On October 7, 2023, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, its biggest in years. The group fired thousands of rockets, sent fighters into Israeli territory, and claimed to have taken control of several communities in the south of the country. Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza and mobilised its troops for a possible ground invasion. The death toll on both sides has risen to dozens, and hundreds have been injured. The international community has called for an immediate ceasefire and a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
But why did Hamas start this war against Israel? What are the motives and goals of the group? And what are the implications of this escalation for the region and the world?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the historical and political context of the Hamas-Israel conflict, as well as the recent developments that triggered the current crisis.
The Historical and Political Context
Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamist organisation. Hamas emerged during the first intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The group adopted a militant and religious approach to the Palestinian cause, rejecting any compromise or negotiation with Israel. Hamas’s charter calls for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and the establishment of an Islamic state.
Hamas has been engaged in armed resistance against Israel since its inception, carrying out suicide bombings, rocket attacks, kidnappings, and other acts of violence. The group has also been involved in social and charitable work, providing services such as health care, education, and welfare to the Palestinian population. Hamas has gained popular support among many Palestinians who see it as a legitimate and effective resistance movement.
Hamas has also been in conflict with its political rival, Fatah, which is the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Fatah is more secular and pragmatic than Hamas, and has recognized Israel’s right to exist and engaged in peace talks with it. Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the semi-autonomous government that administers parts of the West Bank under Israeli military occupation. Hamas does not recognize the PA or its agreements with Israel.
In 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, defeating Fatah and gaining a majority in the Palestinian parliament. However, the international community refused to recognize or deal with Hamas unless it renounced violence, recognized Israel, and accepted previous agreements. This led to a political and economic crisis that worsened the already dire situation of the Palestinians.
In 2007, Hamas and Fatah fought a bloody civil war that resulted in Hamas taking over Gaza, a densely populated coastal strip that borders Egypt and Israel. Fatah retained control of parts of the West Bank. Since then, Gaza has been under a tight blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, which has severely restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory. Gaza has also been subjected to frequent Israeli military operations that have caused widespread death and destruction.
Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israel from Gaza, as well as launch cross-border raids and tunnel attacks. Israel has responded with airstrikes, artillery shelling, and ground incursions. The two sides have fought four wars since 2008: Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), Operation Protective Edge (2014), and Operation Guardian of the Walls (2021). These wars have killed thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, mostly civilians, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. They have also devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and economy, leaving it in ruins.
The Recent Developments
The current crisis was sparked by a series of events that inflamed tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides as their capital. Jerusalem is home to holy sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, such as the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
In April 2023, Israel imposed restrictions on Palestinian access to Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. This angered many Palestinians who saw it as an infringement on their religious rights and freedoms. At the same time, Israel threatened to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that was occupied by Israel in 1967. This provoked protests from Palestinians who viewed it as an attempt to displace them and change the demographic balance of Jerusalem.
The protests turned violent as Israeli police clashed with Palestinian demonstrators at Al-Aqsa Mosque and other locations in Jerusalem. The police used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons to disperse the crowds. The protesters threw stones, bottles, and fireworks at the police. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were injured in the confrontations.
Hamas, which considers itself the defender of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its forces from the holy site and stop the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah by 6 p.m. on May 10, 2021. When Israel did not comply, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, triggering a massive Israeli retaliation. The situation quickly escalated into a full-scale war that lasted for 11 days, until a ceasefire was brokered by Egypt and other mediators.
The war killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 13 Israelis, including two children. It also wounded more than 2,000 people on both sides. It destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings in Gaza, including homes, schools, hospitals, and media offices. It also disrupted Gaza’s already fragile water, electricity, and health systems. It also caused damage and disruption in Israel, where millions of people lived under constant fear of rocket fire and sirens.
The Motives and Goals of Hamas
Hamas has stated that its main motive for launching the war was to defend Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque from Israeli aggression and oppression. The group said that it wanted to send a message to Israel that it would not tolerate any violation of Palestinian rights and dignity in the holy city. Hamas also said that it wanted to show solidarity with the Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to rally the Palestinian people behind its resistance agenda.
However, Hamas may have had other motives and goals as well. Some analysts suggest that Hamas wanted to exploit the Palestinian unrest in Jerusalem to boost its popularity and legitimacy among Palestinians, especially ahead of the planned Palestinian elections that were postponed by the PA in April 2021. Hamas may have also wanted to challenge the PA’s leadership and authority, and to present itself as the sole representative of the Palestinian cause.
Moreover, Hamas may have wanted to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the blockade. Hamas may have hoped to pressure Israel and Egypt to ease the blockade and allow more aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza. Hamas may have also sought to gain international sympathy and support for its plight, and to expose Israel’s disproportionate use of force against civilians.
Furthermore, Hamas may have wanted to assert its regional role and influence, especially in light of the changing dynamics in the Middle East. Hamas may have tried to capitalise on the recent normalisation agreements between Israel and some Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. These agreements have been seen by many Palestinians as a betrayal of their cause and a weakening of their position. Hamas may have aimed to mobilise the Arab and Muslim public opinion against these agreements and in favour of its resistance.
The Implications of the Escalation
The escalation between Hamas and Israel has had significant implications for both sides, as well as for the region and the world.
For Hamas, the escalation has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has demonstrated its military capabilities and resilience against Israel’s superior firepower. It has also gained some political gains, such as securing a ceasefire agreement that included some concessions from Israel regarding Jerusalem and Gaza. It has also enhanced its image and reputation among many Palestinians who praised its courage and sacrifice. It has also received support and praise from some regional actors, such as Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Hezbollah.
On the other hand, it has paid a heavy price for its actions. It has lost many of its fighters, commanders, weapons, tunnels, and facilities. It has also inflicted immense suffering on the people of Gaza who bore the brunt of Israel’s attacks. It has also faced criticism and condemnation from some regional actors, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It has also alienated some international actors who denounced its indiscriminate rocket fire at civilian targets.
For Israel, the escalation has also been a mixed bag. On one hand, it has inflicted severe damage on Hamas’s military infrastructure and capabilities. It has also defended its sovereignty and security from Hamas’s aggression. It has also maintained its deterrence power against other potential enemies in the region. It has also received support and backing from some regional actors such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It has also enjoyed strong support and assistance from its menially, the United States. On the other hand, it has failed to stop Hamas’s rocket fire, which continued until the last minute of the ceasefire. It has also suffered casualties, damage, and disruption. It has also faced international criticism and condemnation, especially from