The Israel-Hamas War has dominated the news since Hamas went on a murderous rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The Israeli government has responded by killing over 10,000 people in Gaza people in Gaza who had nothing to do with the original crime.
So how did we get here?
On a good day, corporate media isn’t much for context. And when our political leaders catch a bad case of war fever, the media tends to reflect that delirium as well.
What appears below is a brief sketch of a century-old conflict as told through short vignettes about key moments that continue to shape how this conflict is unfolding today. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Palestine/Israel conflict is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians who live with the legacy of a Faustian bargain that one historically oppressed and abused group made to take the land of another group of people who had never harmed them before.
This newly abused group has, at times, lashed out violently at their tormentors whose own historical traumas are then triggered anew, which in turn gives them the self-righteous fury to continue acting badly.
Where does this all end?
There are maximalists in both camps who envision all the land “from the river to the sea” someday belonging to their group and are willing to shed a lot of blood to get their way. But maybe, just maybe over time co-existence will become possible, whether through a one-state or two-state solution. If so, peaceful co-existence might spring not so much from idealism but from the hard-earned knowledge that every other approach is much worse.
For four centuries, Palestine exists in general peace as a province of the Ottoman Empire which also encompasses what is now Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and parts of Saudi Arabia. Great Britain defeats the Ottomans in World War I and seizes Palestine in 1917 among other Middle Eastern possessions.
Birth of Zionism
The First Zionist Congress convenes in Basel, Switzerland under the leadership of Theodore Herzl. Faced with rampant anti-semistim in 19th Century Europe, Herzl believed anti-semitism could not be defeated, only avoided. He argues instead for creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine that could be a safe haven for all Jews. One year before his death in 1904, Herzl expresses interest in a British Foreign Office proposal to establish a Jewish homeland in what is now Uganda. After his death, Herzl’s allies in the Zionist movement quickly bury that idea.
Nov. 2, 1917
British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour releases a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader in the British Jewish community, pledging Britain’s support for establishing “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine though less than 10% of the population of Palestine at the time was Jewish. The Balfour Declaration becomes a catalyst for the Zionist movement. No native Palestinian is consulted while it was being drafted.
The British Mandate
The League of Nations, the United Nations’ predecessor organization, grants Great Britain a mandate over Palestine and the French a mandate over Lebanon, ratifying terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret deal the two imperialist powers reached in 1916 to carve up the Middle East after World War 1.
A Dispute Over Holy Sites
Roughly 250 people are killed in riots over access to holy sites in Jerusalem — the Wailing Wall for Jews and the Al Aqsa Mosque for Muslims — that are sacred in their faith traditions.
A Palestinian general strike spread across Palestine in the summer of 1936. Armed conflict follows between the Palestinians on one side and the British and the Jews on the other. British repression of the uprising greatly weakened Palestinian leadership and military capability in the years leading up to the founding of Israel.
A Prophetic Warning
The German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt is best known as the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Once a committed Zionist, Arendt changed her mind, warning in 1944 that a Jewish state in Palestine surrounded by hostile neighbors would inevitably degenerate into a modern-day Sparta. “The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people,” she writes. “Social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy.”
King David Hotel Bombing
Impatient with continued British rule over Palestine, Irgun, a right-wing Zionist militia led by Menachem Begin, bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel was home to the British administration that oversaw Mandatory Palestine.
United Nations Partition
With British rule over Mandatory Palestine soon to expire, the United Nations agrees to a partition plan that gives 56% of Palestine to the future state of Israel and 44% to Palestinians, even though they are two-thirds of the population.
The Founding of Israel/The Nakba
May 14, 1948
The British mandate expires and the state of Israel is born. Eleven minutes later, the United States becomes the first nation to recognize Israel. Several Arab countries attack Israel but are defeated. From 1947–49, Zionist militias carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign that kills an estimated 10,000 Palestinians, depopulates more than 500 towns and villages and sends 750,000 Palestinians fleeing to neighboring countries. When the dust clears, Israel controls 78% of Palestine, while the other 22% is controlled by Jordan (West Bank, East Jerusalem) and Egypt (Gaza Strip). In defiance of international law, the refugees who were driven away would never be allowed to return. For Palestinians, the birth of Israel would become known as the Al Nakba, or “The Catastrophe.”
Birth of the PLO
The Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded as an umbrella organization for secular nationalist groups that sought to destroy the Israeli state through armed struggle. The largest group, Al-Fatah, was led by Yasser Arafat, who became chairman of the PLO in 1969. Arafat held that post until his death in 2004. The PLO played a key role in bringing the Palestinian struggle into the global spotlight. However, the group also gained an unsavory reputation in the West for carrying out deadly attacks against civilian targets.
Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against neighboring Arab nations, seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. This marks the beginning of the longest formal military occupation in world history which continues to this day in the West Bank. The defeat in the Six-Day War proves to be the high-water mark for the secular pan-Arab nationalist movement championed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In future decades, Islamist movements will play an increasingly prominent role in galvanizing opposition to Israel and the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
U.N. Resolution 242
In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to return lands seized in the Six Day War as the basis for a final settlement of its borders with its Arab neighbors and a future Palestinian state composed of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with East Jerusalem as the capital. This continues to be the internationally recognized basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
In the wake of the Six-Day War, the PLO steps up its attacks on Israel from neighboring Jordan. Worried that the PLO is seeking to topple him, Jordan’s King Hussein turns his regime’s firepower against the PLO in a civil war that runs from September 1970 to July 1971. The PLO is defeated and then allowed to withdraw to Lebanon where it sets up a new base.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli War
Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. Egypt and Syria initially regain control of their lost territory in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights before Israel rallies with an infusion of U.S. military aid and regains control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The war is seen as a debacle in Israel and Prime Minister Golda Meir is forced to resign afterward, while Arab celebrate the war as a triumph following their humiliating defeats in 1948 and 1967.
OPEC Oil Embargo
Led by Saudi Arabia, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) flex their muscles for the first time by launching an oil embargo against the United States and several other Western nations for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The cost of a gallon of gas soars for American motorists who find themselves stuck in gas lines when they go to fill up their tank. The cash windfall from the spike in prices makes oil-rich Middle Eastern nations fabulously wealthy overnight.
Israel Moves to the Right
After nearly three decades in power, Israel’s Labor Party is defeated by Menachem Begin and his conservative Likud Party. Religious-minded settlers, who believe all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was promised by God to the Jewish people, make up a key part of Prime Minister Begin’s right-wing coalition. Under Begin, Israel ramps up settlement construction in the Occupied Territories in the hopes of forestalling demands for it to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.
Sadat Goes to Israel
Four years after he launched the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announces his desire to reach a peace agreement with Israel and becomes the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state.
Camp David Peace Accords
After 12 days of secret negotiations, Sadat, Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter reached a comprehensive peace agreement. Israel agrees to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for security guarantees that its powerful Arab neighbor will not attack it again in the future. The United States sweetens the deal for Egypt by agreeing to make it the world’s second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. The three countries vow to pursue a vaguely-defined peace process to resolve the Palestinian issue. The Camp David Accords are denounced throughout the Arab world as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Egypt is expelled from the Arab League and is not allowed to rejoin until 1989. The peace deal between Israel and Egypt remains in effect to this day.
Israel Invades Lebanon
With peace on Israel’s southern border guaranteed with Egypt, Begin pivots and launches an invasion of Lebanon where Israel and the PLO have fought skirmishes on Israel’s northern border for years. Israel invades Lebanon and drives all the way to Beirut, marking the first time it enters an Arab capital. Israel’s bombardment of Beirut draws international condemnation. While Israel and its local allies control West Beirut, Arafat and the PLO remain holed up in East Beirut. The standoff ends when Arafat and the PLO agree to withdraw to Tunisia in North Africa.
The Origins of Hezbollah
Following its 1982 invasion, Israel pulls back and maintains control of a swath of southern Lebanon with the help of local Christian militia allies. This occupation radicalizes the Shi’ite Muslims of southern Lebanon and helps spur the formation of Hezbollah (“The Party of God”) — a political party, militia and social-services agency all wrapped in one — which led the Lebanese resistance to Israel. In 2000, Israel was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, boosting Hezbollah’s prestige.
1st Intifada Begins
A traffic accident on the West Bank with an Israeli military vehicle that leaves four Palestinians dead sparks protests that turns into a massive, largely non-violent uprising against the Occupation. This bottom-up movement is coordinated by community councils and mobilizes people from across Palestinian civil society. Israeli repression and infiltration gradually grinds the movement down over several years.
Hamas Is Born
Hamas is founded by Islamists who vow to destroy Israel. Hamas’s growth is tacitly supported by Israel who see the organization as a counterweight to the secular leftism of the PLO which is the much larger of the two groups at the time.
Oslo Peace Accords
Shaken by the Intifada, Israel’s top leaders realize they can’t run a full-scale military occupation indefinitely. They need a credible partner to sub-contract their dirty work to. Marginalized by the intifada, the PLO’s exiled leadership in Tunisia decides to come in from the cold and give Israel what it needs in return for a junior role in running the Occupied Territories and a promise to begin “final negotiations” on creating a Palestinian state. The arrangement is codified in the Oslo Accords and then solemnized when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands on the White House lawn while President Bill Clinton presides over the ceremony.
A Fateful Assassination
Nov. 4, 1995
Yitzak Rabin’s commitment to the Oslo Accords draws the ire of the settler West Bank settler movement. On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin, a former general who led the Israeli military to victory in the Six-Day War, speaks to a peace rally that brings out 100,000 people. As Rabin exits the event, he is shot and killed by an Israeli right-wing extremist. In the run-up to the election to replace Rabin, Hamas unleashes a wave of suicide bombers that succeed in scaring Israeli voters into the arms of Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has no interest in creating a Palestinian state.
The Second Intifada
For Palestinians, the early hopes for the Oslo Peace Accords gave way to bitter disappointment over the continued building of settlements in the Occupied Territories and the failure to gain their own state. In September 2000, militant groups within the PLO launch a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians on public buses, at pizza parlors and even a Passover seder. The Second Intifada claimed more than 800 Israeli lives and 3,000 Palestinians. It also all but extinguished the Israeli peace movement which was already demoralized by Yitzak Rabin’s assassination.
BDS Movement Founded
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a Palestinian-led movement, is founded. Seeking to emulate the global sanctions movement that helped topple South Africa’s apartheid regime, BDS urges civil society organizations – academic associations, churches, labor unions, grassroots movements – to join this nonviolent movement to cripple Israel economically and by extension delegitimize it in the international arena. To date, BDS has had limited success. Critics of the Palestinian cause who like to ask why the Palestinians don’t engage in nonviolent struggle like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King have also denounced BDS.
The Wall Goes Up
In response to the spate of suicide bombings, the Israelis built a massive separation barrier (or “apartheid wall” as it was deemed by its critics) that doesn’t abide by the 1967 boundaries, but cuts deep into the West Bank and gives more land to the settlers.
Withdrawal from Gaza
Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza 38 years after capturing it from Egypt, abandoning settlements and leaving it under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas Wins an Election
With the ineffectual Palestinian Authority mired in corruption, Hamas wins the majority of seats in a Palestinian legislative election
This 34-day conflict began with cross-border raid by Hezbollah that killed several Israelis and ended with as many as 1,300 Lebanese killed and billions of dollars in damage to Lebanon’s civic infrastructure. 165 Israelis were killed. Hezbollah would only grow stronger as a military force.
Hamas Take Full Control of Gaza
Hamas fighters drive their rivals from the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza and take full control of the coastal strip. They remain in power to this day. Israel responds by build a giant security fence around Gaza, turning the territory into an “open-air prison,” according to Human Rights Watch.
The First Israel-Hamas War
Israel launches a 22-day military offensive in Gaza after rockets were fired at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. About 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis are killed before a ceasefire is agreed upon. Similar conflicts between Israel and Hamas would occur in 2012, 2014 and 2021 with Gazans enduring much higher casualties each time.
In the centennial year of the Balfour Declaration, the Trump administration moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a signal of strong support for the Israeli government’s claim that “the eternal city” should be its capital.
Netanyahu & Hamas
In a meeting with his Likud Party allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu argues for allowing Hamas in Gaza to receive more support as a way to weaken the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.
The Abraham Accords
With interest in the peace process defunct in both Tel Aviv and Washington, the Trump administration, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, came up with a novel solution: Ignore the Palestinians and bribe Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel. So far, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have joined the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia was moving toward a normalization deal with Israel until the Israel-Gaza War erupted.
Netanyahu Returns to Power
Upon returning to power, Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist religious allies focused on expanding the settler footprint in the West Bank as rapidly as possible. For them, burying any hopes for a two-state solution remains a work in progress. To deal with the turmoil caused by the government’s policies, most of the Israeli Defense Forces troops stationed in Southern Israel are rotated to the West Bank.
Another Crisis Begins
Oct. 7, 2023
Hamas breaks through the high-tech wall that surrounds Gaza and goes on a murderous rampage in about 20 nearby Israeli towns and villages, leaving over 1,400 Israelis dead. Israeli vows revenge, killing more than 9,000 Gazans (including more than 3,800 children) in less four weeks while cutting off all food, water, fuel and medicines.