Palestinians walk past a house that witnesses said was damaged in an Israel air strike during a week of fighting in Gaza City. Reuters photo

In a seemingly endless pattern of violence, Israeli and Palestinian lives were once again endangered as a military battle broke out along the Israel-Gaza border for the second time in four years in mid-November. The tally of dead and wounded on both sides rose, leaving families shattered and children traumatized. Israelis and Palestinians competed with each other to garner sympathy for their cause in the media and cyberspace. 

In the end, Hamas and Israel were eager to claim both the title of victim and tactical victor after the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, which brought an end to the violence just before Israel launched a ground assault. By all accounts, the cease-fire is more akin to the little Dutch boy stopping up the floodwaters with his finger in the dyke than a real cure to the endless conflict. Now all that is needed is for a passer-by to notice and bring help before the waters burst.

History of animosity

On the surface, the reason for the continuing animosity between Israel and the Palestinians is quite simple: Palestinians want their own independent country on territory that is now under Israeli sovereignty — with some factions, like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which controls Gaza, denying that Israel has that very same right. On the other hand, Israel demands safe borders and security from terror attacks, holding that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are terrorist groups and so can’t be negotiated with. Some Israeli politicians champion a “greater Israel,” including the expansions of settlements in the West Bank. 

'Dark Shadow of War'
In the eight days of fighting along the Gaza border between Hamas and Israel, 140 Palestinians were killed, including 90 civilians, and another 1,200 people were wounded. Six Israelis were killed, including four civilians, and another 129 people were wounded. The tiny Christian community of Gaza suffered damage to some of their institutions as well, and one man died of a heart attack during a bombing attack. Members of the small Hebrew-speaking Catholic parish in the Israeli town of Beersheba sought solace together during Mass as rockets were launched at the city from Gaza. Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal called for a cessation of hostilities and for the authorities to think of the innocent victims. 
“War is never holy,” he said in a statement, noting that life in Gaza is “like an open air prison.

Discussion of the history of the dispute can in itself be a source of conflict, but it can be summarized by saying that Zionism, which symbolizes the Jewish desire to return and reclaim the Land of Israel, was part of the national movements rampant in Europe of the late 1800s. Some European Jews began to immigrate to what was then called Palestine under the rule of the declining Ottoman Empire. Also already living there was a larger population of Arabs. After defeat by the allies in World War I, the Ottoman Empire was parceled off to the European victors, and Palestine came under British mandate rule. 

After their assistance in defeating the Nazi Axis in World War II, both the Arabs and Jews believed the British had promised them an independent national homeland. After a failed attempt to partition the territory, war broke out as Israel declared independence in May 1948. 

Ironically, the United Nations’ Nov. 29 vote to recognize Palestine’s statehood came on the 65th anniversary of the 1947 U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 backing a partition plan for Palestine. The United States and Israel voted against the Nov. 29 resolution. 

Years of ensuing bloody conflict saw territory change hands. The 1993 Oslo Accords were to be the start of a period of negotiations with an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, allowing for an establishment of a Palestinian Authority for self-government during an interim period until a permanent agreement was reached. Instead, Palestinians say the stymied accords have created an impotent Palestinian authority leading to political infighting that now threatens to keep them apart, with no feasible state in sight.

Political void

Ironically, by accepting the recent Egyptian cease-fire with Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively sidelined the elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, Hamas’ political and military rival. Hamas took control over Gaza after winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. After the takeover, Israel imposed a U.S.-backed blockade of Gaza, and Egypt practically closed off its own crossing with Gaza, leaving the Gaza Strip virtually cut off from the world except for a network of underground tunnels through which anything and everything has been smuggled. 

Bethlehem University sociology professor emeritus Bernard Sabella perhaps stated the obvious when he said that the absence of a viable political process leaves a political void that only encourages Hamas to challenge Israel by firing rockets into southern Israel. 

“The reality on the ground is that there is a stalemate,” Sabella told Our Sunday Visitor. “That political stalemate is working more in favor of Hamas than in favor of Abbas, who is more practical and pragmatic. The symbolism of going to the United Nations would’ve been much stronger if the Gaza fighting had not taken place. Now everyone is talking about ‘heroic’ Hamas.” 

With Hamas, which is backed by Iran, garnering support for future elections and the Israeli government likely to shift further to the right after next month’s election, there does not seem anyone able to steer a safe course toward even a lessening of tensions, he said. 

“There is a weakening of the political establishment. I am afraid what happened this month will be repeated again,” said Sabella.

In need of a mediator

Right now, he said, Hamas is simply “fighting to control the street,” rather than fighting to “liberate Palestine.” As the entity that stood up to Israel, Hamas comes out the winner, Sabella said. 

“The whole game is tied to alliances in the region, including Iran and Egypt, also to the fact that Hamas wants to prove to the Palestinians that they are the real address, not Abbas,” he added. “You weaken even further Abbas and (Prime Minister Salam Fayyad) and eventually you have no one to go back to but Hamas. A Hamas leadership will be difficult because of their policy of confrontation with Israel … and military incursions.” 

The problem, said Wadie Abunassar, director of the Haifa-based think tank International Center for Consultations, is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have lost their way. 

“I am not sure that they know what they want,” he said. “On the one hand, the Palestinians are under occupation, but I can’t say they are developing a good liberation strategy … and I don’t see the Israelis having a clear survival strategy. Israel is facing a growing strategic threat, not only from Iran.” 

A major challenge facing the Israeli and Palestinians is a serious lack of leadership on either side, said Abunassar. Adding to the tumult is lack of a mediator and lack of mutual understanding. 

“I’m not even saying mutual agreement. But most of the time Israelis and Palestinians are taking steps that reflect a lack of understanding of how that step will affect the other side,” he said. “One clash here and one clash there, a U.N. bid or not a U.N. bid — those are all details; these three missing elements are the core of the crisis.” 

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Israel.