This is not an attempt to present a complete history of the Arab Israeli conflict – that would require more than a full book in and of itself. The intent of this narrative is to provide a short history of the relationship between Israel and Gaza. To do so, we also present some historical background on the relations between Israel and Hamas.
The Gaza strip is 25 miles long, with an average width of 5 miles. There are 1.8 million people living in Gaza, most of whom are descendants of refugees from Israel's 1948 War of Independence. These Gaza residents, and the other Palestinian refugees, are the only group in the world for whom descendants of refugees are recognized as refugees.
Israel’s troubled history with Gaza goes back to ancient times, when Samson fought the Philistines there. In modern history, the Gaza Strip was the destination of many Palestinian refugees, escaping the battle of the War of Independence. During the War of Independence Egyptian troops advanced all the way into Israel – to the area of what is today the city of Ashdod. There the Egyptians were stopped. Israeli troops eventually pushed the Egyptian army out of nearly the entire area of what had been mandatory Palestine, reaching Eilat. The one exception was the Gaza Strip, where the Egyptian army remained.
The Israeli War of Independence ended in 1949, with an armistice agreement signed in Rhodes. At the war's end, the Gaza Strip had an indigenous population of 50,000, and an additional 120,000 refugees. The refugees were denied citizenship and had no employment prospects in Gaza. These people lived off of support from the United Nations. The Palestinians in Gaza lived under the worst conditions of all the 1948 refugees, and had the most bleak future before them. Initially, The Egyptian government took control over the border. However, within a short time the Egyptians allowed, and in some cases, even encouraged cross border raids by Palestinians into Southern Israel. Those raids grew in frequency and severity. Twenty-six Israelis were killed or wounded by terrorist attacks in Southern Israel in 1952. In 1953 that number rose to 50. By 1955 that number reached 192.
Traveling in Southern Israel was dangerous. Every kibbutz, along with the other settlements in the South, was its own border. Israel responded to these attacks with even stronger reprisal raids against Egyptian positions and personnel in Gaza. The U.N. condemned Israel's retaliatory raids – without condemning the terrorist attacks – in a pattern that Israelis today would find very familiar.
In 1956, Israel joined with France and England in a military campaign against Egypt. For Israel, this was a preemptive attack, before Egypt (led at the time by Nasser) could receive a massive arms shipment from the Soviet Union. This was also a chance for Israel to find a solution to the ongoing attacks on its soil from Gaza, as well as the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Israel rapidly conquered Gaza and the most of the Sinai desert. Though Israel was forced to withdraw from Sinai after strong U.N. resolutions supported by the United States. However, Israel did not initially withdraw from the Gaza Strip, holding out for a plan to end the attacks it had been subjected to over the years. A solution was found that placed United Nations Troops on the Gaza border, replacing the Egyptian troops that had been stationed there before.
The period between 1957 and 1967 was a quiet one on the Gaza border, until a series of events, (initiated by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser), demanding that the U.N. remove its troops from Gaza and from the Straits of Tiran. For reasons that have never been fully explained, U.N. Secretary General U-Thant complied immediately. As a result, Egyptian troops entered Gaza and Sinai. They closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel and threatened to attack. Israel responded with a preemptive attack that captured Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Then Israel imposed a military administration on Gaza. For the first few years of the administration, Israel was faced with significant resistance. That resistance mostly ended in late 1969 and early 1970, after Ariel Sharon, (Israel's commander of the Southern Command) turned his attention to pacifying the strip.
In 1970, Israel established K'far Darom, its first Nahal settlement in Gaza. Nahal settlements are communal installations founded by the military, made up of youngsters who choose to remain on the settlement after their army service. The goal of the settlements in Gaza was to divide the Strip in half, using the settlements as a barrier. Israel's settlements in Gaza grew slowly, gaining many new members (after Israel pulled out of Sinai and forced the settlers there to do the same.)
Throughout this period there was significant resistance to Israeli rule. However, that resistance was held in check by the Israeli military. In 1987, tension was rising in the Gaza Strip. On December 8th, an Israeli truck driver lost control over his truck near the Jabaliya refugee camp. The driver plowed into a car and killed four locals. Rumors spread that this was a deliberate attempt to kill Arabs. Rioting broke out almost immediately in Gaza. A local army attachment that was besieged responded with live fire. They killed one demonstrator and wounded 30. So began, what became known as, the First Intifadah. The Intifadah immediately spread to the West Bank. It was a primarily non-violent uprising against the Israeli occupation. However, between December 1987 and April 1990, 1,054 Palestinians lost their lives in this uprising.
By 1990, the first Intifadah was essentially over. However, it continued until the signing of the Oslo Peace agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in September 1993. According to the agreement, Israel was to pull out of all of Gaza – with the exception of the Jewish settlements. Israel was to maintain control of the crossings into Gaza, including the sea approach. The Palestinian areas were to be demilitarized, being allowed only to maintain a small police force, without advanced weaponry.
In 1987, a new force was heard from for the first time – Hamas. Translated from the Arabic, "Hamas" implies a devotion to the path of Allah. It is, however, also an acronym for "Harakat al-Muqāwama al-Islāmiyya', which in English means, “Islamic Resistance Movement.” Hamas was a direct descendent of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. In 1988, Hamas issued its charter, which stated “Allah is its goal, the Prophet is the model, the Qur'an its Constitution, Jihad its path, and death for the sake of Allah its most sublime belief.” Hamas's charter goes on to add: “Zionist invaders, the time will not come until Muslims we will fight the Jews [and kill them]; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: 'Oh Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!'”
In 1989, Hamas took its first aggressive actions, kidnapping and murdering two Israelis soldiers. In 1991, Hamas established its military wing, the Iz ad Din al Qassam Brigades. The Hamas military brigades carried out repeated attacks against Israelis, including civilians. Hamas claimed their actions were a retaliation for the killing of Palestinian civilians.
Hamas opposed the negotiations between Israel and the PLO that led to the Olso agreement. They believe that all of the land of Palestine is sacred land, thus no compromise is possible. As negotiations proceeded, Hamas stepped up their attacks inside Israel. Between 1993 and 1994, Hamas carried out three dozen terrorist attacks on Israeli soil – including a suicide bombing on a bus in Tel Aviv that killed 22 passengers, and an attack at a bus stop near Netanya in which 21 soldiers we killed. Negotiations proceeded despite these attacks. On September 28th 1995, Oslo II was signed, signaling the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all major Palestinians cities.
On November 4th 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Israeli extremist Yigal Amir, who opposed any compromise with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres, considered by many the architect of the Oslo accords, became the new Prime Minister. Hamas remained determined to derailing the peace process. Thus, in 1996 Hamas redoubled their bombing campaign – including two bus bombings in Jerusalem that killed 45, and a bombing at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv that caused the deaths of an additional 13 Israelis. After the first Jerusalem bombing, the Israeli secret service killed Yahya Ayash, the chief bomb maker for Hamas.
In 1996, Benyamin Netanyahu won the elections against Shimon Peres – in large measure, because of the Hamas bombings. While Netanyahu went on to sign the Wye Accords, giving the Palestinians greater control over parts of Hebron, Netanyahu had been a vocal opponent of the Oslo accords and did all he could to stop that process. In 1999, Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak, who became Prime Minister with a mandate to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, and with the Syrians. After failing to reach an agreement with the Syrians, Barak tried to reach an agreement with the Palestinians at Camp David. Those efforts failed when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down Barak's offer and did not respond with a counter offer.
Soon after, the second Intifadah broke out. Hamas was an active participant in the many bombing attacks that were executed (though Hamas was just one of many participants.) These attacks were implemented primarily by bombers based in the West Bank, who had easy access to the rest of Israel. There were a number of attacks in Gaza, but these were more difficult targets than the undefended targets bombed inside Israel. The second Intifadah resulted in severe restrictions being placed on Palestinian movement from the West bank to Gaza, as well as from Gaza into Israel proper.
Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001. In September, that same year, the first Qassam rockets were fired at Sderot from Gaza. In March 2002, after a particularly deadly bombing in Netanya on the first night of Passover, Sharon ordered "Operation Defensive Shield", which included reoccupation of the major Palestinian cities to root out terrorism. The action was only partially successful. However, combined with the building of the separation fence, terrorism was significantly reduced. In addition, the death of Yasser Arafat who had supported the “armed struggle”, together with the leadership shift of his replacement, Mahmoud Abbas, who opposed terror as a weapon and worked with Israel to eliminate these attacks, brought the final end to the second Intifadah.
Meanwhile, in February 2004, Ariel Sharon surprised Israel – and the world – by announcing a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Sharon became convinced that a political solution was not attainable at that time, while realizing that the political and military cost of sustaining the occupation were too high. During this period Israel was losing soldiers to attacks in Gaza on a regular basis – especially in the area known as "The Philadelphia Corridor" (the area along the border with Egypt), which Gazans were using to build tunnels and smuggle weapons, together with other supplies into the Strip. Sharon announced that Israeli presence in Gaza would end by the summer of 2005, and that any Israeli settlers who did not leave voluntarily would be forcefully removed.
Still, the attacks by Hamas did not end. Over the course of the following month, March 2004, 10 Israelis were killed during a bombing in Beersheva. Israel retaliated by attacking Hamas positions in refugee camps inside Gaza. Later that same month Israel assassinated the spiritual and political leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
In January 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was won the election to serve as President of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas was elected on a platform of ending the violence and seeking a political solution with Israel. Hamas did not go along with Abbas' plan and continued to fire rockets into Israel. The Palestinian police tried to stop the firing, but with very limited success.
In August 2005, Israel forcibly removed the 9,000 Jewish settlers living in Gaza. As of September 12th 2005, Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza, turning the complete administration of the Strip over to the Palestinian Authority. Israel continued to supply water and electricity to Gaza, and of course, maintained control over all of the border crossings into Israel. The border crossing into Egypt at Rafah was supervised by the European Union, and the “Border Assistance Mission Rafah”, who were supposed to ensure that no arms were allowed into Gaza.
In January 2006, Hamas was the major victor in the Palestinian Parliamentary elections. Hamas won 74 seats in a 132 parliament by gaining 44.45 % of the vote. The United States and other members of what was called the Quartet (US Russia, France and UK) demanded that Hamas accept the existence of Israel and all previous agreements that had been reached with Israel. Hamas refused to comply. As a result, both the Quartet and Israel officially refused to deal with Hamas.
On June 25th 2006, Hamas attacked an Israeli position outside of the Gaza Strip via a tunnel. During the course of the attack, they kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. In response to the kidnaping, Israel launched "Operation Pillar of Cloud". The operation was unsuccessful in obtaining Shalit's release.
In June of 2007, a full scale civil war broke out in Gaza between the forces of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This resulted in a complete victory for Hamas. Hamas gained charge of all of the institutions controlled by the Authority, and took total control of Gaza.
Fire continued between Hamas and Israelis in the form of missile fire by the Qassam Brigade at Israel. A six month ceasefire was negotiated between Hamas and Israel. In December 2008, when the ceasefire ended – much to Israel’s surprise – Hamas chose not renew it. Instead, Hamas chose to unleash large rocket attacks on Southern Israel. Israel responded with "Operation Cast Lead", beginning with an air assault, in which many members of Hamas were killed, in the opening salvo on December 27th. Israel began a major ground assault on Gaza on January 3rd, to try to end the rocket fire and attempt again to free Gilad Shalit. Beginning on January 18th, Israel announced a one-sided ceasefire and withdrew. Over the course of this action approximately 1,300 Palestinians were killed, including 700-800 Hamas fighters. Israel lost 11 men. Israel's actions were criticized by the United Nations and others, claiming that Israel was targeting civilians. Israel strongly denied the charge and refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigatory "Goldstone Commission", which was highly critical of Israel.
In October 2011 Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to acheive the release of Shalit.
In November 2012, Israel responded to a renewed increase in missile fire from Gaza by launching "Operation Pillar of Defense". The Operation began with the aerial assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's military wing. Israel attacked 1,500 targets in the Gaza, in an eight day campaign. 133 Palestinians were killed, including 53 civilians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired a total of 1,456 rockets at Israel during the operation, including the first missiles launched at Tel Aviv. This was also the first time the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system was put into service. Iron Dome successfully intercepted most of the missiles. A ceasefire was negotiated by Egyptian President Morsi that called for a halt all hostilities by both side and lead to the opening of the border crossing. x
In June 2013, a counter revolution took place in Egypt ousting Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood President, and replacing him with a member of the Egyptian military. The new government in Egypt began a crackdown on the smuggling of goods via the tunnels under the Gaza Egyptian border. The Egyptian army later closed the border crossing at Rafah, following violence against its soldiers in Sinai.