Gaza Conflict 2023– Part 3: Examining the Root of Conflict


FILE PHOTO: A dove flies over the debris of houses destroyed in Israeli strikes, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 11, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/File Photo

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 this final article, we provide our assessment of all the questions raised in our last two articles. Click here for the first and second articles in this series.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely regarded as one of the most (if not the most) intractable conflicts in the world. One need not look too hard or too far to see the depth of political, national, ethnic, religious, and ideological dimensions all crammed into a conflict involving a relatively small land area located in the Middle East.

The circumstances surrounding Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948, in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, illustrate this. The very next day, it was invaded by Arab forces from its neighbouring countries.

The war ended in 1949 as Israel entered several armistice agreements with its Arab neighbours. Today, Israel refers to the 1948 war as its War of Independence, while Arabs (including Palestinians) remember it as Al-Nakba (the catastrophe). It left in its wake a host of issues, many of which remain unresolved to this day.

The last two articles examined arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the Israeli and Palestinian positions amid the ongoing Gaza conflict in 2023, raising the following questions:

A1. Who was responsible for the conflict in the first place? Did Israel legitimately exercise the right to self-defence, or was it the root cause of the violence?

A2. Do the alleged violations of the Palestinian right of self-determination and other rights justify the violent acts of Hamas against Israel?

B1. Is the suffering of the civilians in the Gaza Strip caused by Hamas or Israel? Or could it be caused by both? If so, to what extent?

B2. Are the Israeli actions (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 this final article, we will offer our cautious views on each of these questions.

A1. Who was responsible for the conflict in the first place? Did Israel legitimately exercise the right to self-defence, or was it the root cause of the violence?

It is clear that, as an established State, Israel has the right to defend itself.

As a starting point, the existence and legitimacy of the State of Israel is now beyond question. This is despite the fact that while 165 UN Member States recognise Israel, there remain nearly 30 countries that still do not recognise Israel, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Israel’s establishment as a State began with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which proclaimed the British intention to establish “a national home for the Jewish people”. This commitment was reiterated in the San Remo Resolution of 1920, where a number of the Allied Powers agreed to assign the area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire known as “Palestine” (to be distinguished from the modern understanding of the “Palestinian territories”) under a “mandate”. This came into effect after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, wherein the League of Nations entrusted the land to the British under a Mandate, which lasted from 1922 to 1948.

In 1947, the UN proposed a partition of “Palestine” into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with economic union. Jerusalem was to remain under international administration. It was non-binding. While the Jews accepted the plan, the Arabs rejected it.

On 14 May 1948, on the expiry date of the British Mandate over Palestine, the Jewish People’s Council declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Immediately, the surrounding nations – Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – all attacked Israel.

Israel eventually survived, and in fighting to defend its newly declared state and population during the conflict, also took control of some areas designated for the Arab state in the UN partition plan.

Historical accounts differ widely depending on which historian is consulted, but we know that the Arab residents of the area responded differently during the Nakba of 1948. Some fled by force of expulsion orders, and others by fear of war. Still others fled for what they thought would be a short exodus at the behest of local Arab leaders who promised a sweeping Arab victory (which would never come).

Yet some Arabs stayed within the borders of Israel. Again, historical narratives differ as to why these stayed. Some historical explanations include Haifa’s Mayor Shabtai Levy and some Israeli military officers making appeals for Arab community leaders and villagers to stay, assuring them of safety and equal rights. Informal local agreements between Jewish and Arab communities were also made in certain areas based on the belief in coexistence. Additionally, Israeli leaders broadcasted messages urging Arabs not to flee. Further still, in some towns under martial law, Arab residents were asked to stay.

Although the chaos of war rendered these uncoordinated appeals to the Arab populations of limited impact, the fact remains that some did, and today they comprise 20% of Israelis who are of Arab-Palestinian descent.

Israel was admitted to the United Nations (UN) in 1949 by overwhelming vote as a Member State.

Being a State like any other in the world, Israel has the right of self-defence against attacks by foreign nations, terrorists or other militant groups, and to take all necessary and proportionate steps to do so.

This is a right affirmed by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which refers to the “inherent right” of each State to engage in “individual or collective self-defence” in the event of an “armed attack”.

A2. Do the alleged violations of Palestinian right of self-determination and other rights justify the violent acts of Hamas against Israel?

Our analysis indicates that Palestinians have the right to self-determination and other rights, but this does not justify attacking civilians.

The debate which once existed as to whether there was such a thing as a “Palestinian people” (instead of “Arabs”, for example) has long been resolved ever since the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The signing session was presided over by US President Bill Clinton, and the “Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization Agreement” was signed by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

The Agreement explicitly referred to “the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and their “legitimate rights”, and established Palestinian interim self-government. Under the UN Charter, all “peoples” have the right to “self-determination”. The 1993 agreement was followed by the 1995 “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (also known as “Oslo II”).

Thus, as the International Court of Justice opined in 2004, the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination, which includes the right to the status of statehood. Furthermore, like any other human being, they have fundamental human rights which must be respected, ranging from the right to life, freedom of movement, equality and more.

This raises the thorny question: Do the Palestinians have the right to use violence in pursuit of the right to self-determination? Is it true that, as the slogan goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter?”

Hamas certainly sees itself as a movement of freedom fighters, defining itself in its 2017 Charter as “a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement” whose goal is “to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project”.

Even if we assume that the Palestinians – and Hamas – have the right to use violence as part of a struggle for independence (which is highly controversial and debatable), there is still no justification whatsoever for targeting civilians in Israel or elsewhere. As Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – whose track record is far from spotless – said in 2001, “A terrorist does not differentiate between combatants and non-combatants; between civilians and servicemen; between armed servicemen and unarmed servicemen.”

Hamas, as with any other armed group engaging in war, must comply with the laws of war. These laws of war (also known as international humanitarian law) seek to impose limits on the destruction and suffering caused by armed conflict.

There are four key principles, as summarised by the International Committee of the Red Cross:

  1. Humanity
  2. Distinction between civilians and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives
  3. Proportionality
  4. Military necessity

There can be no justification whatsoever for launching rockets indiscriminately into Israel and attacking and kidnapping civilians, including women, children, and the elderly.

In the same way, there is no justification for Hamas’ use of civilians in Gaza as “human shields”, by launching rockets or other attacks from civilian buildings or residential areas, or dissuading or preventing civilians from leaving the north of Gaza. Such exposure of civilians to violence is highly irresponsible and a clear violation of the laws of war.

Here are the relevant questions for this section:

B1. Is the suffering of the civilians in the Gaza Strip caused by Hamas or Israel? Or could it be caused by both? If so, to what extent?

B2. Are the Israeli actions (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?

It is our opinion that Israel’s “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip goes too far, even while acknowledging that exceptions have been made for certain individuals to leave Gaza while some aid flows in.

Given the state of war between Hamas and Israel, and the constant attacks by Hamas and other militant groups against Israel and its citizens, Israel is entitled to defend itself from these attacks, provided they comply with the laws of war.

Israel has maintained a land, air and sea blockade on the “hostile territory” Gaza Strip since 2007, after Hamas seized control of the territory. The blockade was also explicitly made in consideration of “both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis”.

Egypt has likewise maintained a blockade on Gaza, controlling the passage of goods and people at the Rafah crossing.

In a 2008 decision involving the supply of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip, the Israel Supreme Court opined that “each party to a conflict is obliged to refrain from disrupting the passage of basic humanitarian relief to populations in need of such relief in areas under its control” and that “a party to a conflict may not refuse to allow the passage of foodstuffs and basic humanitarian equipment necessary for the survival of the civilian population”, a position which the Israeli government accepted. The court referred to the Geneva Conventions and relevant Protocols, which are among the key treaties governing the laws of war.


Therefore, by its own standards as well as the standards of international humanitarian law, Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza by cutting off food, electricity, fuel and water completely is a violation of the laws of war, causing untold suffering to civilians in the Gaza Strip.

The order from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to civilians in Gaza to move south within 24 hours, even if done to “minimize the harm to non-combatants”, would also aggravate the humanitarian crisis.

Such suffering is further compounded by the fact that the Gaza Strip is about half the size of Singapore (around 734.3 square kilometres) and almost as densely populated; Gaza is approximately 363 square kilometres in size, with a population of around 2.2 million people (as of 2023 estimates).

Israel is under an ongoing obligation to ensure that Gazan civilians continue to receive basic goods, services, and other forms of humanitarian relief and supplies to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Thus, it would be eminently reasonable to allow for the establishment of humanitarian corridors or safe passages so that civilians uninvolved with the conflict can get the essential supplies they need.

Regarding asymmetric warfare, the question of proportionality, and the “fog of war”.

Finally, are there violations of the laws of war by Hamas or Israel or both?

We would like to highlight some key considerations, and to advise caution amidst the “fog of war” where information is often highly politicised on all sides, and we may not have sufficient information in all circumstances to make judgements.

Unlike conventional wars between the armies of different States, militant groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad do not typically wear uniforms which clearly mark them as combatants.

Needless to say, the caption is facetious and the account is parody.

It is also often part of their strategy to deliberately blend in with the civilian population in order to launch surprise attacks or to use the civilian population as “human shields” so that the Israeli army would be hesitant to attack for fear of causing harm to civilians. Such asymmetric warfare makes it difficult for a conventional army to identify targets, and the line between civilians and combatants is often blurred.

Furthermore, the Gazan authorities (run by Hamas) do not distinguish between civilians and combatants when releasing statistics about the number of Palestinians killed and wounded, making it unclear precisely how many combatants were killed in the Israeli army’s operations.

These factors complicate the question about whether Israel’s attacks on Gaza are “proportionate”. The ICRC summarises the rule of proportionality as follows: “Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited.”

This requires us to ask questions like, What “military advantage” was the Israeli army anticipating in each particular attack? How much harm to civilians or civilian objects was caused? How much would be “excessive”?

War is horrific and there can be little doubt that images of killed non-combatant children are gut-churning. An objective assessment beyond the fog of war, however, would require us to first have reliable casualty rates beyond those self-reported by Hamas, and to know for example, how many combatants or militants there were among those who were dead or injured. Further questions might include whether the target was a Hamas headquarters, weapons arsenal, rocket launch site, or something else?

These require more information than whatever is available in news reports. Without more detailed and precise information, all one can offer is broad conjecture and premature judgment.

One example of how information is unclear amidst this “fog of war” relates to the blast at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. While Hamas has blamed Israel for striking the hospital, Israel has denied this and suggested that it was because of the militants’ rocket misfiring. Video analysis by the Wall Street Journal suggests that the blast was caused by a failed rocket. The New York Times later wrote in an article entitled, “Hamas fails to make case that Israel struck hospital”.


The 2023 Gaza conflict is the latest episode in a long history of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the wider Middle East. Even now, the conflict has already widened to the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria.

Is there a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

Even as early as 1947, the UN in a non-binding resolution proposed a partition of “Palestine” into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with economic union, with Jerusalem under international administration.

The two-state solution (i.e. the establishment of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine) remains the position of the UN today.

This position was implicitly accepted by both the Israelis and Palestinians under the 1993 “Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization Agreement”, the 1995 “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”, and other agreements that followed as part of the Oslo peace process.

In line with the position of the international community, the Singapore Government’s long-standing position is that of the “two-state solution”, and that there is “really no alternative to that and to live in peace”, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a recent interview. He elaborated: “In other words, for the Palestinians to acknowledge that Israelis have a right to exist and to have a nation, a state, a country. And the Israelis to acknowledge that the Palestinians have a right to exist and to live in their own country.”

Is any side solely at fault for preventing the establishment of an internationally recognised Palestinian State?

The answer is no.

One of the sharpest views on this was given by Judge Rosalyn Higgins of the International Court of Justice, written in the context of the court’s opinion on Israel’s construction of a wall (or separation barrier) through the West Bank in response to violent attacks against its citizens. In her separate opinion, she considered it “unrealistic and unbalanced” for the Court to blame the construction of the wall as a “serious obstacle” to the realisation of Palestinian self-determination.

Instead, she wrote:

“The real impediment is the apparent inability and/or unwillingness of both Israel and Palestine to move in parallel to secure the necessary conditions – that is, at one and the same time, for Israel to withdraw from Arab-occupied territory and for Palestine to provide the conditions to allow Israel to feel secure in so doing.”

The same observation applies today. Both the Israelis and Palestinians must move in tandem to achieve the two-state solution and reach lasting peace for the region.

The present conflict, including the attacks and hostages taken by Hamas and the Israeli desire for justice against the violence perpetrated, makes this path all the more perilous and difficult.

It also makes peace all the more necessary, or else we may see many more years of conflict and the loss of many more Israeli and Palestinian lives.

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