The news has been inundated since last week with updates from the war between Israel and Hamas. The situation is dire, destructive, and dangerous, but it can also be confusing because there's so much information flying around that it can be hard to decipher what’s true and what's false. Plus, not everyone in the U.S. is aptly familiar with the history of the area and the conflict of its people.
In some of the latest reports, we know that Palestinian civilians struggled Sunday (Oct. 15) to evacuate northern Gaza ahead of Israel’s expected military offensive to eradicate Hamas. This is in response to the group’s recent attack that killed scores of Israeli civilians, USA Today reported.
On Oct. 7, Hamas, a Palestinian terroristic militant group that vows to wipe out Israel, launched a surprise assault, firing thousands of rockets into Israel, The New York Times reported. Hamas troops then crossed the border, infiltrated 22 Israeli towns and army bases, and abducted civilians (including some Americans) and soldiers. In a massive attack, Hamas killed at least 1,400 Israelis, including women and children, and took about 150 hostages.
Israel responded shortly after the incursion with airstrikes. Palestinian officials said Israel’s counteroffensive was indiscriminate, as missiles struck hospitals and mosques. Gaza, a 25-mile stretch of land nestled between Israel and Egypt, is where many Palestinians were forced to move when Israel declared victory in the Six-Day War against Egypt,Syria,a and Jordan in 1967. Now, Gaza authorities estimate that at least 2,450 Palestinians were killed by Sunday’s (Oct. 15) strike.
Israel’s response also includes a punishing siege of Gaza that blocks the impoverished area, which has been under Hamas control since 2007, from receiving electricity, food, water, and fuel. Israeli military officials warned more than a million Palestinians to flee as they prepared for a ground operation against Hamas.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has condemned the “appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza,” adding that Israel has a right to self-defense. The United States is sending military supplies to Israel, its longtime Middle East ally. On Sunday (Oct. 15), the State Department announced the appointment of Ambassador David Satterfield to help “address humanitarian issues in the region.”
This conflict is not new and the situation is escalating each day with no clear end in sight. Voices across the world are begging for a peaceful path forward. Until that happens, the primer below will provide clarity, help you stay informed, and help you understand who some of the key players are and identify some of the key places in the latest chapter of this war.
Hamas is a political party with an Islamist military wing based in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Founded in 1987, Hamas, whose name is an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement,” says it is a freedom-fighting movement to liberate Palestinians from Israeli occupation, NPR reports.
However, the United States and most Western allies consider Hamas a terrorist organization, according to NBC News. Some countries, including New Zealand, distinguish between Hamas’ military and other political wings.
Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert, wrote in The Atlantic that Hamas made its “genocidal intentions” toward Israel clear in a 1988 covenant. The document calls for the destruction of Israel, using holy war (jihad) to achieve its goal, refusing to negotiate peace, and spreading antisemitism.
Muhammad Deif, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, said the purpose of the Oct. 7 attack was so “the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended,” The Times reported.
The timing of the recent assault on Oct. 7, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah is symbolic. That date marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War that began on the morning of Oct. 6, The Washington Post noted. Known as the Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel that also caught U.S. officials off guard. It became a proxy war between the former Soviet Union, which backed Egypt, and the United States, Israel’s ally. Israel came out on top in that conflict, bringing the superpowers close to nuclear war.
The decades-long conflict pits Israel’s security concerns and its right to exist against Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood.
The contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict began with a plan to partition Palestine into two separate states, according to an ABC News timeline,which starts in 1917 with the British promising a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
In 1947, the United Nations adopted a resolution to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Under the plan, the United Nations would oversee the administration of Jerusalem, which has religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. But the Palestinians refused to accept the resolution.
Hostilities increased in 1948 after Israel declared independence as the State of Israel, prompting several Arab countries to vow opposition to a Jewish state in the region. Palestinians remember that year as the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homeland.
Aljazeera, the Qatari-based news outlet, has underscored the similarities between the current situation and the Nakba. “To many Palestinians, the moment echoes the experiences of their ancestors in 1948, when militias and then the army of the newly formed Israel destroyed more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns. Thousands were killed, and more than 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their land and forced to flee,” Palestinian journalist Mohammed R. Mhawesh wrote.
Reuters reports that Israel disputes the narrative that it drove Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Israel points to the attack from five Arab states the day after declaring the State of Israel as the leading cause of the refugee crisis.
Since then, Israel and its Arab neighbors have fought multiple wars, including the 1967 Six Days War, which allowed Israel to capture Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights in Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.
Gaza is said to be vitally important in this latest Israel-Hamas war. The strip, which is about the size of Washington, D.C., has a population of more than 2 million Palestinians living in one of the most densely populated places in the region, according to NBC News. Residents are young, with about half of them under the age of 19. More than 65 percent live below the poverty line and experience food insecurity.
Residents have suffered a 16-year blockade after Hamas seized political control of the territory. It means that Hamas has set up physical and economic blockades that restrict certain goods from entering Gaza that Israel believes can be used to make weapons.
Civilians in Gaza are frequently the victims of fighting between Hamas and Israel. In one skirmish, the United Nations reported that, over three days in August 2022, Israel launched 147 air strikes in Gaza, and Hamas fired about 1,100 rockets and mortars into Israel, which has an Iron Dome system to defend against weapons fired from Gaza. The hostilities killed 46 Palestinians, including 17 children, leaving 360 people with injuries. On the Israeli side, the fighting wounded 70 people, with no deaths reported. In the aftermath, a U.N. agency declared an increase in mental health disorders in Gaza, especially among children.
Human rights organizations have blasted Israel. An Amnesty International report accuses Israel of committing apartheid in the occupied territories and of committing apparent war crimes in the August 2022 fighting, adding that the blockade is an illegal collective punishment against Palestinians.
CBS News reports on protests in support of the Palestinians and provides a comprehensive timeline of the long history that led up to the current Israeli-Hamas war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Sunday (Oct. 15) to “demolish Hamas” in Gaza during an expanded emergency cabinet meeting that has, at least temporarily, united political rivals in Israel, Reuters reports.
Netanyahu, 73, won re-election in November 2022 for the fifth time. He leads Israel’s most right-wing coalition and has promoted a hawkish policy approach on Palestinian issues and Iran, which supports Hamas. He vows to keep Israel safe from its enemies.
Still, the prime minister, who has faced mass protests from his own people against his controversial judicial overhaul, is facing a felony corruption case. He is also expected to answer questions about the intelligence failure that led to the Hamas attack.
As Israel prepares to launch its counter-offensive against Hamas, Israel’s military has also got to keep an eye on Hezbollah fighters, the powerful militant group based on the northern border of Lebanon. They have vowed to end the Jewish state and could join the conflict, siding with Hamas, The Associated Press reports.
Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah (translated as the “Party of God”), a political party in Lebanon with a military wing. Hezbollah is well armed with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel, including strategic targets, like natural gas rigs and power stations. Hezbollah fighters are also battled tested from fighting in Syria.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, warned Israel Saturday (Oct. 14) that the conflict could expand, causing Israel to suffer “a huge earthquake” if Israel continued its assault on Gaza, the Associated Press reports. He suggested that Hezbollah fighters are prepared to enter the conflict.
Citing Hamas and Hezbollah senior members, The Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 8 that Iranian security officials have admitted to helping Hamas plan the attack on Israel and authorized the military action at a meeting in Lebanon. Iran’s elite military forces started training Hamas for the invasion way back in August.
However, while U.S. officials have not confirmed the WSJ’s report, the State Department seems to believe that Iran played some part in the preparation of the attack. They are investigating whether Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps aided Hamas.
“Hamas would not be what it is today without the financial and material backing that they have gotten from Iran. So yes, we very much do believe that Iran is at least complicit in these attacks, even if we do not yet have any evidence to show that they directed or orchestrated them,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
How You Can Help
No matter which side of this issue your opinion is most aligned with, the fact is that war has its victims and they rarely have anything to do with the fight itself. If you wish to help with the humanitarian efforts in the region, the following organizations have been vetted to ensure much-needed, meaningful support is provided to those in need:
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