How years of war, rise in terrorism led to the current Israel-Hamas conflict: Experts

ByIvan Pereira ABCNews logo
Friday, October 13, 2023
What is Hamas? The history between Israel and rulers of the Gaza Strip
Hamas is a militant group that was designated a terrorist organization by the United States government in 1997 following several suicide bombings and kidnappings.

The origin of the bloody conflict happening in Gaza and Israel is complicated given the long, disputed history of the region, according to experts who have spent decades studying the region.

As the attacks continue in both countries, the experts fear that any attempts at truly achieving peace between the Palestinians and Israelis may have been pushed back heavily.

Susannah Heschel, the chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth University, who has written several books about this region, told ABC News that the conflicts run deep and as far back as the Middle Ages, but specifically, the most modern clashes have stemmed from the fallout of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The war, known in Israel as the Six-Day War, ended with Israel gaining control of several territories, including the Gaza Strip, and that has led to the violence and political fallout that has befallen the area currently, Heschel, the school's Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies, said.

"What we are seeing today is the consequence of that war, or how the various parties to that war ...responded to the end," she told ABC News.

Following its battles with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Israel touted its swift victory and new territory, which included lands with long historical significance to Israeli Jews, Heschel, who is teaching a course on the war this semester, said.

June 8, 1967 FILE - Israeli soldiers praying at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, one day after its capture from the Jordanians during the Six-Day War.
(AP Photo, File)

At the same time, Israel had to deal with an influx of Arabs who now lived under its control, and the retaliation from the neighboring countries who still disputed Israel's claims over the land, she said.

"The question is, was that victory in fact in some way not a victory? Because the consequence of it was an enormous headache for Israel," Heschel said.

Israel has been the target of several military excursions by the nations in that war, particularly Egypt, to try and regain some of that land including during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War. Egypt would eventually regain the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, following an agreement it signed with Israel three years prior.

Gaza, however, remained under Israeli control and tensions continued to flare between Palestinians and Israelis who had begun constructing settlements in the region.

The tensions came to a turning point in 1987 during the First Intifada, or "uprising," when Palestinians started to violently rebel against Israeli forces and civilians. It was during this time that Hamas emerged and began to stage violent strikes against Israeli forces.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and long-time senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School, told ABC News that Hamas' stance is simply to "wipe Israel off the map," and it has suppressed anyone within the Palestinian community who doesn't adhere to that.

"It's not a question of recognition," he said.

By the time the Intifada ended in the early 90s, over 1,000 people had been killed, and Gaza was left in ruin from the fighting.

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization would eventually agree to the Oslo Accords in 1993 which granted Palestinians the right to self-government.

What is Hamas? The militant group behind attack on Israel, kidnappings, has ruled Gaza for years

Heschel said the treaty was a good start but leaders on both sides could have done more to decrease the tensions and violence.

Freilich said that the Palestinian Authority, which governed Gaza and continues to govern the West Bank, did try to crack down on terrorism alongside the Israeli government, but it was not always successful and groups like Hamas continued to incite and inflict violence on Israel.

In 2000, a Second Intifada began, and hundreds more were hurt and killed in the violent protests. Five years later, the Israeli government voted to withdraw from Gaza and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expelled 9,480 Jewish settlers from 21 settlements from the region.

"That withdrawal of the Jewish settlements left some Israeli Jews with the resentment that inflames them to this day," Heschel said.

A 2006 election where Hamas became Gaza's leading party has led to increased violence, and a decline in economic resources for its people, as Israel and other nations cut off support. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the coastal strip, which continues to this day.

"It's unfortunate that Hamas came into power. It's not supported by the majority of the people," Heschel said.

Hamas, which contends it is resisting Israel's oppression of Palestinians, continued to attack Israel in the subsequent years with rockets, kidnappings and other violence leading to major military action by Israel in 2008, 2012, and 2014.

"It's part of a long-term campaign to repeatedly weaken Israel with conflict after conflict," Freilich said.

Freilich added that the recent turmoil within the Israeli government, from its multiple elections in the last six years to the recent turmoil over the changes to its judicial changes, have left Israeli leaders fractured.

"Their attention was diverted...and we saw the results on Saturday," he said.

Last week's attack by Hamas that has killed over 900 Israeli citizens and wounded over 2,300 was unprecedented and puts the region in "uncharted territory," Heschel said.

This is the first time in 50 years that civilians were attacked on Israeli soil and it will only lead to more devastation and destruction for both sides, according to the professor.

"What Hamas did was not to the benefit of the people of Gaza," Heschel said. "Everyone knows, anybody knows and Hamas certainly knew, that in attacking Israel and inflicting so much destruction and murder on Israeli civilians that there would be retaliation."

Heschel and Freilich said that it is impossible to determine the long-term ramifications of Hamas' attack and Israel's retaliation, but said that both sides will be living in fear as the violence escalates.

"To even think that Israel would think at this point that Israel would include a peace process with [Hamas] is totally unrealistic," Freilich said.

Even though emotions are high and there is still violence likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Heschel, insisted that Israeli and Palestinian leaders needed to push back against Hamas and its influence and really take time to work out the decades-festering issue over the land.

"Let's...try to think in clear terms about what we can do for the future so that things can get better," she said. "What's the strategy? Not the strategy for the moment but the strategy for 10, 20, 30 years from now. How can we get there?"