Series Note: In light of the ongoing conflict in and around the Gaza Strip, we examine the Israeli and Palestinian positions in this series. In the first two articles, we will aim to present the arguments for and against the Israeli and Palestinian positions respectively, without critique. In the final article, we will then offer our cautious assessments of all the positions.
In this second article, we examine the arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the Palestinian position. For the first article, click here.
Following the surprise attack by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on 7 October 2023, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) immediately commenced a campaign of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.
As of 8 Nov 2023, 10,569 Gazan residents have been killed and over 25,000 have been wounded to-date, according to Gaza’s health ministry. European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite reveals that about a third of Gaza City has been damaged or destroyed.
Analysts estimate that throughout the strip, between 13% and 18% of all structures have been destroyed or damaged, a range of 38,000 to 51,500 buildings.
On 13 October, the IDF issued an order for all civilians in the northern half of the Gaza Strip to relocate south within 24 hours, a move opposed by the United Nations (UN) on account of the “humanitarian catastrophe” that would occur as a result. The UN estimates that almost 1.5 million Gazans have been displaced as a result of the war.
There have been condemnations from around the world, against the Hamas attacks on civilians as well as Israel’s actions during the war. Amnesty International has accused both Hamas and Israel of “war crimes” and other violations of international law. Egypt has said that Palestinians in Gaza “are being subjected to collective punishment”, “living under siege and facing starvation and ferocious pressure of forced displacement”.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have issued a joint statement condemning “all attacks against civilians”, calling for a “durable ceasefire” and for access to humanitarian aid, supplies, necessities and services.
The Palestinian Case
Here is the case in favour of the Palestinians, in a nutshell:
1. Israel has long deprived the Palestinians of their land, right to self-determination and other rights
The case in favour of the Palestinians harks back to the early days when Arab and other populations were displaced as a result of the 1948 war that followed the establishment of the State of Israel. Called Al-Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), it reflects the pain of the Palestinian people about being dispossessed of ancestral lands and without an internationally recognised State to call their own.
In a statement issued on the day of the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) attributed the blame for the attacks to the State of Israel: “We have repeatedly warned against the consequences of blocking the political horizon and failing to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination and establish long their own state. We have also warned against the consequences of daily provocations and attacks including the continued settlers’ and occupation forces terrorism, as well as the raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Christian and Islamic holy sites.”
The PNA blamed Israel for violating “the signed agreements”, “international legitimacy resolutions”, and for engaging in “double standards” and “criminal and racist practices” against the Palestinian people. The statement called for an end to “the Israeli occupation of the land of the State of Palestine”, and to establish a Palestinian State “with East Jerusalem as its capital, on the 1967 lines, and recognizing the people’s right to independence and sovereignty”.
Head of Hamas Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh declared that the objective of “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” was “to liberate our land, our holy sites, our Al-Aqsa mosque, our prisoners”.
Malaysia, which maintains a relationship with Hamas, has likewise echoed this view, considering Israel’s actions to be the “root cause”.
2. Israel is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip
One deep pain point for the Palestinians relates to the Gaza Strip.
As a matter of background, the Gaza Strip is a small piece of land near the south of Israel, which is approximately 363 square kilometres in size, with a population of around 2.2 million people (as of 2023 estimates). This makes Gaza about half the size of Singapore (around 734.3 square kilometres) and almost as densely populated.
Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. Following a civil war between the Islamist Hamas and the nationalist Fatah, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. In response, Israel declared it a “hostile territory” in September 2007 and maintained a land, air and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip for security reasons. It also restricts passage of goods which it regards as “dual-use”, services and people in and out of the area.
As a result, many have called the Gaza Strip “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has publicly criticised the blockade as “a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law”.
Seen against this backdrop, Israel’s 2023 “complete siege” of Gaza by cutting off food, electricity, fuel and water, its order to 1.1 million civilians to move south within 24 hours, the numerous airstrikes against the densely populated territory, and other actions are seen as part of a series of serious violations of the laws of war (also known as international humanitarian law). It is causing untold amounts of suffering to more than a million Gazan residents who have nowhere to run or hide, and are being deprived of basic necessities for survival.
Adding to the problems are incidents where protected places, such as places of worship, have been hit by airstrikes. One of these is the incident where a Greek Orthodox church which was sheltering hundreds of displaced Palestinians was hit by an Israeli airstrike.
Responses to the Palestinian Position
What are the responses to the Palestinian position? Here are the rebuttals to the two earlier arguments:
1. Hamas is Responsible for the Unprovoked Terrorist Attacks
Israel has pinned the blame squarely on Hamas, which it considers a “terrorist” organisation, for “[having] started a brutal and evil war”. In the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Hamas invaded Israeli territory and murdered innocent citizens including children and the elderly”.
The United States of America has also condemned “the unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians,” adding, “There is never any justification for terrorism.”
Canada has similarly stated, a day after the attacks happened: “Early yesterday, on a Jewish holiday and 50 years after the start of the Yom Kippur War, the terrorist organisation Hamas launched a massive, coordinated attack against Israel. Canada unequivocally condemns these terrible attacks in the strongest possible terms and reaffirms its support for Israel’s right to defend itself, per international law.”
According to this view, all of the alleged violations of the right to self-determination of the Palestinians, occupation of Palestinian territory, blockade, the “desecration” of Al-Aqsa, and “politics of dispossession” do not and cannot justify the actions of Hamas.
Instead, Hamas’s actions should be considered no different from the actions of terrorists who use violence, brutality, kidnapping, and a host of other crimes against innocent people for their political ends.
Thus, Israel is exercising its legitimate right to self-defence against any threat to its existence or its citizens.
2. The Blockade of the Gaza Strip is a Legitimate Response to Hamas Extremism
Hamas is an organisation dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, and uses violence to achieve its ends. Formed in 1987, it has its origins in the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Hamas Covenant of 1988 declares that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”, and that there is “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”
The 2017 Hamas Charter declares the establishment of the State of Israel “illegal”, declares that there “shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity” (i.e. Israel), and calls for “armed resistance” against the “occupation”.
When Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel declared it a “hostile territory”, noting that Hamas is a “terrorist organization” that “engages in hostile activity against the State of Israel and its citizens and bears responsibility for this activity”.
The blockade on the Gaza Strip was thus seen as a series of legitimate sanctions imposed on Hamas and its territory. Israel’s Security Cabinet had also explicitly made the blockade subject to “both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis”.
One telling fact is that Israel is not the only one which has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. Muslim-majority nation Egypt shares a border with Gaza, and has likewise maintained a blockade on Gaza. The only crossing available is the Rafah crossing, which is controlled by Egypt.
In brief, the issues raised by the positions ‘for’ and ‘against’ the Palestinian position can be summarised as follows:
A2. Do the alleged violations of Palestinian right of self-determination and other rights justify the violent acts of Hamas against Israel?
B2. Are Israel’s actions – i.e. the blockade and “complete siege” against the Gaza Strip, the order for civilians to move south, and the numerous airstrikes against the densely populated territory – a legitimate response, or a violation of the laws of war?
In the next article, we will provide our assessment of all the questions raised in our last two articles.