Palestinian child sits in rubble in Gaza in 2022. Photo credit: Mohammed Ibrahim/ Unsplash

Context is everything. Understanding the current conflict between Hamas, Israel, and Palestine

13 mins read

The Hamas attack highlights decades-long Palestinian grievances in an apartheid system, and an even more complicated history of the region often left out of current reports. This story tackles some key points and sobering facts on how the mainstream press has failed to tell the full story.

Suppose an army seized your home for its government. After forcing you and your family out of the house, soldiers allow you to keep a small portion of your property. After the takeover, you and your family can live in what was once your backyard, but all of you must remain there, under siege, forever. Your new “home” is surrounded by a human barricade of armed soldiers. In this situation, you have little food and water as the government restricts both, and security checkpoints are everywhere.

How would you feel with a limited patch of land? Then you are unable to travel anywhere outside of that patch without identification, which you have to display at every checkpoint? This scenario is reminiscent of South African apartheid where governing whites once severely limited the movements of Black citizens under racial segregation. An apartheid-like system exists now in sections of Israel where Palestinians suffer high unemployment, poverty, and overcrowding.

The October 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas—a militant faction—had mass and social media scrambling for information. Some companies sent reporters and camera crews to Israel to get a first-hand look at the conflict, while news agencies already on the ground used this opportunity to cover the crisis in detail. 

Reports on the Hamas action included video interviews of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Coverage revealed them living in deplorable conditions. At the same time, Jewish people residing in the same areas such as Gaza, the West Bank or the Golan Heights, were not captured in similar conditions. The coverage made the case that the gross inequities, along with Palestinians existing under a violent, colonial-like state for decades, might have motivated Hamas’ guerrilla offensives. To substantiate these assessments, Senior Hamas official Ali Barakeh, who is based in Lebanon, told NPR that the attack was a reaction to “Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people in Jerusalem and the West Bank.” 

Other observers believe the attack was meant to scuttle peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel. If talks are successful, Palestinians fear Saudi Arabia will abandon their fight for land and freedom, but Barakeh said the affront was meant to “break the (Israeli) blockade on the Gaza Strip,” and free Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Rightfully so, Hamas’ brutal actions were universally condemned. Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians were killed. Then more fatalities occurred in the Israeli military response. As of October 12, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said over 1,200 Israelis, including 27 Americans, died in the Hamas attack, with 2,800 wounded, 242 held hostage, with 40 missing.

What is alarming is the response by Israel in waging a war directed at all of Palestine rather than to Hamas. From the IDF response, which included continuous airstrikes, the Gaza Ministry of Health reported 9,061 casualties, and more than 32,000 injured on November 2. 

Unavoidable TV footage shows what is left of Gaza neighborhoods after incursions by the Israeli military. Televised scenes from Gaza bring the war right to our living rooms. In the recordings, we see families wailing over the deaths of loved ones shot dead, or killed when buildings were bombed with many buried under the rubble. To worsen matters, the lack of emergency contingencies or equipment prevented their ability to rescue family members who were subsequently buried alive.

Also the Israeli government cut off water, electricity and barred humanitarian aid from being delivered to Gaza until the hostages taken by Hamas were released. Later on, they allowed some supplies to be admitted into the war zone.

More reports revealed Israel deploying white phosphorus in weapons used against Hamas. An incendiary weapon, white phosphorus is a solid that burns in extremely high temperatures. Not only does it destroy property, but it can cause life-long suffering when it encounters human skin. However, the Israeli military denied using it. Snopes, a news media fact checking site, posted photos taken on October 11 of white streaks of smoke in the sky, which is what white phosphorus looks like when deployed.

Because Hamas is a Palestinian organization, the news media began to cover Palestine with more details that have been absent for years in the region’s previous focus; especially when it comes to traditional news outlets.

“Mainstream media are hopeless on the [Israeli-Palestinian] issue,” said Jeff Cohen in an Ark interview. Cohen is one of the founders of the New York City-based FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a watchdog group. In 2011, he co-founded RootsAction, a California-based online grassroots organizing group. RootsAction mobilizes people to speak out against threats to economic fairness, civil liberties, environmental protection, and equality.

“I used to work at MSNBC. When reporters learned that I had co-founded FAIR, I began getting visits from MSNBC reporters. They told me that they hadn’t experienced as much censorship as they did when they covered the Middle East.” 

Even before the Hamas attack, Cohen intimated that U.S. news coverage “implied that Israeli lives were worth more than Palestinian lives. From news reports I’ve seen [since the Hamas attack] they aren’t being balanced.”

Pro-Israel reporting extends to the in-studio TV interviews when anchors talk with Middle East experts on the air. “The audience isn’t informed that these experts had worked for the military, or military contractors,” said Cohen. 

He further contends that leaving out critical information when covering the issue becomes more problematic when news media do little if anything at all to tackle what’s at the core of the years-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. “They see no debate about this in Congress or with the President. There’s no democracy if there’s no debate. The U.S. is the main player on one side.”

Soberly, he contends. “The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians could have been settled years ago.”

Cohen, who is Jewish, understands why Jewish people wanted to live in a safe haven following the rise of German dictator Hitler in the 1930s, and his Nazi death camps where six million Jews were killed. “But Israel should not have become a racist, exclusionary state,” he said.  

Centuries of Palestinian struggle for independence

Before the Hamas attack, Palestinians in Israel were all but forgotten. Palestine was the name given to the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, invading armies of Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and a host of other nations, took over Palestine and colonized its indigenous population. Between 1517 and 1917, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of it.

In 1917, the British fought the Ottoman Empire, eventually seizing Palestine lands. Following World War I, in 1918, the League of Nations, which is the precursor to the United Nations (UN), gave Britain a mandate that officially gave control of Palestine to the British. The order included a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, effective in 1923, where Jewish people could be safe from rampant and violent antisemitism.

However, the mandate also called for Palestinian independence and self government. Neither group was pleased. Regardless of their position, British military forces ruled Palestine through much of the 1940s, while at the same time, both Palestinian and Israeli guerilla groups fought the British for the land.

In 1947, the United Nations proposed partitioning the land into two states—one Jewish and one Arab. In the interim, Jerusalem would become an international territory. While Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, Arab leaders rejected it. Since Arabs were the majority population in several areas of Palestine, they thought they should be granted more land.  

Tensions between Arabs and Jews increased when Jews allowed more Jewish refugees than the 75,000 permitted under the mandate.  But, in the aftermath of World War II, there were 600,000 Jewish refugees without a place to go. Aside from Palestine, no other countries would take them in. As Jewish refugees attempted to find a place to settle, the British even arrested them and placed them in prison camps. Subsequently, the British’s failure to humanely and fairly address the overflow, and its inadequate decisions and efforts which criminalized the Jews, instigated a cascade of knotty circumstances in the Arab-Jew entanglement.

The 1948 “catastrophe”

As the number of Jewish refugees in Palestine grew, the British decided that it could no longer manage the Palestinian-Jewish conflict over ownership of Palestine. In 1948, the British formally gave up ruling Palestine and withdrew from the region.

With the British gone, Palestine was proclaimed the independent state of Israel by its Jewish residents. Immediately, Harry Truman, then the U.S. president, recognized Israel. The Soviet Union also recognized Israel as an independent state. After attaining independence, Israel accelerated Palestinian expulsion.

Between 1947 and 1949, Palestinians were violently removed from their country by the Israeli army and militias. In the mass removal, nearly one million Palestinians were forced from their residences. Many became “internal refugees,” or displaced within Israel; while others fled to Jordan and Syria. It is estimated that 700,000 native residents lost their homes and what used to be their country. 

Palestinians refer to this time as “Nakba” or “catastrophe.” Today, a significant number of Palestinians are descendants of Nakba victims.

At the same time as the Nakba, Israel fought Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq over land ownership. By the war’s July 1949 conclusion, Israel controlled two-thirds of the land, whereas, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and Jordan controlled the West Bank. However, the turf wars continued.

Following its 1967 war with Egypt, Israel gained almost all of the land formerly known as Palestine. Consequently, Palestinians were relegated to the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. 

From the apartheid conditions, Israelis were privileged rights and a standard of living denied to Palestinians in the settlements. According to Human Rights Watch: “Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity, and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools, and access to roads, while nearby Jewish settlers enjoy all of these state-provided benefits…”

Once again, Palestinians saw the amount of land they used to own shrink, and they could do nothing to stop it.

Failed peace accords

From 1967 to the early 1990s, battles between Israelis and Palestinians over land ownership continued. However, in 1993, Palestinian and Israeli leaders negotiated a peace agreement in Oslo, Norway. Named “The Oslo Accords,” Palestinians and Israelis were to negotiate a two-state solution. Both parties worked together on creating side-by-side, Israeli and Palestinian nations before the decade’s end. Although Palestinian and Israeli leaders signed the agreement, it was never implemented.

Fast-forward to the Donald Trump Administration from 2017 to 2020. During this time, peace attempts worsened the in the region. Under President Trump, Jerusalem, which was claimed by Israelis and Palestinians, was declared as Israel’s capital. Then the U.S. cut funding to the Palestinian Authority, which was responsible for overseeing the West Bank and Gaza. Also, the U.S. halted money earmarked for Palestinian relief programs, supposedly because the funding was not in the U.S. interest. Added to that, the government closed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Palestinians had done nothing to negotiate a peace settlement. 

The Trump peace “deal of the century” as he dubbed it, allowed Israel to retain all of its settlements on the West Bank and gain authority over the Jordanian Valley. With boundaries diminished in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel seized more land for Israeli settlements. Eventually, peace negotiations fell apart.

A gruesome, but unverified story goes viral

In the years before and after the creation of Israel, Israelis employed anti-Palestinian propaganda to justify Palestinian oppression. A common tactic found in Israeli textbooks for school children has described Palestinians as, among other things, “murderous rioters.” Moreover, a recent example of dehumanizing Palestinians is an unfounded rumor that Hamas soldiers beheaded 40 babies.

Due to years of Israeli and other media portraying Palestinians as inhuman, reporters found the beheaded babies story easy to believe; so easy that few investigated its origin. “It didn’t take much effort to track down the source of the story,” said Saurav Sarkar in an Ark interview.

The freelance journalist explained further. “If you follow the sourcing back from most of the news stories, it leads to i24,” Israel’s 24-hour cable news channel. Sakar, traced the story to i24 reporter Nicole Zedek who heard the account from IDF soldiers who claimed they had viewed the bodies. As of press time, the IDF has yet to corroborate this occurrence.

“I don’t have definitive evidence that the story is false and wasn’t making the argument that it was,” said Sarkar. “My argument is that it was reported irresponsibly for something so inflammatory. And I was describing a piece of the process by which it took on a life of its own, to the point where you had the President of the United States repeating it.”

In this war, and in others, narratives are shaped by the government and the opposition. There are other factors at work. Among them is the speed at which news is delivered. Information is coming into newsrooms at a rapid pace, and it is difficult for news editors and reporters to keep up with it. 

Another factor is that Hamas and the Israeli government control what the news media can cover, and what they can’t cover. To make matters more complex, Hamas’ relationship with Palestinians is fraught with a plethora of internal issues. One mainly is that they do not fully represent the interests of Palestinians. However, the dearth in coverage of the region leaves out these often intricate, and very complicated narratives.

Backlash in the U.S. against Palestinians and other Arabs

According to Chris Habiby, the Hamas attack has stirred anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiments in the U.S. Habiby is the National Government Affairs and Advocacy Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Founded in 1980, ADC is the largest Arab American grassroots organization in the nation. 

Habiby said the starkest example of anti-Arab hate was the October 14 stabbing death of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Plainfield Township, Illinois. He was stabbed six times. The boy’s mother, Hanaan Shahin, 32, was stabbed 12 times. Their landlord and alleged assailant, Joseph Czuba, 71, faces hate crime charges. Czuba’s wife told police that he believed the small family would harm him because they were Palestinian.

Concern that the war in Israel could lead to more  U.S.incidents of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian violence,  the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the stabbings. “We will use every legal authority at our disposal to bring to justice those who perpetrate illegal acts of hate,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement. 

Since the Sept. 11 tragedy, hate crimes against Arab Americans have mounted in reaction to terrorist incidents involving Muslims or Arabs. Media reports that portray all Arabs or Muslims as “terrorists” contribute to the hate, which media scholar Deepa Kumar cites as islamophobia in the news.

The stakes are high

News reporters and assignment editors claim that they lack enough time to delve into background stories about Palestinians in the U.S. or Israel. Habiby indicated that even when the news media interviewed Palestinians in Gaza, they focused more on war damages sustained by Israel. The unspoken implication was that all Palestinians were terrorists, undeserving of empathy.

Despite footage on news programs showing Palestinians’ homes destroyed in the battles, Palestinian families sobbing over the corpses of dead loved ones, and reports that the Israeli government cut off food, fuel and water to Gaza, people still believe the official Israeli government explanations, rather than what they see nightly on their TV screens.  

“We’ve seen a culture of fear among Palestinians across the country,” said Habiby. “Since October 7, we’ve heard of employees being fired from their jobs for displaying the Palestinian flag at work. We’ve heard from students who were sent home for wearing keffiyehs,” the black and white striped and checkered cotton headdress worn by Palestinians, and those in other Middle East countries.

Even those who have taken a Pro-Palestine stance and are not of Palestinian heritage have reaped the consequences of their actions. Like NYU law student Ryna Workman whose job offer was rescinded after she called for a ceasefire. Years before, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN after a speech he made regarding the Israel-Palestine issue at the UN. Although more people are beginning to speak out, the stakes have been costly for some.

Habiby said the ADC offers pro bono legal assistance to college students who have been targeted for ethnic harassment. Also, the organization established an emergency fund to protect college students’ right to express their views, and will investigate any litigation against the students.

The ADC, along with its partner organizations, is trying to obtain a ceasefire in the Hamas-Israeli war, said Habiby, and ensure that no more U.S. military assistance goes to Israel. “We support Representative Cori Bush’s ceasefire resolution,” Habiby informed. The Missouri Democrat’s resolution calls for de-escalation and an immediate ceasefire in Israel and “occupied Palestine,” and for humanitarian assistance to be delivered to Gaza.

More evacuations, little aid

In the days after the Hamas attack, peace seemed unattainable. On October 13, Israel’s hard-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ordered the 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to immediately evacuate their homes within 24 hours. Netanyahu indicated that there would be more fighting against Hamas, and that northern Gaza Palestinians should go to southern Gaza if they did not want to be hurt. 

After Israel barred essential supplies from entering Gaza, humanitarian aid organizations pleaded with Israel to allow them into Gaza. Israel’s response was the equivalent of “Tough shit.” 

“We are at war with Hamas, and we will not allow anything into the Gaza strip that supports the fighting ability of Hamas,” IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said in an interview with CNN. “If it comes to the price of inconvenience for the population, so be it.”

The UN addressed Israel’s evacuation warning. “Moving more than one million people across a densely populated war zone to a place with no food, water or accommodation, when the entire territory is under siege, is extremely dangerous – and in some cases, simply not possible,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. According to the UN, international law prohibits withholding essential supplies and targeting civilians. As an extension, Israel gave Palestinians six more hours to leave.

Palestinians who did not evacuate Gaza faced continued shortages. Israel’s government said it would permit humanitarian supplies into Gaza when Hamas releases all hostages [it] has captured in the war. So far, a few hostages have been released by Hamas, but not all of them. There are families of hostages who disagree with Israel’s strategy of continuing to fight until all hostages are released. Some have asked the Israeli government for a ceasefire in the war to protect their captured relatives.

As the hostages’ relatives live with uncertainty, CNN reported on October 27 that UN humanitarian aid was finally allowed into Gaza recently. It consisted of medicine, food and water, but not fuel. Israel claims Hamas is stockpiling fuel, and suggested that it share its fuel with the Palestinians. Hamas indicated that it would not provide Gaza with aid which Hamas  needed. In a short period of time, the UN relief ran low as the Israeli army stepped up its ground and air battles to supposedly uncover and kill Hamas fighters hiding in Gaza neighborhoods..

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

With thousands of deaths reported and Palestinian districts obliterated, the two-state solution is worth a try. At least it beats endless fighting where people die on both sides.

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