Why Are Israel and Hamas At War?

From a Washington Post story by Leo Sands headlined “Why are Israel and Hamas at war? A basic explainer.”:

Israel and Hamas are at war. And the conflict threatens to escalate.

Here is a basic explainer of the reasons behind the war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

What started the latest war between Israel and Hamas?

On Saturday, Oct. 7, Hamas militants launched an unprecedented cross-border attack into Israel. In a highly organized stealth assault, they bulldozed the border fence in multiple places, caught Israeli’s security apparatus off-guard and overtook overwhelmed military defenses. Surprised by the lack of resistance, the attackers turned the operation into a bloody and chaotic rampage through civilian areas.

Militants took captives from a swath of territory more than 20 miles wide, reflecting the broad sweep of the incursion across Gaza’s border with southern Israel. The majority of the captives identified by The Washington Post were civilians, including women and young children. At a dance festival just three miles from the border fence, more than 260 bodies were recovered. In total, the incursion has killed at least 1,400 people in Israel and injured more than 4,121, authorities have said.

Hamas, a militant group that has controlled the densely populated Gaza Strip since 2006, has said the aim of attack was “to free Palestinian prisoners, stop Israeli aggression on al-Aqsa Mosque, and to break the siege on Gaza.”

Israel that same day declared war on Hamas. Palestinian officials said Israeli air and artillery strikes have killed 2,778 people in Gaza and wounded more than 9,900 others, as Israel masses troops near Gaza in anticipation of a land invasion. Israel on Oct. 9 imposed a “full siege” of the Gaza Strip, cutting off all electricity, food and fuel to the enclave and worsening the humanitarian crisis there.

Why are Israel and Hamas fighting?

The roots of the latest fighting predate the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the founding of Hamas in 1987. Palestinians and Israelis alike consider the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as their own — leading to periodic bouts of violence, armed conflict and displacement. Most recently, Israel has coexisted uneasily with Hamas — cycling between bloody escalations and periods of relative peace, including times when Gazans were able to work in and export goods to Israel.

Hamas — which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization since 1997 — won elections in Gaza in 2006, defeating Fatah, the main Palestinian party that still controls the Palestinian Authority, the U.S.-backed government based in the West Bank. In 2007, Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and seized full control of the enclave. Elections have not been held in Gaza since. Hamas has committed to using violence in its aim of replacing Israel with a Palestinian state and, unlike the Palestinian Authority, does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. The group, supported by Iran, has used explosives and rockets, along with suicide bombings and kidnappings, to target Israel since gaining control of Gaza.

Israel has retaliated with its superior military force and a punishing blockade, restricting imports and the movement of civilians in a strategy that rights groups have decried as collective punishment and a violation of international law.

The power imbalance and lack of movement toward peace and Palestinian statehood have kept tensions simmering. In May 2021, attempts to evict families from a Palestinian neighborhood in favor of Jewish Israelis in East Jerusalem led to violent clashes, prompting Hamas to launch rockets at Israeli cities.

This April, Israeli forces stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred Muslim site in Jerusalem. The following month, a five-day conflict between Israel and Islamic Jihad, another armed Palestinian faction, killed at least 22 people in Gaza and two in Israel. It was a rare summer of quiet in the Gaza Strip — until late August, when Israel halted new work permits and barred workers with permits from entering the country, directly blaming Hamas for a string of attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

What are Israel’s military objectives in Gaza?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a unity government with a political rival, has vowed to end Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s military has said a key target will be the militant group’s leadership. Israel’s National Security Council chief, Tzachi Hanegbi, has said that Israel no longer can accept Hamas as a “sovereign entity in the Gaza Strip.” He vowed that “complete victory will be the only possible outcome of this battle,” adding: “We will not only collapse Hamas military and governmental capabilities, but ensure that they will not be able to revive themselves afterward.”

Previous ground offensives by Israel into Gaza in 2014 and 2019 were more limited in aim — intending to punish and degrade Hamas but not remove it completely. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed during the 2019 campaign; the death toll in 2014 exceeded 1,500, including more than 500 children.

The anticipated operation is expected to be more significant, potentially pitting Israeli soldiers in intense urban combat with militants amid densely packed buildings, mines and tunnels surrounded by civilians. A week after declaring war, Israeli troops and armored vehicles were seen across Israel’s northern and eastern borders with Gaza.

In a television interview, President Biden said he thought it would be “a big mistake” for Israel to reoccupy Gaza, one of his firmest efforts yet to restrain Israel’s actions in its retaliation for the Oct. 7 massacre. Biden distinguished between Hamas, which perpetrated the deadly assault, and the ordinary Palestinians over whom the militant group rules. While Hamas needs to be eliminated, Biden said: “There needs to be a Palestinian Authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state.”

What is the situation for people in Gaza?

Israel has demanded that more than 1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza flee southward ahead of its anticipated ground attack. The United Nations has criticized the call as potentially “calamitous” amid heavy airstrikes. Aid agencies say the enclave is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis, which Israel’s siege and bombardments have worsened.

Unable to leave the enclave through its closed borders, Palestinians are facing shortages of critical resources, and with only intermittent phone and internet connections because of collapsed critical infrastructure. In interviews with The Post, residents said they had no electricity, no water and nowhere to flee. “Anywhere I go, we could die,” said Warda, a mother of three who declined to give her full name for security reasons.

As Israeli strikes lay waste to Gaza City’s once-bustling commercial center, around 400,000 people have sought shelter in school buildings belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees.

The agency said that because of the blockade, it is unable to provide assistance to Gazans. “Not one drop of water, not one grain of wheat, not a liter of fuel” has been allowed into the Gaza Strip, said the agency’s head, Philippe Lazzarini, one week into the war. Without those supplies, he said, the agency cannot continue its operations.

What could happen next in the Israel-Hamas war?

As Israeli forces prepare for the start of a major offensive, there are mounting humanitarian concerns for Gaza’s civilian population and questions about what would replace Hamas as the Gaza Strip’s governing entity.

Also growing is the risk that the conflict could draw in neighboring countries or even global powers.

The United States has pledged to support Israel, sending military aid and deploying naval assets to the region to help Israel defend itself. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tried to persuade Egypt and Saudi Arabia to embrace Washington’s position, but he has faced stiff opposition from the leaders of both Arab nations, where public sympathy for the Palestinian cause runs deep.

A potential flash point is Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where a risk exists of a second front opening up between Israel and Hezbollah — the well-armed and battle-trained Lebanese Shiite political and militant group that has fought Israel for decades from its base in southern Lebanon. Among its battles was a devastating 34-day war in 2006. In the past week, the two sides have traded bombardments, although some experts say Hezbollah may risk too much by fully joining the conflict.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, has denied having any role in the original Hamas attack. But Tehran has warned that it could take unspecified “preemptive action” to deter an Israeli assault on Gaza; an Iranian intervention would risk engulfing the region in a wider conflict.

Victoria Bisset, Niha Masih, Timothy Bella, Steve Hendrix and Loveday Morris contributed to this report.

Leo Sands is a breaking-news reporter in The Washington Post’s London Hub, covering news as it unfolds around the world.

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