Gaza in Crisis and Here's How It Happened

The Israeli Defense Forces' attack on Gaza is now well into its third week as Hamas militants continue to fire their primitive rockets into southern Israel, and with both sides so far rejecting the U.N. cease-fire resolution passed last week (the U.S. abstained).

More than 900 Palestinians have been killed so far, including at least 300 children, according to Palestinian figures. Thirteen Israelis have died, according to Israel. Now, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is travelling to the region in another attempt to stop the death and destruction in Gaza.

What is Gaza exactly? Was it always an impoverished, over-populated strip of territory in the Eastern Mediterranean? Here's a question-and-answer.

Question: Was Gaza always problematic?

No, it wasn't always impoverished. Gaza was an important coastal region 3,000 years ago run by the Philistines, a piratical, seafaring people from Crete, in the Aegean. They weren't very nice, however, if you believe the biblical story of the Jewish hero Samson. Samson was famously strong but unwisely revealed the secret of his strength to the temptress, Delilah, and was, subsequently, shorn of his locks while he slept. He was taken to Gaza and blinded by the Philistines with a hot poker. But his hair grew back, he recovered his strength and he got even. He pulled down the pillars of the temple. Some describe this as the first suicide attack in the Middle East.

Question: When did it become known as the Gaza Strip?

When it became part of the British Palestinian Mandate, with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. Under the U.N. partition plan in 1947, it was projected to become an independent Arab state.

But with Israel's War of Independence in 1948, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from Ashkelon, Beersheva and other towns, in what is now southern Israel, fled into the Strip, which had been occupied by Egypt. Egypt closed its own borders to the Palestinian refugees and refused to give them Egyptian citizenship. The Palestinians of Gaza have been stateless ever since, many still living in refugee camps and largely dependent on U.N. relief efforts.

It's worth noting that many Palestinians who stayed put in their homes in the war of 1948 were later granted citizenship by Israel. There are now about 1 million Arab Israelis.

History of Gaza

Question: When was Gaza occupied by Israel?

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War in June 1967, until its withdrawal in 2005.

In some ways, the economic conditions for the Palestinians improved during this period: they were allowed to cross over into Israel to work; about 35 percent of Gaza's GNP was from wages earned in Israel. Israel also became a major trading partner; Gazan agricultural products, for example, were exported to Israel and often re-exported by Israel to the rest of the world, as "Produce of Israel." By this time it had become one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, 1.5 million people on a strip of land 20 miles long and 7 miles wide.

About 8,000 Israelis were allowed to settle in Gaza on about 25 percent of the territory and take the lion's share of its scarce water resources. They were forcibly removed by the Israeli army in August 2005 as part of the withdrawal plan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (now in a coma in an Israeli hospital). Their settlements were destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, which withdrew all its forces from Gaza by December 2005.

Before leaving, the Israeli army bombed the northeast section of the Gaza Strip to create a border-buffer zone, ostensibly to protect Israel from Palestinian rockets and missiles.

Question: Did Israel stay out of Gaza between 2005 and its attack on Dec. 27, 2008?

Yes and no. After 2005, Israel retained control of all access routes in and out of Gaza, by land, sea and air. The Strip was converted overnight into what has been described by many as a prison.

Israel controls Gaza's electricity and fuel supply and often leaves the strip in darkness as a punishment for rocket attacks. Israel uses its control of the border to determine whether Gazans can get to work and earn a living. It also controls the flow of food into the Strip; many Gazans are forced to depend on food aid.

Israel enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs when it considered itself provoked, carried out targeted assassinations against Palestinian militants and generally made life miserable for its inhabitants, by now the grandchildren, even great-grandchildren of the Palestinian refugees from present-day southern Israel.

In June 2006, for example, Israel conducted a major military campaign inside the Gaza Strip lasting two weeks and destroying much of the infrastructure in Gaza City, following the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit. (He has never been found).

Gaza: Growing Conflict and Violence

Question: Who broke the cease-fire agreement of June 2008 between Hamas and Israel ?

Israel accuses Hamas, which formally declared an end to the cease-fire on Dec. 18, 2008. Hamas says Israel broke it, first by refusing to lift the economic blockade on the Gaza Strip in accordance with the cease-fire's terms and, then, by carrying out two armed raids into Gaza, Nov. 4 and Nov. 17, killing 10 Palestinians.

Question: How did Hamas come into being?

The Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic acronym "Hamas," was created in 1987 before the first "Intifada" against the Israeli occupation as a more militant, Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It was originally promoted by the Israeli government as an alternative to the rival Palestine Liberation Organization. It gets much of its funding from Iran, although Hamas members are Sunni Muslim, not Shiite.

Money also comes from Muslim charities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and from Muslim groups in the United States. It is an active social movement, providing clinics, education and other social services, but its military wing preaches and practices violence, suicide bombing and other acts of terror against Israeli targets.

But some argue Israel itself is responsible for Hamas' rise. Avi Shlaim, an Israeli professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, wrote in the Guardian newspaper:

"In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now, Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup."

War Between Neighbors

Question: How did Hamas become such a threat to Israel?

As the author and columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in his famous book "From Beirut to Jerusalem" (Random House, 1989), the Islamic fundamentalists "sort of crept up on Israeli society." Unlike the sophisticated, secular men of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, "they didn't hold court at the American Colony bar [in Jerusalem] or dine with the Western press. They were the sort of people who blew you up in the middle of the night and then went home."

But in the democratic elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza in 2006, Hamas won overwhelmingly, mainly because of popular disgust with widespread corruption among Fatah officials. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip completely in 2007 after a virtual civil war between the two movements.

Question: Does Hamas accept Israel's right to exist?

No and, maybe, yes. The Hamas Charter states that "there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Holy War." But Hamas spokesmen have in the past declared their readiness to negotiate "a long-term cease-fire with the Jewish state within its pre-67 borders, for 20, 30, or even 50 years."

Question: What are the real chances of that happening?

That will depend entirely on the kind of leadership shown by each side. Israel's president Shimon Peres (one of the architects of the ill-fated Oslo peace accords) once said, referring to the larger Arab world, "In 20 years there will be 500 million Arabs and 2 billion Muslims. There is no way to defend ourselves unless we overcome the hostility."