Q&A: Israel-Gaza violence

An explosion shakes Gaza City after an Israeli air strike (17 November 2012) Israel's government insisted that it was not trying to topple Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007

Israel launched its military offensive against Gaza on 14 November, marking the latest eruption in a conflict with Palestinian militants which has raged between the two sides for years.

Here is a guide to some of the key issues involved.

How did this start?

Israel's offensive on Gaza began with an air strike that killed the commander of Hamas's military wing, Ahmed Jabari, whom it accused of responsibility for "all terrorist activities against Israel from Gaza" over the past decade.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) subsequently announced the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, which it said was intended to protect Israeli civilians from rockets and mortars fired by militants in Gaza, as well as cripple Hamas's capability to launch attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation was launched because he could no longer "accept a situation in which Israeli citizens are threatened by the terror of rockets".

Israeli air strikes on what it said were rocket-storage sites and on Hamas facilities, and a surge in Palestinian rocket-fire into Israel, ensued.

Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, said Jabari's assassination had "opened the gates of hell".

Although Jabari's killing signalled the start of Israel's offensive, it was preceded by spates of deadly cross-border violence which saw Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas's Qassam Brigades, firing hundreds of rockets into southern Israel and the Israeli military shelling Gaza and carrying out air strikes.

Some observers have noted that the offensive was launched only nine weeks before parliamentary elections in Israel. Others have alleged that Operation Pillar of Defence was intended to undermine the Palestinian plan to request non-member observer state status at the UN later in November. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has rejected the suggestion that he and Mr Netanyahu have an interest in going to war. And prior to the offensive, polls already suggested Mr Netanyahu's Likud Beitenu alliance would come out top in the forthcoming elections.

What is the historical background to the crisis?

The shape of the Gaza Strip was defined by the armistice line following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-9. Some 1.1 million of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza are registered as refugees.

Egypt controlled the Strip between 1948 and 1967, when Israel captured it during the Six Day War. In 2005, Israel pulled its troops and settlers out. Israel considered that the end of the occupation, but it still exercises control over most of Gaza's land borders, territorial waters and airspace. Egypt controls Gaza's southern border.

For the last decade, the people of Gaza have suffered severe socio-economic hardship. Eighty per cent of the population is dependant on international assistance. Israel's blockade, which was tightened with Egypt's co-operation in 2007 to weaken Hamas after it came to power and to end rocket attacks, has resulted in what the UN describes as "the impoverishment and de-development of a highly-skilled and well-educated society".

In 2010, Israel partially eased the blockade, but restrictions on imports and exports continue to hamper recovery and reconstruction. The UN has described the blockade as "collective punishment", while a UN report found the naval blockade was legal.

The blockade and the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been cited by militants in Gaza as reasons for their continued attacks on Israel since the 2005 withdrawal. Despite carrying out scores of air strikes across Gaza, Israel has failed to halt rocket attacks. This led the Israeli military to launch of a major ground offensive in December 2008. Operation Cast Lead dealt a serious blow to the capability of Gaza's militant groups - and also destroyed much of the territory's civilian infrastructure - but they gradually recovered and rocket-fire resumed.

Though smaller groups were behind the majority of the attacks between January 2009 and October 2012, Hamas' armed wing was also involved. Israel has said it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the territory.

What did both sides want?

The Israeli government has said Operation Pillar of Defence had two main goals - to protect Israeli civilians and "cripple the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza". Mr Netanyahu insisted that he is not seeking to topple Hamas.

Following the ceasefire agreement, Israel said that it targeted 1,500 "terror sites" during Operation Pillar of Defence. The IDF's targets included 30 senior militants, 980 underground rocket launchers and 140 smuggling tunnels. The army said it was doing its utmost to protect civilians in Gaza, although Palestinian medical officials reported that more than half of those killed in Gaza were women and children.

Israeli military sources say most of the Iranian-made Fajr-5 and M75 medium-range missiles which had been in the possession of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group were destroyed during the first few hours of the offensive. However, some have landed near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Israel struggled to contain shorter-range rockets.

At the start of the offensive, Hamas's Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad insisted it was not the aggressor and did not want to see the violence escalate. "We still say that we are the victims of the Occupation and we are the target," he said. But Mr Hamad also argued that Hamas had a right to defend its people and would respond to Israeli attacks, warning: "If Gaza is not safe, your towns will not be safe also."

How did the international community respond?

At the start of the conflict, most Western leaders rallied to support Israel. US President Barack Obama said America's alliance with Israel was rock solid and that he was "fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself from missiles". The leaders of France, Germany and other EU nations also expressed their support, while UK Foreign Minister William Hague laid the blame for the latest violence at Hamas' door.

Most Arab states as well as Iran and Turkey voiced their support for Hamas in Gaza and called on Israel to stop their assault. The head of the Arab League, the Egyptian prime minister and the Turkish foreign minister all visited the strip during the eight-day conflict to show solidarity with the Palestinians. Egypt's President, Mohammed Mursi, said he would "not leave Gaza on its own", condemning what he called Israel's "blatant aggression against humanity". Iran called for Arab states to send weapons to Gaza to help Hamas' fight against Israel.

Although Israel's allies supported its right to defend itself against Hamas rockets with airstrikes on Gaza, many of them said openly that it would be preferable for Benjamin Netanyahu's government not to stage a ground invasion. William Hague said sending ground troops in would "lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation".

Behind the scenes, politicians on both sides of the debate were working toward a ceasefire. Egypt and the United States were the two major players in negotiating the truce deal which was eventually announced by their respective representatives in Cairo on 21 November. President Obama had dispatched his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region for a whistlestop diplomatic tour of Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. In Cairo, Mohammed Mursi's government was holding talks with Hamas leaders and international officials to try and find a compromise.

When the ceasefire was announced, President Obama reiterated America's support for Israel and said it would continue to help fund the country's Iron Dome defence system, which shot down 421 of some 1,500 rockets launched from Gaza during Operate Pillar of Defence.

What are the terms of the ceasefire?

The ceasefire agreement included a promise from both sides to stop attacks on the other, with Egypt giving the role of mediating the truce. Some of the details of the agreements, including the end of Israel's blockade around its border with Gaza, still need to be thrashed out. The key points are as follows:

  • Israel to end all hostilities on Gaza Strip by sea, land and air, including incursions and the targeting of individuals
  • All Palestinian factions in Gaza to stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket and border attack
  • After 24 hours from start of ceasefire, talks to begin on opening crossings into Gaza and allowing free movement of people and goods
  • Egypt to receive assurances from both sides that they will abide by the deal, and will follow up any reports its has been broken

What was the total cost of the fighting?

The full costs to the economies, infrastructure and populations of Gaza and Israel from Operation Pillar of Defence are still being counted. The UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says provisional figures reported to it from Gaza say that 158 people were killed there. The figures showed 103 were civilians, including at least 30 children and 13 women. Six Israelis were also killed, two soldiers and four civilians.

Key parts of Gaza's infrastructure were damaged or destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, included the prime minister's office, a government compound which housed the interior ministry and the tunnels used for smuggling everything from food to weapons in the south. Apartment buildings, sports fields, kindergartens and electricity substations were also hit.

Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that in southern Israel more than 1,000 buildings and residential homes and apartments were damaged by rocket fire during the eight day operation. Damages are estimated around 100 million shekels ($25.6m; £16m).

What does this mean for the Middle East peace process?

Two decades of on-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has failed to produce a permanent settlement. The latest round of direct negotiations broke down in 2010. Hamas has not been part of any peace talks with Israel. The group does not recognise Israel's right to exist and opposes the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Even before the Israeli offensive on Gaza began, the two sides had rarely appeared further apart and the conflict more intractable. In January, several months of indirect "proximity talks" ended without any progress. Palestinian negotiators insist that the building of Jewish settlements on occupied land must stop before they agree to resume direct talks. Their Israeli counterparts say there can be no preconditions.

The Israeli and US governments have also been angered by PA President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to submit on 29 November a request to the UN General Assembly for Palestine to become a "non-member observer state". The Palestinians argue that this would strengthen their hand in peace talks. Israel and the US say the only way to achieve an independent state is through direct negotiations.

On 18 November, Mr Obama said if the situation in Gaza worsened, "the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future".

In the aftermath of the latest fighting, both Israel and Hamas have joined the international community in calling for a durable and comprehensive solution to the conflict.

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