The Nation and the World

The history behind the Israel-Hamas war, put simply

The current Israel-Hamas war has a complicated history. The October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, and Israel’s armed response, emerged from a deep history of repeated conflicts over the decades. Today, the region that was once called Palestine is divided into Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. In addition to the Palestinian people who reside in Israel and make up 20% of the population, Palestinians also reside in the densely populated Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. Because of past conflicts, the country of Israel is shaped around war. 

On November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary of Britain, wrote a letter to the figurehead of the British Jewish community, Lionel Walter. At the time, the area of Palestine was a British colony, having previously been an Ottoman colony, and its population was over 90 percent Arab. This letter, called the Balfour Declaration, promised that the British government would create “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Between the years 1923 and 1948, the British assisted in a mass Jewish immigration, many of whom were people fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Panic rose for Palestinian Arabs, as their country’s demographic was changing and their land was being confiscated by the British and given to the Jewish settlers. 

Increased tension led to the Arab Revolt, lasting from 1936 to 1939. During this time, the Arab National Committee requested Palestinians to withhold tax payments and boycott Jewish products in protest against British colonialism and the immigration of Jewish people. In response, the British implemented home demolitions, a practice that Israel continues today. By the end of this revolt, around 5,000 Palestinians had been killed. 

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In 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. The Jewish community agreed to this division, while the Arab community rejected it. Fighting broke out between the Jews and Palestinians over this partition. The British withdrew in May 1948, releasing control of the colony – it was referred to as “giving up the mandate” – and left the Jews and Arabs to fight it out. More than 10,000 Arabs and more than 6,000 Jews died, and both Jewish and Palestinian villages were attacked. Some of these attacks, mostly of Palestinian villages, are referred to by some historians  as “massacres,” and more than half of the Palestinians population was displaced. The UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which would have returned some of these Palestinian refugees, but the Arab states rejected this resolution. On May 14, 1948, the Provisional Government of Israel declared the establishment of the State of Israel.

Since then, there has been an ongoing series of conflicts such as the Six-Day War (1967), first and second intifadas (1987/2000), and the Yom Kippur War (1973).

These conflicts continue to exist in the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis both think that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should be theirs because Israel is a crucial location with historical and religious significance for the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian religions. 

On October 7, 2023, the biggest terrorist attack in Israel’s history occurred when the Hamas military came inside the border and killed more than 1400 people and took more than 200 people hostage, Israeli officials say. Israel responded with air, land, and sea attacks on Gaza with the goal of eliminating Hamas entirely. Since starting the attacks, Israel has cut off resources to all of Gaza, which is home to more than two million people, causing people to lack access to water, food, and other basic necessities. On Friday, October 13, Israel dropped leaflets into Gaza City telling people they needed to evacuate and flee so the Israeli military could open fire on Gaza in an attempt to find Hamas. However, much of the Gaza population cannot afford transportation to leave their homes. At the moment, the only way to leave Gaza is through Rafah’s Crossing, which goes into Egypt because Israel closed off their two borders. Throughout this war, according to Hamas, more than ten thousand people have been killed just in Gaza. There was a seven day ceasefire from November 24 to November 30, where Hamas released one hundred and five hostages and Israel released two hundred and forty Palestinian prisoners. The ceasefire ended on Thursday, November 30, when Hamas killed four Israelis in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, which was followed by more rockets being launched into Israel. Israeli officials claim this broke the ceasefire, and fighting has resumed. 

Ruins photograph source: Bloomberg; map source: BBC

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