A Brief History of the War Between Israel and Hamas

Understanding the context that led up to Hamas's attack on October 7, 2023.

12 mins read

Hamas, the militant nationalist group that currently administers the Gaza Strip, launched an attack on Israel targeting civilians, across land, sea, and air, on October 7, 2023. In the hours following, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared war on Hamas and fired retaliatory strikes on Gaza. At the time of this writing, authorities have reported at least 1,200 Israelis dead and 2,900 injured, and 1,100 Palestinians dead and 5,399 injured. 

Many Western world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, have expressed strong support for Israel. President Biden stated his administration “will not ever fail to have [Israel’s] backs” and called the initial attacks an “appalling assault on Israel by Hamas terrorists.” In contrast, Iran has announced its firm support of Hamas, with spokesperson Nasser Kanaani claiming the operations are in defense of Palestinian people’s “inalienable rights” and in reaction to “Zionists’ warmongering and provocative policies.” Iran has also provided extensive funding for Hamas operations in the past. The history that underlies the conflict between Israel and Palestine dates back millennia. 

Both Palestinians and Israelis have their own claims to the region’s land. Jews have been recorded as living in the region intermittently for hundreds of years, despite being exiled in 722 BCE by the Assyrians, in 597 BCE by the Babylonians, and ultimately in 132 CE by the Romans. This history is backed by extensive archaeological and written evidence, ranging from the City of David excavations to Josephus’ writings in Rome, and many Jews see Israel as the land of their Torah. Following the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the region became majority Muslim. Palestinians developed a rich culture throughout the region’s ancient neighborhoods and established holy religious sites like the Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred to Muslims worldwide. While Palestinians remained the majority population of the region until the Zionist movement in the early 20th century, the land fell under the control of numerous countries and empires over the last millennium, including the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Palestine had been under Ottoman rule for roughly 400 years. The weakening of the empire and calls for Arab unity led to Palestinian resistance, which Britain harnessed during World War I for support in defeating the Ottomans. Despite the British’s promising Palestinian independence, the region remained under British Mandate for 30 years until the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947. Palestinians protested this colonialism, most notably in the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt. 

The Zionist movement also arose under British rule. Founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 in opposition to European antisemitism, Zionism aspired to establish Israel as a Jewish national home, which resulted in the revitalization of Hebrew, the creation of the “Hatikvah” (the Israeli national anthem), and ultimately a mass movement of Jews to the region. With outbursts of attacks and riots, this was the point when modern Israeli-Palestinian tensions first developed—tensions that British officials heightened by announcing support for a Jewish state in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The Second World War and subsequent establishment of the United Nations, along with loud cries for decolonization across the British Empire, led to the most recent colonization of Palestine. After the Holocaust — a mass genocide that took the lives of six million Jews — there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom had already migrated to Israel as a safe haven. The creation of Israel by the Partition Resolution was meant to provide a safe place for Jews for the first time in history and recognize the region as their homeland. It separated the land that had been previously under British Mandate into respective Jewish and Arab states. While this proposition was widely supported by most UN countries, it was created without the consent of Palestinian leadership. 

On May 14, 1948, the creation of Israel sparked the first Arab-Israeli war. Israel’s subsequent victory resulted in 750,000 displaced Palestinians. The result separated the region into three parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip. Relations soured between Israel and its neighbors, the Muslim countries of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. After the Second Arab-Israeli War (known as the 1956 Suez Crisis) and Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the three countries signed mutual defense pacts against Israel. In 1967, Israel preemptively attacked Egypt and Syria, starting the Six-Day War in which it gained the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Syria. Just over 50 years ago, to reclaim this land, Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Though the allied countries did not win back much territory, the war resulted in the loss of thousands of Israeli lives, severely lowering Israeli morale—a victory for opposing countries. The signing of the Camp David Accords subsequently established temporary peace.

The Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were still struggling for self-determination. In 1987, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians rose up in the First Intifada, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The Oslo Accords, which were established in the years following, aimed to address Palestinian demands by recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as a self-governing body in the West Bank and Gaza, while acknowledging Israel’s right to exist. However, this peace too was short-lived. After the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and amidst a growing sense that neither side was fulfilling their end of the bargain, Palestinians in the West Bank rose up in 2000 in the Second Intifada. The Israeli government responded with the construction of a barrier wall that drew international criticism. 

Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority in 2007 in the Gaza Strip, despite pushback from Fatah, the previously elected government. Hamas has two wings, social service and military, which it uses to govern the Gaza Strip. The Hamas Charter places blame for the Palestinian struggle on Zionist invaders and explicitly calls for the death of all Jews. In response to Hamas’ seizure of Gaza and threat against all Jewish lives, Israel established and has since maintained a blockade over Gaza restricting the importation of goods, such as computer equipment, in order to prevent the influx of weapons. This has left the two million Palestinians living in Gaza with a disproportionally deteriorated economy, including a 50 percent unemployment rate and failing infrastructure. Furthermore, Israeli military and precision strikes have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians. In 2014 and 2015, violent military clashes ensued between Israel and Hamas with 73 Israelis dying and 2,251 Palestinians dying. In 2018, many peaceful Palestinian demonstrators on the border of the Gaza Strip who called on Israel to end the blockade were met with more violence and death. 

The military wing of Hamas, Al-Qassam Brigades, announced that October 7’s attack was a response to the aforementioned blockade and “in defense of the Aqsa Mosque,” a shared holy site in Judaism and Islam located above the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It has also been speculated that the recent warming relations between Saudi Arabia — formerly an ally of the Palestinians —  and Israel influenced Hamas’ attack.  Israeli-Saudi negotiations would have been a major step in the right direction towards communication amongst Middle-Eastern countries, analysts argue. However, a deal between the two may now take years to come to pass. 

After breaching Israel’s border, Hamas militants have been invading Israeli towns, knocking down doors, and taking Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage. Early reports indicated that around 150 hostages have been taken, and video footage and testimony reveal that Hamas forces are firing guns and looking for more civilians to capture in some towns. Recent evidence has illuminated more horrific tactics used by Hamas including rape and decapitation. 

The blockade continues to play a role in the unfolding conflict; Gaza hospitals have been struggling to treat casualties from Israeli airstrikes due to recent power cut-offs from Israel and long-term supply shortages. As retaliatory air strikes hit civilian-occupied areas—including the densely populated Khan Younis refugee camp—the director of Al-Shifa Hospital Mohamed Abu Silmiya explained that hospitals are relying on generators but struggling with paying for fuel. 

Currently, the International Rescue Committee is calling on all parties to obey international humanitarian law so they can provide critical humanitarian relief to affected civilians. At a time like this, following the news is more important than ever. Even though we are geographically distant, we can offer support to friends and family affected by this conflict and look for ways to contribute to humanitarian efforts as it unfolds. With such a complicated situation, it is important to educate yourself on the history and current events contributing to the Israel-Hamas war and be respectful and empathetic towards everyone affected.

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