Shortcuts / 11 October 2023

Israel at war

Hamas militants launched a huge attack against the state of Israel in the latest in a long history of conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. But this isn’t just another attack… Experts say what’s happened is ‘unprecedented’, and Israel has declared war. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll get you across what happened, some context to the latest uptick in violence in the region, and how Israel and the world has responded.

What happened?
More than 3,000 people have been killed since last weekend after thousands of rockets were launched from the Palestinian territory of Gaza into southern Israel and militants moved over the border, killing Israelis and taking at least 150 hostages. Israel has responded with airstrikes, and troops are massing on Gaza’s border. Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu says his country is now at war.

Who’s behind the attack?
Hamas – it’s a militant group that formed in the 1980s that’s dedicated to fighting for an independent Palestinian state. Since 2006, they’ve also been the political party in control of the Gaza Strip, and they’ve also been designated as a terrorist organisation by countries including the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

It sounds like a complex situation…
It really is, especially when you consider the geopolitics of the region. The state of Israel is in the Middle East – it’s a strip of land which is pressed against the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, and it shares borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

So Israel is a Jewish state in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood?
That’s right, and it’s also the location of a significant amount of religious and cultural heritage. It’s where Jesus was said to have lived, and it’s also home to mosques and holy sites of Islamic significance. People of both Jewish and Muslim faiths have a couple thousand years of history in the area.

So the region is very contested…
It sure is. Both Israelis and Palestinians – the Arab population that hail from the land Israel now controls – make claims to the land and that’s the source of a lot of conflict and violence. The Palestinians largely live in the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both of which have been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

Have there been negotiations since then?
There have been endless talks but an agreement on how to peacefully coexist has never stuck – it’s a question that has stumped global political leaders since the end of WWII.

And it’s still a huge source of tension in the region?
For sure, and we’ve seen that play out this week. But one thing that a lot of close watchers of Israel have been noting this year is that those tensions are worse now than they’ve been for a long time.

Why is that?
Violence has escalated in the region over the past few years, stemming from a movement within Israel called the settler movement. It calls for ordinary Israelis to settle in Palestinian territories like the West Bank. Some 700,000 Israelis since have moved into those territories, and those settlements are considered illegal under international law.

How bad has the violence gotten?
The number of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces has reached its highest levels in 2 decades, as has the number of Israeli citizens killed by Palestinian attacks.

And then things came to a head last weekend…
In the early morning on Saturday, local time, Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack on Israel by air, sea and land. Thousands of rockets were launched at targets in Israel’s territory, and militants broke through the heavily fortified border fence between the Gaza strip and Israel, killing more than 1,000 people and taking at least 150 Israeli hostages including civilians.

Why are these attacks considered unprecedented?
They’re notable not just because of their scale and effectiveness, but also because Israel’s defence forces were taken by surprise. Israel has a really sophisticated intelligence service, so this apparent security breach is something that will be talked about a lot.

Did anyone help Hamas carry out these attacks?
According to US military intelligence, Iran has funded and supplied weapons to Hamas in the past, and there are questions being raised as to whether Iran played any role behind these attacks. The nation’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed support for Hamas’ attack on Saturday.

What has the reaction been from other world leaders?
They have generally been urging restraint or expressing support for Israel. The US said that it stands with Israel and has reiterated Israel’s right to self-defence, as did Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and our PM Anthony Albanese. Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on both parties to “act with restraint” and to avoid doing anything that could escalate the tension. Leaders have also expressed concern for civilians caught up in the fighting.

How has Israel responded to the attacks?
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to unleash retaliation on Hamas that would “reverberate with them for generations” and we have seen that in action as Israel began launching huge retaliatory strikes on Gaza, as well as cutting off electricity, fuel, and water to the region. But one thing complicating Israel’s response are the Israeli hostages Hamas has taken.

Why is that complicated?
Because many of those hostages have been taken to Gaza. Netanyahu says Hamas is “responsible for the wellbeing of captives” but it seems like the hostages are in a very dangerous situation. Hamas has threatened to kill a hostage every time Israel bombs a Palestinian home without warning.

What happens now?
It’s impossible to say how long this war will last – the last major conflict between Hamas and Israel was in 2021, and it lasted 11 days. But that had fewer casualties than we’ve already seen this time around, so we are entering a bit of unknown territory.

Squiz recommends:

A map of the conflict from Reuters

This photo gallery from The Guardian

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