“For if life had taught her anything, it was that healing and peace can begin only with acknowledgment of wrongs committed.” ― Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin
Many people believe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a centuries-old problem where the same two sides have been killing each other side the dawn of civilization. Some depict Israel as a murderous regime while others believe the same of the Palestinians. The reality is far more complicated than this. The United Nations on Monday released a report which accuses both Israel and Hamas (one faction of Palestinians mostly located in the Gaza strip) of war crimes from last summer's outbreak of violence. With the one year anniversary of this war coming up in July, let's take a closer look at this event and some of the (often tragic) tactics used by both sides in this conflict.
The complete history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is much too long to detail here (and trying to shorten it into a few paragraphs just doesn't do it justice). The modern roots of the 2014 Gaza war come from the split between the Palestinian Authority (recognized by Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords as the representative government of the Palestinians) and Hamas (a much more radical political party which opposed the Accords) in 2006. In short, Hamas won an election over the PA, a serious battle ensued between the PA and Hamas, and Hamas ended up taking control of Gaza while the PA remained the primary governmental power in the West Bank. Since 2006, Hamas and Israel have occasionally launched rockets and bombs at each other (while the West Bank has remained mostly nonviolent in its disagreements with Israel).
So what kicked off last summer's war? On July 7th, several senior Hamas leaders died in an underground tunnel explosion (Hamas often uses tunnels to smuggle weapons and militants into Israel). Hamas claims that this was the result of an Israeli airstrike while Israel claims it was an accidental explosion of their own weapons. The next day, Hamas launched rockets into Israel, Israel responded with attacks of its own, and the whole situation escalated into one of the worst periods of violence in recent years. Both sides claimed their justifications, and both sides committed some terrible acts in the process.
One of the primary tactics of Hamas has been their use of rocket attacks against targets in Israel. These rockets have relatively low precision compared to most modern rockets, so Hamas militants mostly point them in the general direction of a city or military base with the intent to hit whatever they can. The main point of this tactic is to terrorize the Israeli population in the hopes this will convince them to pressure the government into giving in to Hamas' demands. Fortunately, the "Iron Dome" missile defense system ensures that the vast majority of rockets do not hit any major cities (part of the reason Israeli casualties were so low in this conflict). Hamas is also well known for using people's homes, hospitals, and other key infrastructure points to house weapons and their own fighters (making it difficult to attack them without creating civilian casualties). In all, Israel lost 64 fighters and 6 civilians during the conflict.
On the Israeli side, the IDF (Israel Defense Force) used a combination of precision rocket strikes and armored vehicles to attack Hamas positions. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, most of these positions are either key infrastructure points for Gaza City or civilian homes. Israel's military technology is very advanced (to the point where they can pinpoint an exact house to strike from the air). Unlike Hamas, Israel knows exactly what it is hitting when it launches an attack. For most civilian homes, the IDF claims to fire warning shots at homes and send phone calls as they are about to be hit (the warning shots are actually a small missile which has been altered so it doesn't explode). This still only gives civilians at most a few minutes to evacuate their homes or die. After the warning shot, the building is quickly leveled, destroying whatever military target (alleged or otherwise) was inside, but killing or displacing civilians in the process. This is part of the reason Gaza City lost a hospital and power plant during this conflict.
Though the IDF is correct in its assertion that Hamas uses these locations to house weapons and fighters, this does not make them legitimate targets by most international standards. Just because a hospital is being used as an enemy base doesn't mean you should blow it up (for context, the U.S. military Rules of Engagement specifically prohibit attacking these sites unless absolutely necessary). In all, Hamas lost an estimated 750 fighters and roughly 1,500 Palestinian civilians were killed during the conflict (not to mention over a quarter of a million people were displaced according to the United Nations). Certainly, some of these civilians may have been combatants or could have been killed by Hamas instead, but this figure is still staggeringly high. Furthermore, this mentality of "shoot the hostage to kill the enemy" is a poor way to conduct what is, in reality, an insurgency rather than a conventional war.
On August 26th, a cease-fire finally took hold between Hamas and Israel. So where is the conflict one year later? Is any real peace possible? Not in the foreseeable future. Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to disagree on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (the process by which Israel builds houses in the West Bank and allows its citizens to live on this land, often displacing Palestinian civilians in the process). Israel and Hamas remain in an unsteady cease-fire (which could flare up again at any time). Finally, the PA has little power in Gaza and any final peace treaty would need both the West Bank and Gaza behind it (Israel has already stated it will not negotiate with Hamas on this). Though international opinion is starting to turn in favor of the moderate (nonviolent) Palestinian factions, any true peace is still a long way away.
Just to be clear, this isn't one of those posts which claims that both sides are equally guilty and at fault in this war. Both sides are guilty of egregious crimes for sure, but one side is exponentially more powerful and capable than the other. Israel is a stable, (mostly) democratic country with a very strong military and some of the most advanced hardware in the world (courtesy of the U.S.). It boasts a GDP of 268 billion and an average per capita GDP of around $36,000. Gaza, on the other hand, is a severely impoverished region (GDP per capita of $6,100) with a barely functioning government ruled mostly by armed militants. Their weapons consist primarily of whatever scraps they manage to find from Syria, China, and Russia, along with the limited number of outdated rockets which are smuggled in through the Egyptian border. If any side truly has the means to bring about meaningful change in this conflict it is Israel. The Palestinians in Gaza can barely keep the lights on and clean water flowing, so expecting them to have any real negotiating power is simply unrealistic.
If this analysis seems a little one-sided, its because that is the reality of the situation on the ground. While Israel emerged from this war almost completely unscathed, Gaza's infrastructure has once again been decimated and its population continues to spiral into desperation. This isn't entirely Israel's fault by any stretch of the imagination (after all Hamas is legitimately a terrorist organization). But the continued blockade of Gaza essentially means that the region's population is imprisoned with a large group of desperate militants who know they will likely be killed the moment they lose power. Israel certainly has the right to defend itself, but Israel also has the capacity and capability to be part of the solution. Granted, the costs to Israel and risks associated with something like a broad humanitarian relief effort are high, but so is the moral cost of simply keeping Gaza contained in its own misery. Then again, when the human and material costs of this conflict to Israel are so low, what incentive is there to solve the problem?
TL:DR: Both sides are guilty of serious crimes, but Israel is much more capable of changing the current situation. A little restraint in the fight against Hamas can go a long way towards minimizing civilian deaths.