You hear a scream from the living room. A loud thud and then comes the sound of hiccups, spilling over into tears. Your kids are fighting. There is a toy involved. It’s badly broken now but still intact. The toy is still worth having.
You pull them apart. You demand to know what happened.
But both children have a different story.
And it is impossible for you to know what really happened: to know who was to blame, who was at fault. Because really, the fight went on for so long that both are in the wrong. Both have done badly by the other. Both have caused hurt.
And determining who started it requires you to say when ‘it’ began. With a five year old and a seven year old, who have been arguing for 20 minutes, perhaps you can decipher that. With a conflict as old as time, or at least as old as Abraham – it’s not so easy.
It is possibly our globe’s oldest conflict. For centuries the world has been fighting over a tiny patch of land in the Middle East; a patch of land that is home to many of the most significantly holy sites in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Trying to explain it is close to impossible because really – where do you start? Any starting point you choose is somewhat arbitrary and will inevitably favour one side over the other.
We do not pretend that this post is exhaustive. We do not pretend that it is not limited in the information it provides. After all, you can only convey so much in 2000 words.
We have done our best to summarise the events of recent days, while providing you with the context of the last 60 years or so, since the State of Israel was created. Language is not neutral, we know that. But we have sought to be as impartial as we could be, please know that any bias is unintentional.
What’s happening now?
On 14 November, Israel assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of Hamas’ military wing by bombing his car as he drove through Gaza City with his body guard. Jabari was a senior figure within Hamas and was believed to have been behind the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Israel’s attack also came after a series of 100+ rocket attacks by Hamas on Southern Israel.
Video footage of the Jabari’s death has appeared on YouTube and has gone viral. Israel maintains that they are not seeking to engage in war but that the attack was necessary to protect civilians in Southern Israel. Hamas has retaliated by launching a series of rocket attacks on Israel (including into the major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv).
It is estimated that around one hundred rockets have been fired into Israel each day in the now six days that have passed since the attack on Jabari. Israel has activated its ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence shield, which (according to the Israeli military) has been successful in intercepting around 90 per cent of missiles it has aimed to stop. The rockets are, however, reaching further into the Israeli mainland than they ever have before.
Thousands of Israeli troops are reportedly congregating along the border of the Gaza strip, preparing to engage if necessary. Israel has already responded to the rocket attacks from Hamas with attacks from air and sea.
On November 18, Israel attacked two Gaza-based media organisations (including a Hamas television station). The Gaza Press Association claims that six journalists were injured and seven civilians killed (including children) as a result of the strikes. The strike has been criticised by Reporters without Borders as an attack on freedom of information.
Who are the people, religions and organisations involved?
Israel borders Lebanon in the north, Syria in the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank in the east, Egypt and the Gaza Strip in the southwest. It was founded in 1948 and is the world’s only Jewish state. The Prime Minister is the head of state and leader of the Cabinet, in this case Benjamin Netanyahu. The President, Shimon Peres, is a ceremonial role with little power.
The majority of residents in Israel are Jewish, with Muslims accounting for about 16 per cent and Christians about 2 per cent. Israel enjoys strong support from The United States and Great Britain but little support in the Middle East or North Africa.
Egypt and Jordan have both signed peace treaties with Israel but most Arab nations refuse to acknowledge that Israel exists. Israeli law dictates that states who actively seek its destruction (including Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iraq) are enemy countries. The Israeli Defence Force is one of the best equipped and most powerful armies in the world. Military service is compulsory for young Israelis.
The State of Palestine, not recognised by all countries, was established in 1988 and shares many territories with Israel. (Neither Australia nor the United States recognise the State of Palestine, although both conduct business with the PLO). It is controlled by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the Chairman of which is Mahmoud Abbas. He has unofficially been President of the State of Palestine since 2005, officially since 2008.
Technically, however, his term ended in January 2010, which has resulted in opposition group Hamas not recognising the legitimacy of his presidency. The Palestinian National Authority is the body elected to govern disputed territories between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel. However in 2006 the Hamas party were successful in the Palestinian legislative elections and have been in control of Gaza within the Palestinian territories since the Battle of Gaza in 2007. Hamas are a powerful influence throughout Palestine but are viewed as a terrorist organisation by much of the Western world.
Palestine has been fighting Israel since 1948, for recognition and access to mutually disputed territories. Palestine enjoys good relations with most Middle Eastern and North African countries. The existence of the State of Palestine is one of the most difficult policy questions in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written about Israel and Palestine, and many sets of peace talks, with little progress.
What is Australia’s position?
Prime Minister Gillard issued a statement on 16 November saying:
Australia is gravely concerned by escalating conflict in the Middle East.
The Government condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and calls on Hamas to cease these immediately.
Australia supports Israel’s right to defend itself against these indiscriminate attacks. Such attacks on Israel’s civilian population are utterly unacceptable.
Further escalations in rocket attacks from Gaza, such as those seen overnight, will not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or their cause for self-determination and statehood.
We urge both Hamas and Israel to exercise restraint and to protect the lives of civilians.
The Government of Australia will work earnestly with other countries to end further attacks from Gaza and to encourage a de-escalation of this conflict. We encourage regional countries, particularly Egypt, to support efforts to restore peace.
The only way forward is a two-state solution based on direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.
How did this all begin?
Conflict in the Middle East dates back thousands of years. The territory currently occupied by Israel and Palestine remains under dispute as to who has rightful control. While several Muslim nations still seek the ultimate destruction of the State of Israel, the Western World is largely in agreement that a two state solution is the only way forward.
While there have been some modern moves towards lasting peace and agreements that would ensure the safety and security of Arabs and Israelis, they have ultimately been futile. This is because the Holy City of Jerusalem is significant within all three of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Below is a brief summary of the most significant events since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which is a widely agreed starting point for consideration of the conflict.
1948: The Arab-Israeli War breaks out following the British leaving Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel, world’s first (and only) Jewish State. Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt invade Israel. Hundreds of thousands Arabs left Israel during this period. Arabs who remained in Israel were granted citizenship but there was widespread reluctance to do this, in the fear it would be seen as an endorsement of the Jewish state.
Israel prevailed in the war and an armistice was signed in 1949 with the surrounding states and territory for the Jewish state was annexed beyond the partition borders. The remaining territories were occupied by Egypt and Jodran, areas now known as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. (Jordan also retained significant control of East Jerusalem). The delineation of land between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank at the end of 1949 is commonly referred to as the ‘Green Line’.
1967: The 6 day war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours in June 1967, despite lasting only a short period of time it completely changed to power structures in the Middle East with Israel effectively doubling the land it controlled. Jordan lost control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Egypt lost control of Gaza, Syria lost control of the Golan Heights.
Israel’s powerful military offense included bombings of Egypt that crippled the nation’s air force capabilities. The UN Security Council was deeply concerned by the conflict, calling for the need to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East, so that every State could live safely and securely. The UN called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forced from the newly acquired territories.
1973: The Yom Kipur War commenced when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel from the north in 1973 on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Egypt and Syria were attempting to regain the territories that they had lost during the 1967 war but the ultimate outcome was that Israel only acquired more territories. Thousands of soldiers lost their lives on both sides of the conflict.
1979 – Egypt and Israel sign a historic treaty which sets out a framework for peace in the region, including some (albeit very limited) autonomy for the Palestinians within their occupied territories. The Egyptian President Sadat who shocked the world by extending the hand of peace to Israel was then assassinated in 1981 by rogue members of the Egyptian army.
1987-93 – The first intifada (a mass uprising of citizens) breaks out in Gaza and the West Bank as Arabs dispute the Israeli occupation. More than 1000 Palestinians lose their lives after their protests and demonstrations turn violent and the Israel Defence Forces intervene.
1993 – The historic Oslo Accord is signed where for the first time Palestinians agree to recognise the State of Israel and its right to exist in exchange for Israel’s occupation of the territories being gradually dismantled. This is a huge breakthrough in Middle East negotiations and an unprecedented show of goodwill on both sides. The Declaration of Principles is signed in Washington and millions around the world watch as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands for the first time.
2000 – The second intifada occurs, despite the peace making efforts of the new Israeli Government under Ehud Barak. Withdrawals from occupied lands by the Israelis continue but the frustration of the Palestinians over the slow progress under the agreed peace plan eventually boils over.
Two weeks of peace talks in the United States break down and while uncertainty abounds, Ariel Sharon, leader of the right wing Likud Party in Israel decided to tour the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (a Muslim holy site) and this is seen as provocative, leading to a second uprising by the Palestinians. More lives are lost.
Shortly after Israel begins to erect a security fence that will act as a barrier to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism. The security fence is intended to stretch for almost 700km and runs roughly along the 1949 ‘Green Line’. The Israelis claim that the barrier has prevented countless suicide bombers from killing its citizens. Opponents of the barrier say that it deviates from the territory Israel actually controls and as such constitutes an illegal takeover of land.
2005-06 – Israel pulls out of Gaza
Mahmoud Abbas is elected as President of the Palestinian Authority and enters into fresh negotiations with the Israelis. These negotiations are temporarily derailed by Palestinian military groups but Abbas is able to negotiate with groups including Hamas to achieve a short ceasefire.
The Israeli Government, despite emotional protests by Jewish settlers, begins withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. In the following years there is intermittent fighting (including the war with Lebanon) and Hamas increasingly becomes a stronger and more powerful force within the region. Which leads us to the present day.
For a far more comprehensive summary of the history of the conflict, we would recommend the BBC’s World News site which you can visit here.
What happens next?
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Sunday morning that “The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation.”
World leaders (led by the US, Egypt and the United Nations) are calling for a ceasefire and talks of a truce are underway but the violence shows no immediate signs of stopping.
Press reports differ as to how many people have been killed but it is understood to be upwards of 100 Palestinians, 3 Israelis, with close to 1000 injured on both sides of the conflict.
It is reported that children make up the majority of those killed.