Trying to make sense of Gaza

If there’s been a cease-fire by the time this article appears, none of the underlying issues will have been resolved. Here then is a brief attempt to analyse what this recent outbreak of fighting between Israel and Gaza has been about - with four clues which help me to make sense of the big picture.

1. Most Palestinians in Gaza today are the children or grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from their homes in the Nakba in 1948.

Benny Morris was one of the first of the new revisionist Israeli historians who documented the process by which around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the months before and after the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948. In his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988) he debunked the myth that they had fled because their leaders encouraged them to do so, and described how some went to Gaza, while others moved to Egypt, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Some years later he shocked many when he said in an interview with Haaretz that Israel would not have so many problems today if it had done the job more thoroughly and expelled far more Palestinians from the area of the new state of Israel. Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, who is now a professor at the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter University, used similar material to describe in great detail how the expulsions were carried out all over the country with the aim of reducing as far as possible the number of Arabs who would remain within the state of Israel, and he wasn’t afraid to give his book the title The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians during this crucial period before and after the establishment of the state has been called ‘Israel’s original sin’. The relevant point in this context is that the rockets that Palestinians have been firing from Gaza have been landing on areas from which their parents and grandparents were driven out in 1948.

Rami Khoury, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist, makes this point powerfully in an article which appeared in The Daily Star in Beirut on Saturday 26 July:

Grasping and resolving these root issues is very hard to do for Zionists and Israelis, who refuse to acknowledge their major role in making refugees of the Palestinians. They have also ignored that no peace will come to anyone unless the root causes of the 1947-49 conflict are resolved equitably. If Israelis do not see this in the eyes, tunnels, rockets and charred bodies of dead Palestinian infants, and continue, with the U.S., to insist on prioritizing Israeli security over a more balanced approach to ensuring rights for both peoples, then these savage rounds of violence will persist for years. That would only be adding stupidity to savagery.

2. ‘It’s the blockade and the occupation, stupid!’

No one can deny Israel’s right to self-defence, subject to the test of proportionality, and it’s understandable that Israel should want to force Hamas to stop firing rockets indiscriminatingly into Israel. Hamas could have stopped firing the rockets as soon as the casualties began to mount and the international community called for a cease-fire. But Gaza has been described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the rockets (which have so far killed only three civilians in Israel) have been an expression of the desperation of the Palestinians over the eight-year economic blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized power in 2006. Israel is clearly determined to destroy Hamas’s arsenal of weapons and the network of tunnels penetrating into Israel. But the Hamas leadership believes that it can’t afford to agree to a cease-fire without securing concessions from Israel which relieve the humanitarian crisis developing inside Gaza. The appalling numbers of civilian casualties, therefore, and the destruction of so much property are seen as a price that must be paid in order to force Israel to bow to international pressure and end its crippling blockade. Palestinians in Gaza feel that if they don’t die under the rockets, they will be strangled to death by the blockade.

Before the blockade, of course, was the occupation. In June 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Sinai and the Gaza Strip, where they eventually built 20 settlements on 20% of the area. It was in this context of occupation around 1988 that Hamas came into existence as a resistance movement. Most of the world believes that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 is illegal in international law and that every single settlement in the occupied territories is illegal. Under Ariel Sharon’s leadership Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005, but in international law it still has all the responsibilities of the occupying power. The rationale for the withdrawal was explained in these terms by Dov Weissglass, one of Sharon’s advisers: ‘The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.’ It now seems that even the American administration has concluded that the so-called peace-process pursued so vigorously by John Kerry for the past nine months has broken down largely because of Israel’s refusal to stop the building of new settlements on the West Bank. Hamas’s rockets, therefore, seem to be their only way of expressing the anger and desperation of Palestinians over the blockade and the occupation.

Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of International Relations at Oxford University makes these points in an article entitled ‘What’s the use of “balance” in such an asymmetric war?’ in The Independent on Sunday of 27 July:

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel’s real objective in unleashing this offensive is to bomb Hamas into a humiliating surrender. Israel’s ultimate aim seems to be not just a peace but the re-imposition of the status quo with a fragmented Palestine and with itself as an imperial overlord.

3. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict of two nationalisms, with two peoples claiming the same piece of land for different reasons.

Theodore Herzl spelled out his vision of political Zionism in his book The Jewish State in 1896, and the following year he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel. Having concluded that the emancipation of Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century had failed, he believed that the only way for them to feel secure in the modern world was for them to return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine and create some new kind of Jewish polity there. At the time when he wrote the book, Jews were no more than 8% of the total population of Palestine. The remaining 92% of the population – Palestinian Arabs – were aware of nationalist movements in Europe and were beginning to develop their own dreams of Arab nationalism and independence from Ottoman rule. One of the ironies of history, therefore, is that Jewish nationalism (Zionism) had the effect of stimulating Arab nationalism. Jews have been basing their claim to the land and to sovereignty on their occupation of the land in biblical times. Palestinians base their claim on the fact their ancestors have been living in the land since – and even before - the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So one of the fundamental roots of the conflict is this clash of nationalisms.

Palestinians today need somehow to understand that European anti-semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust, created the longing for a homeland in which Jews could feel safe and secure. By the same token, Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to understand that Jewish nationalism and Arab (and especially Palestinian) nationalism have developed side by side during the last century, and that the biblical understanding of justice is that we should seek for our neighbours what we seek for ourselves. The relevance of this point to the present conflict is made by Rami Khoury:

The fundamental problem for Israel that it has never grasped is that the intensity of the individual and collective Palestinian will to resist permanent exile or oblivion, and to keep fighting for national reconstitution and justice, is just as strong as the will among Jews who fought Western Christian anti-Semitism for centuries and finally created their Zionist state in Palestine.

4. For all its failings and crimes, Hamas has been a consistent expression of Palestinian nationalism and anger.

I could never be an apologist for Hamas, because I’m only too aware of its hard-line Islamist ideology, its brutal suppression of opposition and its violent attacks on Israeli citizens. I doubt if it is as innocent as it claims over the location of its rocket launchers, and the tunnels under the northern border fence into Israel are intended for launching attacks on Israel. At the same time I believe that much of the criticism directed against it has been unfair and unjustified.

It came into existence as a resistance movement in the context of Israeli occupation. So if there had been no occupation beginning in 1967, there might be no Hamas – just as there might be no Hizbullah in Lebanon if Israel had not invaded in 1982 and stayed as occupiers for so many years in the south of the country. Hamas strongly asserted its Islamic identity over Fatah, which was felt to have become too secular; and it took a stronger stance against Israel because it believed that Fatah had already made too many concessions in negotiations with Israel. It is argued by some that in the early years Hamas was actually encouraged and supported by Israel as a way of dividing the Palestinian resistance. Hamas won in democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and many believe that the US and the EU made a disastrous mistake in refusing to recognize this victory and to work with Hamas. Western governments are therefore accused of hypocrisy for saying that they support the spread of democracy in the region but then refusing to accept the results of democratic elections.

While Hamas has maintained its Islamist stance, it’s thoroughly misleading to say that Palestinian enmity towards Israel is motivated primarily by Islam. Palestinian Muslims are bound to turn to their religion to find motivation in their struggle. But the root cause of the conflict is dispossession rather than religion. Hamas has often showed that its ideology can be modified by its pragmatism, and has at many stages indicated its willingness to negotiate with Israel. If Israel continues to label Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’, isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? There was plenty of terrorism directed against the British Mandate and Palestinians in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and how many of Israel’s previous prime ministers were engaged in terrorist activities in their earlier years? A state can engage in terrorism just as much as a resistance movement.

If some Palestinians have not been supporters of Hamas and blamed it for the escalation of the fighting in the last two weeks, the ferocity of Israeli attacks on Gaza has probably had the effect of rallying widespread support for Hamas and its demands. One of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process was that there was no significant breakthrough until all parties – including those regarded as being extreme – were brought into the political process.

It’s easy to criticize and condemn Hamas for the way it has engaged in its resistance. But don’t the Palestinians have good reason to be angry both about the blockade and the continuing occupation? And isn’t it time for the world to try to understand the roots of this conflict and try to resolve it in a more even-handed way?

As we watch this terrible tragedy unfold, therefore, we should be praying for all who, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, ‘hunger and thirst to see right prevail’ and seek to be peace-makers. At the same time, as well as lobbying our own government, there are things that we can do to support the people of Gaza through Christian organisations like the following that are working on the ground:


12 thoughts on “Trying to make sense of Gaza”

  1. Jeremy Moodey: ‘but for the purposes of serious political debate [Mosab Hassan Yousef’s] views on Hamas should be discounted.’ Why should they be discounted? Having grown up in the organisation, is he not in a good position to understand its real nature? He says he provided information to Israel in order to prevent terrorist attacks. Is that some sort of crime in your eyes?


  2. Yes indeed in 1947 Palestinians were driven off their land, made homeless. This needs to be seen in context. The war following the Israeli declaration of statehood, was about who would live in the land the UN had allocated to Israel. The neighbouring nations made it plain that they were not just fighting to stop a Jewish State, they were fighting to make Jews leave Palestine. This may have been rhetoric by some, but there were certainly anti-Israeli leaders who, if they had won the war, would have driven Jews off their land, making them homeless. The point of this war, instigated by the Arab nations, was that the losers, or a large number of the losers, would have to leave.

    Knowing that they had started a war and thereby created a refugee crisis most Arab nations did very little to help the refugees. There is some truth in the Israeli claim that the Arab nations bear significant responsibility for the Palestinian refugees.

    The UN also bears significant responsibility. The Arab nations had made it plain that they would not accept the state of Israel. The UN overrode the Arab objections. The UN would have, or should have, known that their decision to form the state of Israel would have caused conflict and, consequently, refugees. The Nakhba is not only the responsibility of Israel.

    Not that I now support the current Israeli government policy. See

    • I have always found that one useful way of looking at the Palestine/Israel conflict is to apply every statement to the opposite protagonist. For example, when Israel requires security, what is the security situation for the Palestinians? When Israel requires the return of a captured soldier, how many prisoners without trial does Israel hold? When the Palestinians ask to a cessation in violence, are they willing to do so themselves? When Israel demands recognition by Hamas, does Israel recognise that Palestine exists? And so on. On this measure it is immediately apparent that, whilst Israel has some legitimate grounds for complaint, simple justice demands that the Palestinians have a greater need and require a faster response. It is on the Palestinians that the weight of injustice most firmly falls: they have a lack of land, freedom of movement, water, work, defence and are either occupied (the West Bank) or imprisoned (Gaza). On them falls the greater destruction and death. Yet we tend to treat the two sides as though they are equal in ability to change the situation.

  3. Every viewpoint is partial. No single human being can grasp the entirety of something as complex and convoluted as Middle Eastern history. However, the opinion of an academic who has lived in the region is probably worth hearing.

    On the other hand, there comes a point where trying to unravel the precise train of events that led from a point in the past to the present becomes pointless, partly because in all depends which point one chooses as a beginning. What matters now is whether the parties want peace and how they could be persuaded to want it.

    It seems at present that while many ordinary people want peace, their leaders do not, and that is what causes the terrible situation they are in. There is a real sense in which the leaders of both sides could be accused of war crimes in pursuing a course which has no reasonable chance of success while causing death and loss to thousands of innocent people. That is not and cannot be a just war, because a just war requires proportionality and prospects of success which are clearly lacking in the present case. You are not entitled do do just anything in self-defence; there are criteria to be met.

  4. I have found Colin Chapman’s books helpful in understanding this situation. I believe his books were as impartial as anyone can be on this issue. His more recent articles seem to me to have increasingly taken the Palestinian side.

    In trying to understand this situation we need to begin at least around 1890. An account which starts in 1948 and fails to explain why there were so many Jews in Palestine at that time is no explanation . The Jewish settlements prior to 1939 were on land they had bought on the open market, mainly from Arab land owners. There was illegal immigration by both Jew and Arab in this period. The Israelis accepted the 1947 UN proposals and it was the Arab nations that attacked Israel at it’s creation.

    Since then there have been 3 wars, 2 intifadas and a peace process with 12 stages per Wikipedia. The facts around each of these are disputed and allegations made by both sides.

    Both Israel and Fatah accept in principle a two state solution as the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal of Hamas is the destruction of Israel. Israel has no option but to defend its own people and remove the threat from rocket attack and terror tunnel. The appropriate grid to judge this against is international law and just war doctrine.

  5. I think this article is partial. Leaning over to the Palestinians side. It says that Israel occupied in 1967 land and is using this fact as an argument. BUT it fails to explain WHY did they occupy land?? Different countries have been occupying different kinds of lands throughout human history, and Israel is no exception with over 25 different rulers in the last 3500 years. I’m not saying Israel is without fault, but this article leaves a naive view of the situation. I feel more confused than when I began reading this article.

  6. Colin is probably correct in arguing that a ceasefire or truce will not stand if underlying issues are not faced fully.

    The NewsNight of July 30 2014, available on iPlayer had a reasonable attempt at explaining the wider regional context, it’s worth watching.

    It’s difficult in just a few column inches to be even handed. I doubt any of us can put ourselves in the shoes of the various Palestinians in Gaza, or the Jews and other people groups that live in Israel.

    But, it’s not even handed that in Colin’s post, the 1948 occupation is talked of without reference to the fact of a determined war effort of nearby nations to eliminate Israel that year. Nor also to not mention the six day war. I would think that all in Israel, whether Zionist or not are fully aware of Palestinians wanting a separate state. I think Zionists would argue that in large part, Jordan was that state.

    Other sources (I don’t know how accurate they are) also claim that hundreds of thousands of Jews were removed from the newly formed Arabic nations at the time of the Palestinian peoples moving and being moved out.

    As to the blockade, surely current events, particularly the thousands of rockets which HAMAS have to be able to fire, plus the extensive reinforced concrete tunnel network – proves that Israel’s reasons for the blockade are verified.

    A tentative start to current truce becoming much longer, would be to satisfy Israel that Gaza is demilitarised. As an Israeli spokesman said a few days ago, “If HAMAS stop, the war will end in 10 seconds we will stop and Gaza can be rebuilt in peace”

    Personally, I doubt that will end the crises – which is much wider in the Middle East. The Arab Spring is symptomatic of the deep tensions which predate the British Mandate, or even the Ottomans.

  7. Good to hear from you Dave, and good to see Colin is still trying to explain and sow seeds of peace (though I’m not sure Bristol’s apparent annexing of Selly Oak in the biographical note will do the same).

    Whenever I hear Israeli representatives say they can do nothing else and that any state would do the same I want to ask them, “where are the houses in Belfast demolished with their owners still in them? Where are the areas desolated by British shelling? Where are the peace organisations which have been shut down and had their property destroyed?” Of course Israel has choices. Of course they know they can only solve the problem by taking a responsible approach. They choose what they do, and have done so all the time, and we can choose to draw our own conclusions.

    I doubt they will ever allow any peace process to succeed, because I think they choose to maximise and grasp every opportunity to kill Palestinians; that is why they continue to provoke them.

    I suspect the real cause of the problem is Israel’s PR electoral system, which gives extremist parties a stranglehold on power, just as our system excludes them, and some of these extremist parties believe they are repeating the Biblical conquest and don’t want to make the mistake of sparing some of the inhabitants a second time.

  8. An excellent article by one of our most learned authorities on the Middle East. Too often the present violence in Israel and Palestine is disconnected from the complex history, and in particular the tragic dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people since 1948.

    As for the comment from Mr Andrew Chapman (I assume no relation), it is well known that Mosab Hassan Yousef was for many years an Israeli spy. His book ‘Son of Hamas’ is very popular in certain Christian circles, because of his subsequent conversion to Christianity, but for the purposes of serious political debate his views on Hamas should be discounted.

  9. Hi Colin,

    An Anglican friend of mine pointed me to this article via Facebook. I’m glad to find your words here to help navigate through this awful mess.

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