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Hamas Attack is Latest Tragedy in Long Cycle of Middle East Violence
Historic rivalry between Sunni, Shiite Muslims also seen as a factor of the timing of the offensive from Gaza into Israel
When Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip carried out attacks in Israel on Saturday, resulting in thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties, it was the latest clash in a conflict with origins ascribed to biblical times.
The modern battle between Israelis and Palestinians is primarily a territorial dispute, although there is a religious component as Israel is a Jewish state and the Palestinians are predominately Muslims in a land deemed holy by several religions, including Christianity.
In Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism is known as The Temple Mount, because two ancient Jewish temples that were destroyed are located there. It is also the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third-most sacred site in Islam (known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif, meaning Noble Sanctuary) Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven from there.
A Hamas leader referred to Saturday’s assault into southern Israel, which included Palestinian gunmen on paragliders under cover of thousands of rocket launches, as the “al-Aqsa flood” in defense of the mosque, 75 kilometers to the northwest of Gaza.
There have been numerous assaults on the mosque “by Israeli soldiers marching in with their boots on, which is total desecration. If that happened in any synagogue in the world, something comparable, we'd be screaming that it was antisemitism, which indeed it would be,” said Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University.
For the Israeli government, Jerusalem is its “unified, eternal” capital. It has held the eastern part of the city since the 1967 Middle East war, a setback for Palestinian dreams of a capital there.
Israel’s annexation of largely Palestinian eastern Jerusalem is not internationally recognized. There are now more than 200,000 people living in Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.
A nationalistic mythology, rooted in biblical scripture, is used by those on the right in Israel to justify the occupation of Palestinian territories and the continuing repression of its people, according to Khaled Elgindy, director of the Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The primary area in dispute is on the west bank of the Jordan River, which the Israeli government refers to as Judea and Samaria. Many Jews living there assert it is the land of their people going back 4,000 years and was never under Arab rule.
Palestinians see history differently and point to their families’ residing there under four centuries of Turkish rule and before.
Hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution waxed and waned through declarations, armed conflict and treaties since the early 20th century after the British took control of the region following the end of the First World War. Britain and France then carved the area into spheres of influence. Violence between the Arab indigenous population and arriving Jewish settlers, part of a burgeoning Zionist movement, escalated.
A war erupted in 1948, a day after Israel declared independence and Arab armies from five countries marched into areas that had not been apportioned by the United Nations to the Jews. The Israelis emerged victorious. For Palestinians, it was a historic loss known as the Nakbah or “catastrophe” for the large number of families who lost their land and became refugees.
More wars would follow.
“It’s hard to ignore the parallels [Saturday] with events from exactly 50 years ago when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Israel had been feeling quite triumphalist and invincible after its lightning victory of 1967,” says Elgindy.
There was a burst of hope, 30 years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton as a witness, signed the Oslo Accords at the White House. But the interim agreement failed. It did not lead the Palestinians to a state of their own after a period of self-governance under the Palestinian Authority. Israel did not stop settlement building, blaming the Palestinian leadership for failing to prevent terrorist attacks emanating from territory under Fatah control.
No U.S. president since Barack Obama has effectively raised the issue of scaling back the Israeli presence in their territories, according to the Palestinians.
The two-state solution “has been dead for decades, unfortunately. I never would have said that before because I never wanted to subject the Palestinian people to more years of trauma and tragedy living in a one state that was not giving them their rights,” says James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab-American Institute. “The result is that today, I don't know where you get a Palestinian state. I don't know where it's to be set up.”
Analysts across the political spectrum generally concur there will be continuing repercussions if the plight of the Palestinians is ignored.
“The Palestinian people are not going to vanish into thin air. This issue is not going to go away just because you think it's too much of a problem to deal with it,” Beinin told me in a Saturday evening phone conversation.
Palestinian disgust with the corruption of Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO, led to Hamas as the victor in 2006 balloting in Gaza, the last time elections were held there.
“Israel has been pounding the Gaza Strip every several years since 2008. They call it ‘mowing the grass,’” said Beinin, a former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
The deterioration of the situation in the Middle East in recent decades “is clearly an American failure,” according to Zogby, contending that Washington has not effectively used its influence. Zogby refers to the Israelis as America’s spoiled child and the Palestinians as the abused child.
“America has not taken the adult role that it should take and create limits for both sides. We put pressure on and punished Palestinians, and we've continually rewarded and placated Israel,” Zogby told me on Sunday.
That led to an inevitable violent outburst from Hamas in the densely populated Gaza Strip, according to Beinin. “You’re going to imprison 2.1 million people for a decade-and-a-half and there won't be an explosion?”
The Stanford professor said he has family at a kibbutz that was attacked on Saturday, adding, “I don’t know where they all are at this moment.”
More than 600 Israelis were killed and at least 2,200 wounded in the Saturday attacks by Hamas, according to officials in Tel Aviv. It was the deadliest day of violence for Israel since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.
Hamas has also abducted 100 Israelis, including women, children and the elderly, as well as soldiers, and taken them to Gaza.
Israeli retaliation in Gaza, through shelling and airstrikes, has killed 300 people, half of them civilians, according to Hamas.
There is a wider geopolitical context with the timing of the Hamas attack – an attempt to thwart the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“Who opposes it? Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” program.
“So, to the extent that this was designed to try to derail the efforts that were being made, that speaks volumes.”
The Abraham Accords, initiated by the previous U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, effectively ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in pursuing diplomatic recognition between Israel and additional Arab nations.
Iran and Hamas have a long relationship, noted Blinken in his Sunday TV interviews.
“Hamas wouldn't be Hamas without the support it's had for many years from Iran. In this moment, we don't have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out. But that's something we're looking at very carefully, and we've got to see where the facts lead,” said Blinken on NBC’s "Meet the Press” program.
“I think it's unlikely Hamas could have carried this out without that support,” said Elgindy at the Middle East Institute. But, he added, “Hamas is not an operative or a proxy of the Iranian regime.”
For decades, the Saudis, who are Sunni Muslims, have been engaged in a rivalry with the Iranians, who are Shi’ite Muslims, for leadership of the Islamic world. The split goes back to the 7th century when Muslims became divided about who should be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor as caliph.
Nearly all Palestinian Muslims are Sunnis and Hamas is a Sunni-led faction, something that has not prevented support from the Shi’ite Islamic Republic in Tehran.
State television in Iran on Saturday showed video of members of parliament in Tehran standing and chanting “Death to Israel” and “Palestine is victorious,” while government officials were quoted pledging support for the “anti-Zionist resistance” across the region.
“People will talk about Israeli intransigence and Palestinian suffering. All true. None of that justifies this barbaric attack on civilians and hostage taking. The Middle East will never be the same,” predicted Steven David, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
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