In a region that knows the clamor of war far too well, an eight-day period of extreme back-and-forth violence broke out this November between Israelis and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip currently led by Hamas. Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organization by numerous international powers including the United States, has governed Gaza since it won the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections of 2006. Hamas’ charter explicitly denies Israel’s right to exist and calls for the liberation of Palestine as well as the dissolution of Israel entirely. Ever since the Israeli disengagement of the Gaza Strip in 2005, relations between Israelis and the Palestinians have been tenuous at best. Most notably, a three-week war broke out between the two groups in 2008, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the events that unfolded in November 2012. The strife between these two groups represents a seemingly endless struggle bound by a tremendous amount of history.
Between rockets, airstrikes, and bus bombings, the most recent conflict between Israel and Gaza resulted in the death of 161 Palestinians and 5 Israelis, while leaving hundreds of others wounded and psychologically scarred. The events leading up to this major conflict were not favorable to establishing peace. More than 830 rockets were launched into Israel by Hamas from Jan. 2011 up to Nov. 2012. Hamas launched the rockets in response to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the reportedly abhorrent living conditions within the territory. The cyclical nature of this conflict promotes an atmosphere of misunderstanding that breeds violence.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) initiated Operation Pillar of Defense as an official response to the incessant rocket fire into Israel. According to IDF spokesman Yoav Mordechai, “The first aim of this operation is to bring back quiet to southern Israel, and the second target is to strike at terror organizations.” Israel commenced the operation with the assassination of Ahmed Al-Jabari. Jabari was the head of the military wing of Hamas and responsible for many deadly attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. Jabari’s assassination escalated the violence to new levels. Israel carried out twenty airstrikes on the first day of the operation, killing ten Palestinians and wounding approximately 45 more. In response to Israel’s operation, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman, declared, “We will respond, that must happen. I have to say clearly we know that this road of retaliation is very long and we have to sacrifice. And we have sacrificed a lot.”
The following day Hamas increased the number of rockets firing, and Israeli airstrikes only grew heavier. Over 400 rockets were fired into Israel, killing three Israeli citizens residing in Kiryat Malachi on Nov. 15. Additional rockets fell in an open field in Rishon Lezion, a town just south of Tel Aviv. While there were no casualties in the attempted Tel Aviv attack, Hamas demonstrated its long-range missile capacity for the first time by threatening a city previously presumed to be outside of rocket range. The death toll in Israel would undoubtedly have been higher if not for the success of Israel’s “Iron Dome” technology. The Iron Dome program, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is a missile defense system that intercepted roughly 90% of incoming rockets fired by Hamas and saved Israel from serious infrastructural damage and heavy casualties. Meanwhile, the death toll in Gaza climbed to 19 as Israel reported to have struck 350 targets total since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Pillars of smoke engulfed both Gaza and Israel over the next six days as rockets and airstrikes continued to rain down in the region. Sirens sounded in the holy city of Jerusalem, as Hamas’ rockets landed just 10 miles south in the Jewish villages of Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Israel air raids relentlessly struck government buildings, smuggling tunnels, police buildings, and electricity sources in Gaza. In response to the ongoing violence, the Israeli defense minister called for the mobilization of 75,000 reservists. On Nov. 19, rumors of peace talks and cease-fire began to surface amidst the rockets and rubble. However, these rumors were only answered with 95 rockets fired by Hamas and 80 airstrikes carried out by Israel, one of which killed senior Hamas militant commander Ramez Harb.
As the death toll continued to rise, international powers began to accelerate peace efforts in the region. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to negotiate peace talks while Obama called for newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to facilitate peace with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the diplomatic efforts of the UN, Egypt, and the US, the fighting was not quieted for another two days. On Nov. 20, a rocket hit Rishon Lezion, wounding two Israelis, while two other Israelis were killed in the south in a separate attack. Meanwhile, chaos ensued in Gaza as an Israeli airstrike killed two. Six more Palestinians were shot dead and dragged through the streets by Hamas on the grounds of suspected collaboration with Israel.
Nov. 21, the eighth and final day of the current wave of violence, began with a bus explosion in Tel Aviv. Twenty-four Israelis were wounded by the first bombing in Israel since 2006. However, the attack did not appear to be carried out explicitly by Hamas and therefore did not significantly hinder peace talks between Hamas and Israel. Despite the terrors brought on by the morning, Israel and Hamas established a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. Both Israel and Hamas agreed to “halt all hostilities”, marking the end of Operation Pillar of Defense.
While both Palestinians and Israelis welcomed the ceasefire, it would be incredibly naive to envision an enduring peace unfolding in the immediate future between the two. The conflict is seemingly spinning in everlasting circles, with the Palestinians and Israelis both swearing that they are simply reacting to the other’s intolerable actions. Within the Tufts community, a variety of viewpoints are offered on the matter. Sophomore Hani Azzam, an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine, offers one perspective, “Rocket fire itself is a response to Israel’s oppression of Gaza, through blockade, siege, and restriction of movement.” Azzam, among many sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause, finds that Hamas’ actions towards Israel are a direct and rational response to the dire circumstances in the region. Many on the other side of spectrum, however, feel that Israel is forced to react to aggression and violence initiated by Hamas. Shira Shamir, President of Tufts Friends of Israel says, “After all, rocket fire is not an invitation to negotiations…I firmly believe that Israel has the right to defend itself and its citizens against acts of terrorism and that Israeli citizens should not have to live under the threat of rocket fire.”
The “means to an end” in this region are highly controversial, but ultimately the majority of Palestinians and Israelis yearn to see the day where bloodshed is not the standard. Azzam illustrates his desire for peace and provides an analysis of the current situation in the Middle East. He states, “A ceasefire in its nature is only meant to stop the fighting…Negotiations have not led to much in the past, so many on both sides tend to feel disillusioned with them. However, as power shifts and the dynamic between Hamas and Israel and Israel and the Palestinians changes, there may be a possibility that both sides engage in sincere negotiations as equals. Under this scenario, a long-lasting peace can be accomplished.” Shamir offers similar insight, stating, “I think now is the time to move forward on achieving peace…I sincerely hope that both Israeli and Palestinian leadership will take advantage of the calm and really take steps toward that goal.” Until that point in time, blockades will be met with rockets, rockets will be met with the Iron Dome, the Iron Dome will be met with additional rockets, and these additional rockets will be met with airstrikes – all of which most simply translate to further despair and desolation in the Middle East.