In the last few weeks, the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine has been marked by increased tensions once again. After decades of blockade leading to economic collapse and lack of humanitarian resources, the situation in the Gaza Strip begins to appear unbearable, the region usually being referred to as ‘the world’s largest open-air prison’. The military aggressions that Israel has been developing in the region, which are being justified as a need for self-defense, keep worsening the crisis in the Gaza Strip and have at its core the close relationship with the US that the Jewish State enjoys. This article aims at giving a close insight into the current conflict between the Gaza Strip and Israel; we will start by addressing the background of the conflict, then we will center on the situation of the Gaza strip in the last few decades, and we will finally address the close relationship between Israel and the US.
Gaza Strip, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, US, International Law, Preemptive Self-Defense, Blockade.
Many say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on long-standing religious quarrels that originated many centuries ago in the land of Palestine. Although religion is certainly involved, the truth is that this is not a religious conflict but rather a political one in which two peoples (with their own national identities) fight for the same land, and that originated only a century ago, by the beginning of the 1900s.
Historical background: Gaza throughout the conflict
Before the 1900s, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. By that time, different communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews were settled in the area, with no major confrontations taking place. During the Ottoman mandate, a feeling of national identity began to emerge among the people of that region, who began to identify themselves as Palestinians. At the same time in Europe, the Zionist movement, identifying Judaism as a national identity that deserved its own state, was also gaining weight and saw the region of Palestine as the most appropriate one for the creation of a Jewish country.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of WWI, the Middle East was divided between France and Britain, and the British Mandate of Palestine was established. Due to the upswing of Zionism since the beginning of the XX century, and especially after the Holocaust, the region of Palestine began to experiment with the arrival of large numbers of Jewish immigrants, who asked for the creation of a Jewish state in the area, and so the tension between Jews and Arabs began to rise. The escalation of violence became unbearable for the British; so, in 1947, with the aim of solving the tensions, the UN approved a partition plan (RES 181(II)) that proposed the division of British Palestine into two states, an Arab one (Palestine) and a Jewish one (Israel), keeping Jerusalem as a special international zone that didn’t belong to any of both states. The Jews agreed with the partition plan, and even though the Arabs didn’t (because the territory established for them was quite fractioned, as one of the main reasons), the Jewish leadership in Palestine declared the independence of Israel in May 1948, finishing the British mandate, although the borders of the new Jewish State were never fully specified. The next day, five surrounding Arab states declared war on Israel; that was the beginning of what became to be known as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Between 1948 and 1949, the first Arab-Israeli war took place. In 1949 a ceasefire was declared, and the armistice lines that were established created the delimitations of the areas now referred to as the West Bank (which by 1949 became administered by Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt); the rest of the Palestinian territory, including Western Jerusalem, was now under Israeli control. Egypt continued administering the Gaza strip for almost two decades, marked by increasing tensions in the area, especially among Israel and the surrounding Arab states (Syria, Egypt, Jordan). By 1967, after the Six-Day war, Egypt lost the Gaza Strip, and Jordan lost the West Bank, which started to be controlled by Israel, among other territories.
The rivalries between Israel and its neighboring states would give place to numerous confrontations until 1979 when Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords, which normalized relations between both states. From this moment on, the rest of the Arab states would gradually end hostilities with Israel, too; but as confrontations between Israel and Palestine hadn’t ended, we speak about the renaming of the conflict the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The new frame of the confrontation refers to the tensions between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (created around the 1960s), which included the arrival of Jewish Settlers in Palestinian, leading to direct confrontations and times of heightened Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation, known as intifadas. The first intifada was settled with the Oslo (I and II, 1993 and 1995, respectively) Accords, which recognized the Palestinian Authority and gave some self-governing rights to the Palestinian people. These Accords, however, are not very useful in stopping hostilities, and between 2000-2005 another intifada takes place due to growing tensions. It was not until this second intifada ended in 2005 that Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip.
Gaza: the world’s largest open-air prison
Although the instances of tension brought by the direct confrontations and the settler’s occupation of Palestinian land had already given place to the outbreak of Israeli violence against Palestinians in an attempt to keep the occupied land (especially that of the West Bank), the situation in Gaza reached an unprecedented scale of confrontation after the victory of Hamas, one of the two main Palestinian political groups, in the 2005-2006 election. After being elected, Hamas detached from the Palestinian Authority in a short civil war, and the Gaza Strip became separate from the West Bank (where the other majority party, Fatah, remained the most popular).
Around 2007, Israel and Egypt established an unprecedented blockade on the borders of the Gaza Strip, claiming that Hamas wouldn’t be willing to enter diplomatic relations that would put an end to the conflict and using as a pretext the harshness of the confrontation between the Palestinian Authority (composed mainly by Fatah) and Hamas. 15 years later, Israel still maintains the blockade on Gaza by land, sea, and air, turning the area into, as some say, the world’s largest open-air prison. The pressure exerted on the Gaza Strip has ended up collapsing the economy and the minimum services in the area and has triggered unemployment and poverty rates, a situation that seems impossible to overcome despite the aid funds issued by the United Nations.
This situation has favored increasing tensions between Hamas and the Israeli government; the Palestinian response to Israel’s blockade strategy took the form of firing rockets, which led to a major military offense by Israel. Since then, the tension between both sides has resulted in numerous clashes, smoothed by moments of détente that the occasional ceasefires generated. The Palestinian aggressions in the face of the Israeli blockade seemed to give the Jewish state the perfect pretext to initiate a series of military operations based on preventive defense, which only increased the tension between the two regions further. Internationally recognized moments were, for example, Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), an Israeli military offensive based on bombing Gaza after the end of a ceasefire in which hostilities never stopped; or Operation Protective Edge (2014), an offensive carried out by Israel against Hamas after the group normalized relations with its rival, Fatah, and formed a unity government in Palestine.
The 2018-2021 timespan was also marked by a more tense atmosphere than usual, with very violent clashes in the Gaza border area and airstrikes by both sides. The increase of violence in this period was founded on tensions over control of Palestinian land (which has been receiving Israeli settlers for decades, often forcing Palestinians to leave their homes), as well as, again, preemptive defense claims by Israel, which says it fears attacks by Palestinian militant groups.
In the last few weeks (July-August 2022), tension has increased again in the Gaza Strip area. Israel has launched what has been called a ‘preemptive military operation’; the difference with the other confrontations is that this time Israel’s attack is not aimed at Hamas but at a militant group, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which according to Israeli authorities, was planning to launch an attack against them. Again, Israel’s military mobilization is based on preemptive defense actions against Palestinian militant groups, carried out ‘in case of attacks take place and not ‘when attacks take place, which gives Israel the pretexts to exert pressure on the area whenever it likes. Before the attack, Israel reportedly cut off the gas supply to the Gaza Strip, leaving the area practically without electricity. According to Israeli authorities, several members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been arrested, although the reality is that dozens of civilians seem to have been killed.
The force behind Israel’s military success
Many point to the current situation in Gaza as a product of the inefficiency of Palestinian leaders, corruption, and extremism of its main political groups. However, the reality is that the Palestinian Authority’s missteps and dysfunctionalities aside, Israel’s decades-long aggressive actions have killed not only almost all chances of taking into action the two-state solution but also the prospects for the existence of a unitary Palestinian state, especially considering the fractioned character of the current Palestinian territory. Moreover, Israel keeps the Gaza Strip region suffocated and starved of economic and humanitarian resources under the pretext of needing to defend itself against Palestinian attacks, sometimes even preemptively.
If there is one thing that is undeniable in all this, it is that Israel has a military and defensive force that has nothing to envy to that of Gaza. In fact, Israel’s military strength has developed at a dizzying speed, especially since 1967, a development that owes much to the close relationship that unites the Jewish state with a world power also highly developed in military and defense matters: the United States. Although the United States defines itself as a neutral state in the conflict, advocating an end to hostilities and the defense of democracy, the reality is that on numerous occasions, it has justified Israel’s actions under the pretext that ‘Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself, a discourse that ignores the advantages in resources that the Jewish state enjoys (thanks in part to the aid provided by the US), as well as the destructive impact that Israel’s aggressions have on the population of the Gaza Strip and their prospects of living.
US support to Israel, both military and diplomatic, has a crucial impact on the development of Israel’s actions and, therefore, on the current situation in the Gaza Strip. US military aid to Israel amounts to more than $3bn a year; more than $140bn in economic aid, mostly of a military nature since the creation of the Jewish state. Economic aid is not the only evidence of the close military relationship between the US and Israel; arms sales, cooperation in developing drones tested in the Gaza Strip, or joint military exercises are some other examples.
In addition to the close US military investment in Israel, the US has also used its veto power in the UN Security Council to reject resolutions that would have served to investigate Israel’s responsibility for war crimes and human rights violations carried out in Gaza. The existence of pro-Israel lobbies in the US has also played an important role in facilitating support for Israel (notably AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israel association in the US) due to the nature of the US political system.
Many wonders why the United States, despite its pleas for the cease of hostilities, maintains its almost unconditional support for Israel and, therefore, for policies that often violate international standards of ethical behavior. The answer seems to lie in Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East; during the Cold War, the United States was already interested in the country’s location in an area with many important resources to consolidate world hegemony. However, US aid to Israel did not become significant until 1967, when Israel demonstrated its military capability in the Six-Day War and thus its potential to maintain stability in the Middle East in the interests of the United States.
Therefore, Israel has never been a country in need of help from a major world power, as it has always been a considerable military and technological power; rather, it is Israel’s strength in an area of political and economic interest for the United States that seems to enhance the aid of said world power. This way, Israel’s military superiority is assured in the area, and the political interests of the US in the area are safeguarded. Moreover, the political strength of Hamas in the Gaza Strip does not please the interests of the United States in the area, which only seems to fulfill its role as a defender of democracy when it develops according to its political and economic convenience. This is not the first time that the American superpower has displayed this type of behavior; if anything has already become clear, it is that the limits imposed by morality standards and international law have no value when the interests of the United States are at stake.
The current situation leaves the Gaza strip on the brink of the abyss; it derives from decades of uninterrupted confrontation and the pressure exerted by Israel in the name of self-defense (even though Gaza does not match Israel’s arms potential) on a region that lacks humanitarian and economic resources. The civilian population is helpless, living under unsustainable conditions in the face of tension that could escalate to greater levels of confrontation; the economic and social hardship imposed by the blockade is compounded by an unprecedented wave of violence since May 2021. Moreover, Israel’s policy towards the Gaza Strip appears to be based on preventive military operations, which are prohibited according to the UN Charter (Article 2.4), which only allows the use of force in case of collective security measures taken by the Security Council (Articles 42-43), and in case of self-defense (Article 51). Pre-emptive self-defense (i.e., when the attack becomes imminent, that is, when it’s already happening) is prohibited, so Israel’s actions are not only illegal from the point of view of international law, but some of them could also constitute war crimes and human rights violations.
The support that Israel receives from the United States makes the latter also responsible for the harsh living conditions to which the Israeli attacks subject the Palestinian population. The historical background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the period referred to as the Arab-Israeli conflict, shows us that this is no easy-to-solve conflict and that it is rooted in the very profound rivalry between peoples with their own national sentiment that claims the same land as theirs. Some decades ago, the solution proposed by the partition plan of the UN still seemed feasible: the creation of two states for each of the national groups. However, after the development of a conflict that has now lasted more than 70 years (and still counting), the actions developed by Israel have wiped-out part of the prospects for that solution to be effective because its acts of occupation have fragmented the Palestinian territories so much that it would be difficult to create a unitary Palestinian state. And behind all of that, the US keeps supporting Israeli policies on the Palestinian matter while ‘advocating’ for the reaching of an amicable solution at the same time.
The truth is that even if there were still any prospect of both parties finding an amicable solution to the conflict; even if there were still any prospect of applying the two-state solution; even if all that were possible, it wouldn’t happen as long as the US keeps financing the military operations of Israel. The media keeps mentioning the US efforts to approach both Israel and Palestine to negotiations when the truth is that those efforts will continue to be meaningless unless the US recognizes the cynical aspect of its policy towards the conflict and conflicting parties.
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