The Elusive Peace

The spiralling conflict in West Asia shows how unresolved political problems can go out of hand

Ravi PalsokarBrig. Ravi Palsokar (retd)

The recent surprise attacks by Hamas across the border from the Gaza Strip, their unexpected success, and the expectedly violent reaction by Israel has again brought to the fore the fraught relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Given the increasing terrorist actions across the globe, the world has become inured to senseless violence, and yet, after the Hamas attack targeting innocent citizens and particularly women and little children, there is a sense that a line has been crossed. This appears to be a watershed moment and it remains to be seen how this latest flare-up of violence resolves itself, though it is likely to fester for a long time to come.

Israel is a nation born of war and has faced many a threat to its existence. However, there are two sides to the argument. The plight of the Palestinians in their ever-decreasing state evokes worldwide sympathy. Thus, we have two states playing the victim card. It is impossible to ignore the emotional aspect in discussions because the Holocaust – the Nazis’ attempts during World War II to wipe out the Jewish race, remains a living memory for the Israelis, a proud race.


What has Happened

Hamas, a US and European Union designated terrorist organisation, has been in power in the Gaza Strip since 2006. The Strip is a Palestinian enclave on the southwestern border with Egypt. On the morning of October 7, on the holy day of Simchat Torah when Jews complete and recommence the annual reading of the Torah, Hamas launched a coordinated surprise attack across the fenced border using explosives, bulldozers, and in one case, hang gliders. Their aim was to cause havoc, inflict as many casualties as possible irrespective of gender or age, and take hostages. They were singularly successful and an as yet unconfirmed number of hostages including soldiers, civilians, old women and little children, have been taken across the border and are being held.

Israel is sensitive to its people being taken hostage by terrorists and has in one recent case traded over a thousand Palestinian prisoners to get the release of one soldier. Now that the hostages including babies, are in the hundreds, their fate and release weighs uppermost in all Israelis’ minds. Israel has mobilised its forces, called up reservists, cleared the border areas of intruders and is poised to attack the Gaza Strip which houses Hamas. The problem is that Hamas is approximately one and half thousand strong but the rest of the population is in the hundreds of thousands. A hospital in the Gaza Strip has been hit and irrespective of who is responsible, Israel or Hamas, the death toll at the last count exceeds four hundred innocent citizens. The Gazan population has nowhere to go, and it is an irony that Egypt, a fellow Arab state, is unwilling to open its border to let in refugees though it has just allowed limited relief convoys carrying essential medical aid.

Unless something happens and fast, a human tragedy of unheard-of magnitude is in the offing and the rest of the world has no solutions to offer. Iran has warned that it is prepared to open Israel’s northern front through its (terrorist) proxy, Hezbollah. India, professing friendship with both Israel and Palestine as well as Arab states, has been careful to weigh its words, condemning terrorist violence while acknowledging the Palestinians’ right to exist and live peaceably within their borders. Despite the emotive nature of the conflict, we need to be clear that this is a war between Hamas and Israel and not Muslims versus Jews. It is in the interest of various interfering parties that religion as an issue is evoked to polarise the Islamic world. There is enough Islamophobia in the world without adding one more strand to it.

1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine against the British
1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine against the British

 A Brief History

We can start with the battle of Masada, CE 73, when the Romans defeated the Jews and expelled them, leading to the Diaspora as the Jewish people were forced to settle in different parts of the world. Today, a recruit joining the Israeli Defence Forces takes an oath that Masada will never happen again. The other point to note is that with the advent of Islam, the city of Jerusalem is considered holy by all the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The control of the city has caused conflict through the ages, continuing today.

We also need to acknowledge that anti-Semitism has always been a fact of life in Europe. As a result, there was always a demand for a Jewish homeland. In 1882, the Jews formed the Lovers of Zion committee (named after Mount Zion in Jerusalem) with the object of recreating the Palestine homeland. In 1897, the Jews held a Zionist conference under Theodor Herzl in Basle, Switzerland, to secure a home for them in Palestine. The British were sympathetic and offered some land in Uganda, but Herzl insisted on land in Palestine.

At this period the Ottoman Empire, which was already in decline, ruled the lands of Palestine and Arabia. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British got in touch with the Sharif of Mecca for support, promising an Arab nationhood in return. The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, was the jugular vein of the British Empire, particularly during the war when British and Indian troops were deployed to keep it secure. The British induced the Arab revolt by giving definite promises of self-government (recall Lawrence of Arabia), but when the war ended did not keep their word.

During the war years, the Jewry pressed their claim to Palestine and rich Jews in the US and Europe encouraged and financed a large number to settle in Palestine as farmers. In 1917, the now famous Balfour Declaration was made by the British foreign secretary, indicating support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Seeing the influx of Jewish foreigners, the Arab residents rebelled in 1936 but to little avail.

The Holocaust during Hitler’s reign is well known. The United Nations, in sympathy, voted in 1947 to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into two states. The Arabs were hostile to this arrangement as they realised they were being displaced. The state of Israel declared independence in May 1948 and was immediately invaded by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Israel defeated the invasion through a determined effort. An armistice in 1949 saw the new borders of Israel, encompassing more territory than had been awarded under the UN plan. The seeds of future conflicts were thus sown. Palestinians fled or were forced to do so by the Israelis, and this is known as Nakba meaning catastrophe. The Arabs were disorganised, lacking unity and funds. This led to the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat, which kept the Arab cause in the limelight through high profile terrorist acts including hijackings.

The pre-emptive assault by the Israelis in the 1967 war took the Arab states by surprise and Israel thus enlarged its territory to include the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Eastern part of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. These were strategically important gains and opened the path for the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Hardline Arabs were dissatisfied with Yasser Arafat’s leadership and his willingness to compromise, leading to the formation of Hamas in 1987. Israel kept expanding Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, leading to the first Intifada or uprising. The initial successes of the Arabs during the 1Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the ephemeral gains of the Intifada, gave confidence to the Palestinians and the Arabs. However, to remain in power, the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in need of the support of far-right parties, has led Israel into a hardline stance of confrontation and recalcitrance. The resultant fractured Israeli politics has possibly led to the intelligence failure to anticipate the October 7 Hamas attack.


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