The savagery of Hamas’ heinous terrorist attack on October 7, which left 1,200 Israelis dead and over 240 more held captive, marked a significant turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel’s response has been unconscionably brutal, killing more than 11,000 Palestinians thus far, almost half of them children. Blinded by the desire for vengeance, Israel’s rage has transformed much of Gaza into a “wasteland,” creating a grave humanitarian crisis. To understand this horrific and unprecedented escalation, we need to trace the long arc of Hamas’ progressive radicalization towards violence, which is itself reflected in the radicalization of the conflict more broadly.
The Origins of Violence
The origins of the conflict are steeped in violence. It began with the rising tide of antisemitism and persecution of Jews in Europe during the late nineteenth century, from the 1894 Dreyfus Affair in France to widespread pogroms against Jews in Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This hostile milieu saw the emergence of Zionism, a political movement that sought to establish a national homeland in which the Jewish people could reside safely. The first Zionist Congress in 1897 set their sights on establishing this home in Ottoman Palestine. However, they faced an immediate moral quandary: the land was already populated by Palestinian Arabs, and the creation of a Jewish state would inevitably entail forced demographic changes.
Some Zionists expressed unease over the prospect of violently expropriating land from the Arabs. Israel Zangwill wrote in 1905, “Palestine proper has already its inhabitants.... [We] must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the [Arab] tribes in possession as our forefathers did or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan and accustomed for centuries to hate us.” Others, attempting to assuage the cognitive dissonance of forcibly divesting the Arabs of their land, while themselves being refugees from persecution, adopted the placating myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
The debate was rendered moot with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In an effort to secure international support during World War I, Britain pledged to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in what would become its Palestinian Mandate—a spoil of war from the conquered Ottomans. The British government, mindful of similar promises made to Arabs (in return for their support against the Ottomans), added the proviso that nothing “shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In response, Jews escaping the scourge of antisemitism in Europe flocked to Palestine, irrevocably changing its demographic composition. Jews in Palestine grew from 4 percent of the population in 1897 to 17 percent in 1931, and by 1948, on the eve of the State of Israel’s birth, they constituted one-third of the two million people living in Palestine.
During this period, the local Arab population, alarmed by the prospect of being supplanted by the incoming Jewish migrants, grew increasingly restless. The Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem, Aref Pasha Dajani, captured the febrile mood in 1919, writing, “It is impossible for us to make an understanding with them [Jews] or even to live [sic] them together…If the League of Nations will not listen to the appeal of the Arabs, this country will become a river of blood.” This simmering resentment eventually boiled over into increasingly bitter intercommunal violence, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides, with key flashpoints including the 1921 Jaffa Riots and the 1929 Wailing Wall Riots.
Jewish immigration reached its apogee during The Fifth Aliyah, with over 250,000 Jews arriving in Palestine between 1929-39, many of whom were fleeing Nazi persecution. The new arrivals exacerbated existing tensions with locals, particularly Arab tenant farmers who found themselves moved off their lands and forced into destitution. Sheikh Izzeddin Al-Qassam, a revivalist Islamic preacher incensed by the farmers’ plight, organized violent resistance against both Jewish and British targets, framing it as a religious “jihad” against the occupiers. His death in 1935 at the hands of the British electrified the Palestinian population—his funeral procession in Haifa alone drew three thousand mourners. Today, Hamas’ own literature views this event as part of the group’s mythical origin story; They are the rightful heirs to an unbroken militant lineage that began with Qassam’s “martyrdom.” Unsurprisingly, Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the infamous Qassam rocket are also named in his honor.
Al-Qassam’s death galvanized his followers, instigating further attritional violence against both Jews and the British colonial administration and culminating in the Arab Revolt of 1936-9. The emergence of underground Zionist paramilitary groups like Irgun, which waged “active defense” campaigns carrying out indiscriminate terrorist bombings of Arab marketplaces, only added to the polarisation of this period. The British, who eventually subdued the Arab Revolt with the assistance of Zionist militias, killing at least 5,000 Arabs in the process, sought to curtail Jewish immigration as the source of the tensions. Irgun, incensed by “Britain’s betrayal,” now turned its wrath against the British, most infamously, carrying out a devastating terrorist bombing in 1946 against the British Headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Amid increasing violence and disorder, Britain decided to terminate its unworkable mandate and hand it to the newly established United Nations. The UN General Assembly recommended a partition of Palestine into two states in 1947. Although Arabs outnumbered Jews by a ratio of 2:1, the proposed Jewish State was accorded 56 percent of the land, much of it within the most fertile areas. Arabs, deeming this division inequitable, rejected the plan outright, setting in motion a civil war that would consume the two communities.
The Traumatic Memory of the Nakba
In March 1948, the Jewish Agency implemented Plan Dalet, designed to secure control over the maximum territory in Mandatory Palestine in preparation for the establishment of a Jewish state while expelling or neutralizing Palestinian forces and populations in the process. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has described Plan Dalet as a “blueprint for ethnic cleansing.” In just a matter of months, this intense period of violence had served as a midwife, helping to birth the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. The announcement immediately triggered the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when the nascent state was attacked by its immediate Arab neighbors. For Palestinians, this period represented an unmitigated tragedy. By 1949, when the dust had settled, 15,000 Palestinians had been killed, many in mass atrocities committed in villages like Deir Yassin and Tantura; over 400 Palestinian towns and villages had been depopulated; Israel had increased its land share to 78 percent of the territory; and 750,000 Palestinians had been made stateless in what became known as The Nakba or “Great Catastrophe.”
The Nakba has become the seminal event shaping Palestinian identity and collective memory. The enduring image of the Nakba remains one of the long caravans of bedraggled refugees carrying their meager possessions and, crucially, the keys to their properties, desperately fleeing to safety in neighboring states, enduring constant harrying by Zionist militias along the way. Even to this day, almost every Palestinian family jealously guards a key to their historic home in Palestine, a precious family heirloom passed from generation to generation in the absurd hope that they might return one day to open the door of a house in a village that no longer exists.
The memory of the Nakba continues to be invoked in the current hostilities. Israel’s mass displacement of Gazans towards the Egyptian border in the south, ahead of its aerial bombardment campaign, has been labeled a “second Nakba” by Palestinians. In a strange concurrence, some voices on the Israeli side have also recognized historical parallels with the current Gazan plight. Avi Dichter, Israel’s Agriculture Minister and former Minister of Internal Security and Director of Shin Bet, recently stated, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba…Gaza Nakba 2023. That’s how it’ll end.” Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the Nakba’s central importance throughout the story of this conflict. Ahmed Yassin was twelve years old when his village of al-Jura was ethnically cleansed in 1948, forcing his family to flee to the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza. The Nakba’s trauma would prove formative, critically shaping his attitude towards the enemy when he founded Hamas four decades later.
“Hamas is a creature of Israel.”
Hamas’ origins were distinctly non-violent. Its parent organization, al-Mujamma al-Islamiyya, was founded in 1973 by Yassin as an Islamic charity linked to the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The group had long adopted an apolitical stance, and even after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel annexed and occupied the Palestinian territories, or the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Brotherhood categorically refused to participate in the armed struggle against Israel. Accordingly, al-Mujamma focused on providing social, religious, and educational services and welfare to Palestinians in Gaza. This stance was at odds with other secular Palestinian groups at the time, which were actively engaged in violent resistance against Israel’s occupation at home or terrorist attacks abroad, such as the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. In contrast, al-Mujamma’s pacifist outlook led to Israel recognizing it as a charity in 1979, allowing it to operate freely and financing and supporting its development of a network of Islamist social institutions throughout Gaza.