Israel-Hamas Conflict

The Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023 were the largest single-day loss of life of Jewish people since the Holocaust, and represented the single deadliest day on Israeli soil since the state’s independence in 1948. Over 1,400 Israelis had been killed through a combination of attacks on suburban kibbutz communities and rural populations, including the Re’im Music Festival, bringing substantial social media attention to the attacks through victim-recorded footage.

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December 23, 2023

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Support

While Hamas is assumed to have approximately 40,000 armed forces stationed within the Gaza Strip, the total manpower of the IDF is estimated at over 500,000 and is further bolstered through the widespread international belief of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, despite official government denial of such claims, a disparity previously assumed by Israeli intelligence to be sufficient in deterring Hamas from direct military action. Due to its scale and degree of success, the Hamas attack has been condemned universally as the “largest intelligence failure in the history of Israel”. 

The intensification of relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine largely stems from British occupation following the First World War, a period in which the demographics of the region transitioned from one of Arab cultural dominance with Christian and Jewish minorities to cultural segregation and administrative favoritism towards Jewish immigrants as a means of disrupting ethnic Palestinian self-determination. 

Tensions continued to increase throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with both groups desiring an end to British rule through paramilitary insurgencies that culminated in the publication of a plan by the United Nations to partition Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states of roughly equal size in 1947.

A. Pointed Summary

➢  The long lasting seven decades conflict of Israel-Palestine has destabilized the security in the Middle East

➢  Hamas has largely been the state government of Gaza and has rejected the two-state solution, sworning for the destruction of Israel

B. Relevance

The UN plan was generally considered to compensate the Israeli nation for the Holocaust. Hence, the significantly lower population densities in Israeli territories has resulted in a displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians known collectively as the “Nakba” and spurring action from the Arab League in retaliation. This first retaliatory conflict to the partition of Palestine extended Israeli territory beyond that which was allocated through the initial Plan, with Israel taking control of all former British Mandate territories except for the West Bank (administered by Jordan), the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt), and Golan Heights (administered by Syria), and ended with no formal declaration of peace. This demarcation, commonly known as the “Green Line”, was the result of the Israeli victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict described above, and resulted in the consolidation of the Palestinian population into the territorial enclaves of Gaza and the West Bank.

History

The conflict for sovereignty between Israel and Palestine continued in the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the 1982 Israeli Invasion of Lebanon. 

Led primarily by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), campaigns to end Israeli occupation (known as the Palestinian Intifada) have been popularly embraced as a means of reclaiming Palestinian national identity, successfully forcing an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and a gradual reduction of direct Israeli control of the West Bank to 61% of total land area. In parallel to these advancements of Palestinian sovereignty, Israel has drawn international condemnation for its territorial expansion into the West Bank through the construction of kibbutzes, the Israeli suburban enclaves among the targets of the October 7 attacks. However, Israel supports their expansion under the argument that Palestine does not exist as a formal state under international law. 

Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas, a far more aggressive group than the relatively secular PLO, won control of Parliament over Palestinian political party Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian elections. This functionally granted them control of the entire Gaza Strip – a power dynamic that still remains today, with Hamas in control of Gaza, and Fatah, a derivative of the PLO, in power in the West Bank. The two groups refrained from ideological or administrative cooperation until 2014, after which a unity government was formed, while Hamas still remains primarily concentrated in Gaza.

Despite this change in power structure in favor of Palestine, regional tensions have not improved, with excitations of violence in 2014, 2018, and 2021 between Hamas and Israeli forces. Controversially, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized for his Palestinian policy allegedly bolstering Hamas to avert the creation of a two-state solution at the expense of Israeli territory.

Recent escalations in the scale of conflict toward South Lebanon, an area not immediately harboring Hamas, were instigated by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia paramilitary group heavily supported by Iran. It has the ballistic capability to strike against strategic targets in Northern Israel. Iran also directly supports Hamas through military funding, typically processed through transport tunnels moving into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.  Such actions draw attention to an increasing trend of international influence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the previous two decades; conversely, the United States has remained Israel’s strongest ally in the face of crisis, with President Joe Biden pledging “unconditional American support” for the Israeli response to Hamas. International interference is typically considered an aggravating factor in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict American military support provides an infallible defense for Israel’s expansion against incursion from neighboring Arab powers, while Iran’s investment in Hamas has drawn criticism from its role in escalating theIsrael-Hamas conflict into a larger proxy conflict with the West

The scale of the present Israel-Hamas War is far greater than any previous conflict between Israel and the Arab sphere, with the Health Ministry of Gaza placing the total Palestinian deaths as a result of the conflict at over 10,000 as of November 2023. Conversely, the majority of Israeli casualties came from the initial attacks, while an ongoing hostage crisis from October 7 still negatively impacts  the conflict today. Israel’s operations have mainly relied on artillery and aerial barrages in Northern Gaza, effectively destroying the area’s infrastructure and resulting in the displacement of roughly 1.5 million Palestinians. Beginning on October 27, 2023, Israel launched a large-scale ground invasion operation in Gaza, with an estimated IDF strength of 20,000 - Netanyahu has expressed intentions to remain in Gaza indefinitely following the war. 

Ultimately, past and present conflict represents the incompatibility of the ideological positions of Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian state. The Israeli desire for security in the Middle East has been compromised by the Palestinian desire to eliminate Israel as a means of reclaiming their ethnic homeland.

A. Tried Policy

Since the 1991 Madrid Conference, a two-state solution has been the basis for peace agreements between Israel and Palestine. The solution envisions an autonomous nation of Palestine, which today has only partial recognition, existing alongside Israel.

In the peace talks, Israelis and Palestinians have disputed where territorial lines should be drawn in the creation of the states, sparking conflicts among the two. The issue of territoriality has become increasingly difficult to negotiate, where Israel has continued to expand settlements and militarize the Israeli-Palestinian border. In a 2016 statement, the Quartet on the Middle East, a mediatory group that includes the US, UN, EU, and Russia, reported: “The continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development, including the recent high rate of demolitions, is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.” Indeed, since the Taba Summit in 2001, after which both sides declared they were “closer to reaching a final settlement than in any previous peace talks,” little progress has been made towards a two-state solution. The Geneva Initiative in 2003 is also often referenced as a missed opportunity for long-term agreement, which Shlomo Ben-Ami notes “drew significant attention for a while and then faded into oblivion.”

Many Palestinians maintain that agreements should be made in accordance with pre-1967 Israel-Palestine borders. As mentioned previously, these borders, known as the Green Line, refer to the temporary demarcations between Israel and its neighbors before the Six-Day War, which displaced roughly 300,000 Palestinians and began the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. Resolution 242, adopted unanimously in 1967 by the UN Security Council, asserts that the Green Line should form the basis for territorial negotiations. The Resolution was foundational for peace negotiations over several decades, most notably in the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba Summit in 2001, the Beirut Summit in 2002, and the Geneva initiative in 2003. Since these negotiations, both sides have drawn increasingly hard lines on land policy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance, claimed that Israeli settlements retain a right to growth and expansion in the West Bank, and declared they must renounce their right of return.

The Palestinian right of return declares that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to the land that has been annexed and settled by Israel. The issue demonstrates how questions of land rights have become intertwined with the refugee crisis generated by the conflict—today there are over 7 million Palestinian refugees around the world. Policy approaches to Palestinian’s right of return have varied widely; while the Clinton Parameters— a series of measures used as a basis for the Camp Davis Summit in 2000— asserted that Palestinians have no explicit right of return to Israel. The Geneva Initiative endorsed UN Resolution 194, which states that “those Palestinian refugees who want to live at peace with their Jewish neighbors are entitled to return at the earliest possible opportunity.” Most two-state solutions proposed have agreed that the entire Gaza Strip would form an important basis for the state of Palestine. However, the current siege by Israel has exacerbated the refugee crisis there and eliminated the possibility of Gaza as a starting point for the Palestinians’ right of return.

Since the early 2000s, the fragmented political vision, the upsurge of Hamas in Palestine, and the rise of far-right Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel have created a backslide in negotiations. During talks in 2013-14, Israel underscored its unwillingness to negotiate with Palestine as long as Gaza was under control of Hamas. Negotiations with the terrorist organization pose a security threat to Israel, whose residents could be threatened by sharing a border with a Hamas government. Moreover, Trump’s election in 2016 did not improve the prospects for an agreement. Hopes for the US brokering a peace agreement were dashed when the US cut hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Palestine, citing their refusal to take part in the administration’s peace initiative.

Overall, Hamas’ political dominance in Gaza eliminates the possibility for a two-state solution by undermining Palestine’s legitimacy as a state. In light of Israel manufacturing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza during the past 5 weeks, it is clear that a two-state solution must begin with radical de-escalation. On a political level, this would likely necessitate the dissipation of Hamas and admittance on behalf of Israel that it has maintained and extended settlements through coercion since its initial expansion in 1967.

B. Current Stances

Internal

Hamas is one of two Palestinian political parties which rules over 2 million Palestinians within the Gaza Strip in a de-facto government. Due to the group’s continued hostility, Hamas has been recognized as a terrorist group by Israel, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the U.S.. Founded in 1987 from a branch of Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is an acronym for the Arabic phrase, “Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya,” meaning Islamic Resistance Movement. Their operations are located primarily in Gaza and the West Bank but there are additional missions in refugee camps in Lebanon and key Islamic capitals like Doha and Egypt. The group’s aim is to combat Israel militarily to form an Islamic Palestinian state by invoking extreme and militant interpretations of Islam. Hamas claimed the slogan “from the river to the sea,” in support of Palestinian occupation from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, making up the entirety of Israel. Stability is rare, as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and opposes the reconciliatory Oslo peace accords (1993) between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Israel, which aimed to initiate talks of a two-state solution. 

Primordialism refers to the idea that historic ethnic identities and communities are inherently fixed and tied to geographic features. A primordialist point of view can be manipulated to state that because there is a clash of historical identity in the region, conflict is inevitable. In the case of Israel-Hamas, both Israeli and Palestinians claim religious roots and significance in the region. The Israeli narrative points to biblical references that confirm that Israel is the ancestral homeland of Jewish people. Israel also claims territory based on historical occupation. Most countries deem Jewish settlements built on Israeli-occupied land in 1967 as illegal, although Israel disputes this. Palestinians claim to the region is predicated off of Arab presence predating that of the State of Israel. In addition to protecting land, Palestinians also demand that refugees and their descendants should be allowed to return to Palestine, although Israel states resettlement must occur outside its borders.

International

The Biden administration stands by the U.S.’ longstanding commitment to formally supporting Israel, but does not defend the Israeli military’s relentless attacks on Gazan civilians. Throughout most of Biden’s political career, he perceived Israel as a safe haven for persecuted Jewish minorities. In phone calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden stated, “we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to…Israel…Israel has a right to defend itself and its people.” However, members of his party are increasingly seeing Israel as a far-right state, oppressing the Palestinian population. Striking a balance, the administration condemns Islamophobia and Antisemitism while encouraging the protection of innocent Gazan civilians, advising Israel to exercise caution and restraint in its retaliation. Moreover, to deter war, Biden has sent strong signals by sending aircraft carriers into the region. 

On November 3rd, a Republican-backed bill to provide 14.5 billion dollars in military aid to Israel was passed on slim margins. However, the bill is unlikely to become a law in the senate as President Biden and Democrats signaled their opposition to the plan. At the same time, the Biden Administration has recently announced $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinian people in the West Bank. 

After the Hamas surprise attack on Israel on October 7th, the U.N. Security Council called for an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, but a formal consensus to condemn Hamas was never reached. After three meetings without consensus, on November 15th, the Security Council passed a resolution, calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses” and for “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups.” The U.S., U.K., and Russia all abstained from voting. Still, the council was not able to reach consensus to condemn Hamas for the October 7th attacks on Israel. On October 15th, the U.S vetoed a U.N. resolution to condemn all violence against civilians in the Israel-Hamas war and to urge humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, stating it was too early to definitively respond to the crisis. Additionally, the U.S. ambassador criticized the resolution for lacking wording about Israel’s right to self-defense. Currently, the U.N. has sent insufficient amounts of aid to Gaza

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

The Israel-Palestine conflict, a longstanding geopolitical quagmire, involves several stakeholders whose regions intersect. Sharing borders with Palestine, Egypt and Jordan are seen as primary actors, with their concerns extending beyond immediate national security to the humanitarian crisis and Israeli military responses which have triggered fears of mass displacement. 

For one, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, despite taking a firmly pro-Palestinian stance stating that Israael’s bombardment of Gaza has amounted to collective punishment, has signalled that Gazans seeking refuge in Sinai might not entirely be welcomed. He asserted a commitment to “avoid settling the issue at the expense of others''. To begin with, Egypt is already dealing with an influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan and is running low on resources necessary to manage a large number of refugees. Moreover, there is a concern regarding national security as Sinai is a region that has been tackling issues surrounding Islamic extremism that does share links with Hamas. 

However, the nation has opened its airport in El Aarish to receive international planes from Jordan, Turkey and UAE, providing essential aid for Gazans, and has also loaded hundreds of trucks transporting more aid through the Rafah Crossing. After negotiations with the US, Egypt has also agreed to provide safe passage to Palestinians with dual citizenship.

King Abdullah of Jordan, sharing similar sentiments, emphasised the “redline” of Israel displacing one million Palestinians. Arguing that he, too, believes Israel’s response is a form of “collective punishment” that violated international law. Jordan already houses millions of migrants from neighbours embroiled in conflict— Palestine and Syria to Iraq. Consequently, diplomatic strain resulting from this most recent flare-up has led to Jordan recalling its ambassador from Israel.

The conflict extends to global players, notably Saudi Arabia and the US, especially since the US facilitated the Abraham Accords in 2020. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was recently moving toward normalisation with Israel. However, since the escalation post-October 7th, there appears to be a shift in Saudi Arabia's stance, with communication to Washington displaying a freeze in normalisation talks. This reversal highlights the Palestinian question’s significance to Arabic nations, emphasising that it remains a non-negotiable aspect of regional diplomacy. The sudden pause in the push for normalisation signals that regional powers are unwilling to overlook the Palestinian issue in pursuit of broader geopolitical objectives.

On the other hand, the US has heavily backed the Israeli response since the attack on October 7th, yet maintains the US’s historical stance on the conflict— support for the ‘two-state solution’. Biden’s 31-hour visit to Israel on October 18, 2023 was symbolic and vital in displaying his support for the Jewish State. He announced $100 million in aid to Palestinians, convinced President El-Sisi to open up a crucial land crossing in southern Gaza, and persuaded Israel to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. 

This web of regional relations underscores the balance that nations in the Middle East navigate concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict. The constantly evolving nature of the conflict exists in stark contrast to the historically unmovable stances of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States – highlighting how the Palestinian question is a linchpin influencing strategic geopolitical decisions in the region and beyond. 

B. Nonpartisan Reasoning

Israel’s military officials voiced their intent to completely eradicate Hamas’s military and government power, though how that goal can be accomplished is still in question. While many Western countries claim to follow liberal international order, much of the Arab World feel that these countries are not upholding the humanitarian aspect of international law.

The UN Agency for aiding refugees, UNRWA, funded by UN Member States and other institutions, has made significant humanitarian efforts in the Gaza Strip. They are the primary facilitators bringing aid from Egypt into Gaza. As of November, they also have facilitated 149 shelters to accommodate approximately 690,000 internally displaced people. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has expressed support for UNRWA as well.

Previously, Egypt, with the help of its General Intelligence Service, has been a key mediator in cease-fire operations between Israel and Hamas. The stagnant state of cooperation between Israel and Palestine have deterred countries like Egypt from intervening. The United States urges Egypt to open humanitarian corridors into Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula in particular. Egypt is concerned that in accepting refugees en masse, Egypt would encourage their forced permanent migration, contributing to the removal of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. In any case, U.S. President Joe Biden believes a humanitarian “pause” is a feasible next step, allowing prisoners to leave.

Briefly mentioned previously, on November 15th, the UN disclosed their plan to ease civilian suffering in Gaza including humanitarian ceasefire, in hopes that it would make delivering humanitarian aid easier and enable hostage releases. The Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) of the UN, Martin Griffiths, believes continuous and reliable aid is necessary, so that civilians can use resources without fear of those resources running out. Since Israeli Authorities have cracked down on fuel in Gaza, and Israeli troops raided Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, Gaza has faced a fuel shortage. In response,  the UN Plan discusses bringing adequate fuel to the region so that basic aid operations can continue, and Griffiths wishes to to send 200,000 liters of fuel per day to Gaza, issuing an appeal to do so. 

On the same day, the Security Council passed a resolution with no countries against, 12 in favor, and three abstentions from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It demanded Hamas to immediately release all hostages, as well as urging countries to not restrict civilians in Gaza from receiving basic aid as per the rules of international humanitarian law. It also called for humanitarian pauses in Gaza, so that UN agencies can access the area safely.

Policy Options

To bring the Israel-Hamas conflict to an end, the Two State Solution ought to be respected. Specifically, that means a halt to Israel’s efforts to constantly enlarge its present territories through bulldozing or occupying Palestinian settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

For Hamas, respecting the Two State solution would necessitate a complete abandonment of its objective of removing Israeli presence in the region and a relinquishment of its means to kidnap, injure or kill Israeli civilians. Internationally, efforts ought to be focused on reducing tensions, facilitating bilateral and multilateral talks, in which both Israeli and Hamas representatives participate, as well as deliveries of sufficient and necessary aid for civilians, and holding the unilateral escalator accountable, preferably through economic sanctions or withdrawal of diplomatic recognition. 

Regional stakeholders, like Iran, should also play constructive roles in de-escalating the conflict, and should be treated with the above sanction measures should it decide to intervene in ways contrary to exercising its immense influence over Hamas in a constructive, peaceful manner. 

Nonetheless, hardline, nationalist forces constitute significant shares in both camps, representing barriers facing any peaceful resolution or permanent ceasefire deals between the two sides. It is ultimately up to bilateral talks between the two conflicting sides to reach a permanent peace. While a reconciliation could be agreed upon under the mediation of major powers, such as the Oslo Accords, the willingness to respect such agreement by Hamas — a significantly more bellicose and extreme wing of the Palestinian resistance than the more moderate Fatah — should be doubted. 

Another policy option that Gaza has called for repeatedly is a ceasefire. A ceasefire would put an end to attacks by all parties in the conflict, allowing agencies to distribute aid to afflicted regions. However, a ceasefire has been incredibly difficult to push for, as Hamas and Israel both have different objectives in negotiation. While Hamas wants a complete end to conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netahanyu will only settle for temporary pauses in fighting until Hamas is fully defeated. The United States does not support a ceasefire either, as the U.S. vetoed a U.N. security resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. As of December 2023, Egypt is seeking to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, with negotiations about which hostages held by Islamist militants in Gaza and which Palestinian prisoners held by Israel could be freed in a truce.

Conflicts surrounding Israel and Palestine have been a bleeding scar which never healed. Since the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Jewish state’s survival was constantly threatened by surrounding Arab states. More recently, however, Israel’s largest source of peril is from Hamas. The bloodshed, described by many as a terrorist attack against Israeli civilians on October 7 marked the most recent escalation of the long-lasting conflict, although it was never a start itself. Overall, religious, ethno-nationalist and cultural conflicts are continuously brought up again with territorial conflicts. While a bilateral ceasefire deal was agreed upon recently between Israel and Hamas officials, a concrete end to the crisis seems a distant ideal instead of a readily achievable reality.

Acknowledgements

The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

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Chanhee Joy Park

Director, Policy Media

Chanhee (Joy) Park is a Foreign Policy Co-Lead based in Texas and Michigan, specializing in the history and politics of East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Trevor Darr

Foreign Policy Analyst

Trevor Darr is a senior in the International Baccalaureate program in Virginia Beach. Trevor is interested in the intersection of comparative politics, philosophy, and astrophysics, and typically focuses his research on the prevalence of imperialist power structures in present and future global diplomacy; he has a penchant for the avant-garde.

Rusmiya Aqid

Policy Analyst

Rusmiya is a freshman at the University of Rochester. She is interested in international development and policy, and draws inspiration from social entrepreneurs like Runa Khan.