high-profile media outlets, were destroyed in Gaza. At least 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the 11-day conflict before Egypt brokered a truce.

The next year registered the most conflict-related deaths as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's government has called for tougher action against what they call Palestinian militants. As the conflict spans over 70 years, Netanyahu's prioritisation of expanding control in occupied regions and stronger action against Palestinian 'militants' and Hamas suggests that the latest hostilities between Israel and Palestine are unlikely to end soon.

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