Israel-Hamas: a clash waiting to happen

Hamas militant

Since Israel completed a devastating military offensive in the Gaza Strip four years ago, military officials have warned it was only a matter of time before the next round of fighting. Violence erupted this week with little warning, driven by Hamas' ambitions to make its mark on a changing Middle East and an Israeli government reacting to public outcry over rocket attacks just weeks ahead of national elections.

It is a clash of wills driven by wildly contradictory narratives nurtured over the years by two deeply antagonistic societies with little in common save a deep-seated sense of historical grievance and victimization.

From Israel's perspective, the fact that it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pulling out all soldiers and settlements after a 38-year occupation, should have been the end of its troubles with the 1.6 million Palestinians there. The continued rocket attacks – especially since Hamas militants seized the coastal strip from the more moderate Fatah faction in 2006 – are seen as an outrage that justifies extreme measures. No country, Israelis argue, could possibly be asked to tolerate a decade of rocket attacks.

That view aligns with a deeper historical grievance: Israelis feel their Zionist movement was fundamentally a return home from two millennia of exile but that it was met from the beginning by Arab rejection and violence. The Holocaust, the World War II slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazis even as Jews were building their state-in-waiting, further fed the sense of victimization accompanied by a distrust of the world and an obsession with self-reliance.

Hamas, on the other hand, rejects any Jewish connection to the Holy Land and views Israel as a colonial outpost in the heart of the Islamic world that must be destroyed. And among Palestinians, the Gazans' specific sense of victimization stems most directly from the miserable living conditions in a crowded, besieged and impoverished coastal strip a few miles wide. Israel's soldiers and settlers may be gone, but Israel continues to seal off its border with Gaza, blockades its seacoast for fear of weapons imports, and controls the airspace – and that, they reason, means that Gaza remains "occupied'' and therefore "resistance'' retains legitimacy.

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