Understanding what’s happening in Gaza
The Gaza Strip, a region of immense historical and political significance, is currently mired in yet another tragic episode.
At the time of writing, over 13,000 Palestinians have lost their lives in Gaza, with 4,609 of them being children and more than 28,000 individuals have been injured since October 7. Additionally, 2,700 people, including 1,500 children, are reported missing and suspected to be trapped under the rubble. More than 50 entire families have been killed. At least 53 journalists and media workers, 198 medical staff, 130 teachers, and 104 United Nations (UN) staff have lost their lives since the hostilities began. [1,2,3,4]
In the quest to find a reason for what is happening right now, the most common opinion today would be the events of October 7. An armed conflict erupted between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups, primarily led by Hamas. The conflict was triggered by a coordinated attack by Hamas, which involved infiltrations into Israel by air, sea and land. Now known by the world as the ‘surprise attack’ , caused the death of at least 1400 consisting mainly of civilians and injured over 3400 in Israel.
However, some would argue that the origins of the Israel-Palestine issue have deep roots, stretching back to 1948, to the turn of the 20th century, or even thousands of years. For now, let’s look at 2023. Tensions have been brewing along Israel’s volatile border with Gaza fueled in part by months of deadly incidents in the West Bank. Throughout this year, Israeli forces killed at least 247 Palestinians, while Palestinian attacks claimed the lives of 32 Israelis and two foreign nationals. The UN reported this as the highest number since 2005.  Without discounting the difficulty of surmising what has transpired this year, popular opinion rests on the ramping up of settlement constructions in the West Bank, and tensions concerning the Al-Aqsa mosque to be salient contributors to the violence.[9,10]
The UN Secretary-General in his statement to the Security Council said ‘It is important to recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. This underscores the need to delve into the region’s very complex history, an impossible task to accomplish in one article, but the least we can do is try.
The Balfour Declaration in 1917 promised a ‘national home for the Jewish People’ in Palestine, which is believed to be a response to rising anti-semitism in Europe. In 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to split Palestine into two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish people at the time represented one-third of the population but were granted more of the territory (56.47% of the land) than the Arab state. In 1948, Israel declared its independence, starting the Arab-Israeli War, expelling roughly 800,000 Palestinians, and ethnically cleansing approximately 530 communities, known as the Nakba or the ‘Catastrophe’ in Arabic. Gazans today are refugees or those descended from refugees of the Nakba. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were under the control of Egypt and Jordan, respectively, for the next 19 years.
In 1967, Israel marked a great victory, adding Gaza to the territory under Israeli control. It is estimated that 20,000 Arabs and 800 Israelis died in just 132 hours of fighting. These clashes displaced over 500,000 and brought more than 1 million Palestinians into the ‘occupied territories’ under Israeli rule. The territory was divided into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip solidifying Israel’s claim, and marking a new phase of the conflict, which at the time very much resembled today’s situation, territorially and otherwise.
What followed were continuous clashes between Israelis (forces and civilians) and Palestinians due to the daily injustices of Palestinian life prevailing in those times. The first intifada (or ‘shake off’) of 1987 was a Palestinian uprising which claimed an estimated 1,200 Palestinians’ lives. The 1993 Oslo Accords brought an end to the fighting and laid the groundwork for peace negotiations. Over the next few years, largely unsuccessful peace attempts eventually culminated in the second intifada in 2000, fueled by popular Palestinian disillusionment with the Oslo peace process as the realities on the ground failed to align with the expectations created by the peace agreements. This uprising was far more intense and violent than the first. It resulted in over 4,300 fatalities, with the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths exceeding 3 to 1. While the exact end of the second intifada remains a topic of debate, a commonly accepted milestone was Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which included the removal of Israeli settlements from the region.
During Gaza’s slim period of autonomy, factions such as Hamas and Fatah rose to take control of the Gaza Strip, resulting in internal conflicts. The armed takeover of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 prompted Israel to impose a blockade.[20,21] This blockade has endured for 16 years—Israel controlling Gaza’s territorial water, airspace, land crossings, flow of goods, water supply, electricity, telecommunications, sewage networks and other utilities. As of October 9 this year, this has escalated into a total siege.
The Void of Nuance and Palestine’s Silenced Resistance
The Xhosa concept of ubuntu, combined with the Arabic word intifada — as seen in this graffiti on the “separation” wall in Bethlehem — roughly translates to mean: uplifting human dignity through nonviolence. (WNV / Van Hook)
It is easy to lay down a brief chronology of facts, void of nuance, and paint a simplified picture of what led to what. But the issue of Israel and Palestine, much like many others in this world rests on intricate politics and the deep-seated cultural and religious traditions that have persisted for decades. There have been many examples throughout history of what is happening to the Palestinian people today. Where either immediately or decades later one party is recognised as the oppressor and the other the oppressed. It comes in many forms; political alliances, feigned diplomacy, colonisation or outright genocide. Colonial movements like the British Raj, apartheid in South Africa, the Spanish rule over the Aztecs or the British over the native Americans—under the guise of colonisation— are great examples. Similarly, Palestine is our modern-day oppressed which the world has conveniently reduced to sporadic clashes and a collection of dates and figures.
The world also stands accused of obliviousness to the Gazan plight and their resistance. The daily tensions in the occupied territories have often gone unnoticed, resulting in a limited understanding of the challenges faced by the people of Gaza (and other parts of Palestine). Only a select few incidents resulting in violent clashes managed to pierce through the international consciousness. The intifadas, the tumultuous events during Gaza’s Great March of Return, and the fervent protests triggered by a court ruling in May 2021 to evict Palestinian families from East Jerusalem are among the notable instances that have captured the world’s gaze. Despite these sporadic episodes taking centre stage, a backdrop of continuous condemnation exists for the dire conditions in Gaza. The Human Rights Watch’s characterisation of it as ‘systematic oppression’, Amnesty International’s report titled ‘Israel’s Apartheid against Palestine’ and recent reference to Gaza by a UN expert as an ‘open-air prison’,
The Palestinian resistance throughout the years—often claimed to be peaceful by many unheard voices—has struggled to garner attention in the international media unless it escalated into violence. Such resistance dates even before the establishment of the state of Israel. Writers such as Ruhi al-Khalidi, Najib Nassar, and Isa al-Isa regularly raised awareness of the threat of Zionism to Palestinian life. The 1976 municipal elections saw Palestinians opting for alternative forms of resistance by voting for members of nationalist parties into local leadership roles—in the hope of enabling change democratically. In 1981, local political entities established a new organisation, Lajnat al-Tawjih (the Committee of Guidance), aimed at offering national leadership to the resistance against the occupation. However, many of these elected individuals were later imprisoned or forced into exile by Israeli authorities. Another significant nonviolent strategy during the first intifada involved widespread tax refusal, as funds collected from the occupied territories played a crucial role in sustaining the military and covering essential expenses for the Israeli occupation.
“In the first intifada of the late 1980s, Palestinians employed various nonviolent tactics, from mass demonstrations to strikes to protests. Even though the vast majority of the activism was nonviolent, it is the mostly symbolic stone-throwing that many remember.”
— Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the head of the Palestine/Israel program at the Arab Center in Washington DC
Similarly, numerous nonviolent resistance campaigns challenging the West Bank barrier, known as the ‘intifada of the wall’ throughout the 90s, received little attention beyond local media reports. In 2011, on Nakba day, thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees marched to the Israel border from various territories, like Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, symbolically reclaiming their right of return. More recently, the Great March of Return, the 2018-2019 Gaza border protests. Nevertheless, certain movements have in the recent past managed to catch international attention. A movement led by the village of Bil’in in the West Bank recently became an international symbol of Palestinian resistance. Over decades, Palestinian activists from Bil’in (and other villages of Budrus and Jayyous) and their global supporters have gathered every Friday to protest Israel’s West Bank barrier.
Laws of War
While contextualisation is undeniably crucial, it’s not necessary to comprehend that the situation unfolding in Gaza today blatantly violates established principles, both legal and moral. As for legal regulations, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) serves as the governing framework for armed conflicts, establishing a set of principles that are considered non-negotiable. These principles mainly aim to protect the rights and well-being of individuals affected by conflict.
One of the fundamental principles of IHL is the ‘Principle of Distinction’, which requires a clear distinction between combatants—those directly involved in hostilities—and non-combatants, who are civilians. This distinction is vital to minimise harm to innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of armed conflicts. Another critical element of IHL is the ‘Principle of Military Necessity and Proportionality’. It dictates that the use of force must be limited to what is necessary to achieve legitimate military objectives and proportionate to the desired military goals. This principle aims to prevent excessive and indiscriminate use of force during conflicts. The ‘Protection of Civilians’ is a core tenet of IHL, demanding the safeguarding of civilians and civilian objects from the harmful effects of armed conflict. These protections encompass the safety of medical personnel, journalists, and aid workers. The protection of infrastructure like hospitals, schools, and safe routes for emergency assistance is also regulated under IHL.
The Palestine Red Crescent characterised the situation in Gaza today as a “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before the world’s eyes”. Human Rights Watch executive director Tirana Hassan said the principles of IHL are clear “atrocities from one side do not justify atrocities from the other side”. The U.N. Rapporteur for Palestine said the current war risks the “largest instance of ethnic cleansing” in Middle East history..
It can be safely claimed that both parties have violated all laws of war. However, one is compelled to consider the power imbalance, resource disparity, disproportionate bombardment of Gaza, the staggering death toll and the absurdity of the attempt to equate the actions of a state with those of terror as a justification. While the world engages in debate, conducts due diligence, forsakes journalistic integrity, and, most importantly, defines and condemns, something sinister is unfolding, reminiscent of what the world vowed ‘never again’.
Article by Rushika Dias.
Rushika Dias, an Attorney-at-Law specialising in human rights, is currently a senior researcher at Hashtag Generation. The primary focus of Rushika’s work is protecting individual rights’ and advancing access to justice in Sri Lanka. Prior to joining Hashtag, she held positions at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Rushika holds a Bachelor of Laws from University of London and an MBA from Cardiff Metropolitan University.
A militant Palestinian nationalist and Islamist movement dedicated to the establishment of an independent Islamic state in historical Palestine
Formerly known as Palestinian National Liberation Movement is a Palestinian nationalist and social democratic political party
Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles by Maciej J. Bartkowski (Editor)