The current flare up of violence in Gaza is simply the most recent confrontation in a long history of battles between the Israelis and the Arab occupants of the Gaza Strip, a tiny area on the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Egypt that is about the size of Montgomery, Ala. and is home to 1.8 million Palestinian Arabs. To fully understand the current situation, one must look back almost 50 years to 1967 and the Six Day War.
In antiquity, Gaza was ruled by a number of empires including the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Israelites, the Romans, and the Ottomans. The home of the ancient Philistines, it was also the location of Samson’s imprisonment in the Old Testament. After World War I, control passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British. After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, an event referred to by Palestinians as “al Nakba” (the catastrophe), Gaza was occupied by Egypt even though the United Nations partition plan for Palestine had set aside the area to be an Arab state. Gaza was ostensibly governed by the All Palestine government during this time until 1959 when Egyptian President Nasser assumed overt control.
In 1967, an Arab alliance consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq with the backing of the Soviet Union attempted to launch a surprise attack against Israel. The Israelis learned of the Arab intentions and, after Arab forces had illegally blockaded Israeli ships from the Straits of Tiran, launched a preemptive attack on June 5. The attack was a stunning success, destroying most of the Egyptian air force on the ground. As a result of this initial success, Israel captured the territories of Gaza, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria respectively.
Israel governed Gaza from the end of the Six Day War until 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed by the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The agreement established limited self-government for the Palestinians living Israeli-occupied territories. Yasir Arafat, a terrorist and founder of al Fatah and the PLO, was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority, a post that he held until shortly before his death in 2004.
In 2005, Israeli President Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Although Israel did build some Jewish settlements in Gaza during its occupation, the goal of occupying Gaza in 1967 may have been to trade land for peace or an end to the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. In any event, Israel ended up occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 40 years until the 2005 disengagement.
Under Arafat’s rule, as well as that of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian National Authority became known for corruption and links to terror. Public infrastructure crumbled and the people became destitute. In 2006, after more than a decade of PLO rule, the people of Gaza voted for change in the form of a government by Hamas, an Iran-backed terrorist group. The election ushered in a period of fighting between supporters of the PLO and Hamas known as the Palestinian Civil War. Today, the Palestinian National Authority is still split between the two groups with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah, the PLO, in control of the West Bank.
In 2006, Hamas terrorists launched a raid into Israel that captured a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Galid Shalit. The kidnapping, combined with increasing numbers of rocket attacks using more sophisticated and longer range rockets, drove Israel to launch an aerial campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza in 2006. Shalit was ultimately exchanged for 1,027 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists after five years of captivity, but rocket attacks continued.
In 2008, the rockets prompted Israel to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Known as the Gaza War, the campaign was a military success for Israel and the resulting damage to Hamas caused a lull in the rocket attacks. Before withdrawing, the IDF also destroyed many of the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
Since the end of the Gaza War, the Gaza Strip has been effectively sealed off by both Israel and Egypt. The border crossings with Israel are frequently closed. The border crossing in Rafah, which leads into Egypt, the only border crossing with a country other than Israel, is almost always closed by the Egyptians as well.
The recent upheaval in the Gaza Strip comes in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in June. The murders were celebrated by Palestinian Arabs and sparked Israeli air attacks on Hamas in the West Bank as well as a possible revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by three Jewish Israelis. In turn, Hamas has increased rocket attacks on Israeli cities.
Joel Rosenberg reports that 520 rockets have hit Israel so far. Many of the rockets that threatened population centers have been shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. There are also indications that Iran is supplying longer range rockets than were previously available to Hamas. The M-302 rockets from Iran have a 115 mile range, which means that they can be fired from Gaza to Israel’s capitol of Tel Aviv.
It is unclear at this point what the next step in the current conflict will be. Many observers expect another Israeli incursion into Gaza. In the past, Egypt has often mediated ceasefires, but the chaotic situation in Egypt makes that unlikely.