Old wounds

October 29, 2023

Death toll rises as Israel continues airstrikes in Gaza

Old wounds


ore than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed so far as Israel’s deadly attacks in Gaza continue. To understand the latest flare up of violence between Israeli forces and Hamas, let us first take a look at the history of the contested land.

The states of Israel and Palestine were established in 1948 through a United Nations resolution on the territory that had been colonised by the British. Prior to the so-called British mandate of the early 20th Century, the region had been ruled by a variety of empires including the Romans, Arabs and the Ottomans.

The European colonisers, especially the British, appropriated much of the Palestinian land to the Jewish people, living in the West. “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, reads the infamous Balfour Declaration issued by the British foreign secretary in November 1917.

During World War I, the British wished to gain the support of the European Jews. In the bargain, the latter were facilitated by the British to ‘settle’ in their ‘homeland.’

The Ottoman Empire lost control over much of its territories in the Middle East after the World War I and the British Empire established its colonial hegemony over the lands. The British had already colonised large areas in Africa and South Asia.

In World War II, the British again needed the support of the European Jewish communities. More and more Jews were allowed therefore to move to Palestine from various European countries. The Holocaust too forced millions of Jews to abandon Germany and Poland and ‘return’ to their ‘homeland’ claimed by Palestinians as their ‘land’ on account of individual/ familial possession over centuries. The Palestinians questioned and resisted the colonial usurpation of the territory.

For their part, Zionist organisations like Irgun intensified their militancy, described by some as terrorism, against the British after the WWII, tactically pressuring the latter to establish a Jewish state. The British decided to partition the land. Two states were established under the auspices of the UN in 1948: Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arab Muslims. The latter questioned the ontology of this partition, claiming that they were living on the land for centuries and were being forcibly ousted by the British in cahoots with other Western powers to settle another community.

In the Cold War years no Muslim country had the military might to take on the pro-Israel powers such as the UK and the US.

Nonetheless, the post-colonial Arab states - Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - refused to recognise the newly-established Zionist state of Israel. This non-recognition of Israel by the Arab states and societies led to a military attack on the Israeli state the day after its birth. Lacking a coherent military strategy and capacity, the five Arab states failed to defeat Israel. The latter was well supported, particularly by the US, which aimed at countering communism in the Middle East through the ‘security state’ of Israel. The key Arab states that attacked the nascent state of Israel, fought this and later wars (in 1967 and 1973) for territorial reasons. Jordan, for instance, joined the wars to annex the West Bank and Egypt had an eye on Gaza.

Old wounds

The European colonisers, especially the British, appropriated much of the Palestinian land to the Jewish people, living in the West.

Had the Arab states been united in principle and practice, Israel may not have had the strategic, geographic and demographic space to expand the way it did after 1967. After the 1967 war, Israel ‘absorbed’ all of historical Palestine, as well as additional territory from Egypt and Syria. By the end of the war, it had expelled 300,000 Palestinians from their homes, including 130,000 who were displaced in 1948, and gained territory that was three and a half times its original size.

Having realised the contours of international relations in the final years of the Cold War, Egypt thought it prudent to negotiate the terms of peace with Israel in 1978, with US mediation. Though Egypt was returned its occupied territory, Anwar Sadaat, the Egyptian president, was murdered by an Arab nationalist for agreeing to the terms.

The Camp David Accords reflected Israel’s diplomatic and military dominance over the Arab states. Having lost confidence in the Arab governments, several Palestinian militant organisations such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation continued their struggle for a singularly independent state over the following decade. The PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, made peace with Israel under the Oslo Accords (1993). The immediate cost, this time, was paid by the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed at the hands of an Israeli zealot.

The PLO also paid a price in terms of rejection of its peace agreement with the Israelis. The political and militant factionalisation, on the one hand eroded the possibility of peace with Israel and on the other widened the intra-Palestine divide. New political groups, like the Hamas emerged and became popular in 2000s. Hamas has its origins in 1987 when armed resistance was carried out against Israel by Palestinian youth in what is known as the First Intifada (uprising). Politically and administratively, Hamas established its control in the Gaza strip after Israeli forces withdrew from the area. In the occupied West Bank, the so-called Palestine Authority is in control. It is led by Mahmood Abbas of Al-Fatah. Since the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Hamas has been fighting with Israel intermittingly.

Israel has prevailed every time thanks to its massive military power and strategic support from the US and the EU.

Despite its state-of-the-art military technology, the Israeli state and society were shocked when, on October 7, Hamas militants entered neighbouring Israeli villages and towns and shot some civilians besides killing some soldiers. The Hamas actions have to be seen in the historicity of Israeli occupation of Palestine under the British colonialism and post-1967 settler colonialism. In fact, since 1967, the so-called state of Palestinian established by the UN exists only on paper. On the ground, the West Bank is an occupied Palestinian territory; Jerusalem is under Israeli control and Gaza has gained global attention as the world largest open-air prison where half of the housing infrastructure, including hospitals, has been destroyed by Israeli bombardment and more than 7,000 civilians have been killed, half of them children.

The Gaza Palestinians have no shelter, no food, no medicines and no water. A genocide is taking place as the world watches. Hamas has tactically jeopardised the so-called Abraham accords. If the US and its allies are interested in durable peace in the Middle East, it is high time they found a negotiated resolution of this lingering conflict with due regard for the aspirations of the Palestinians. There is apparently no military solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The world must wake up now. It is already late.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at ejaz.bhatty@gmail.com

Old wounds