SINGAPORE — The world is bracing itself for yet more armed conflict and violence after Israel on Sunday (Oct 8) declared war against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that launched a highly coordinated attack on various parts of the middle-eastern country over the weekend.
According to Israeli media, the attack resulted in over 700 deaths in Israel, which Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari called on Sunday “the worst massacre of innocent civilians” in the country’s history.
More than 100 Israeli citizens, including women and children, were believed to have been abducted at gunpoint by Hamas and taken to Gaza.
In the aftermath of the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and warned Israelis to brace themselves for a “long and difficult war”.
Israel has retaliated with air strikes which hit housing blocks, tunnels, a mosque and homes of Hamas officials in Gaza.
At least 493 Palestinians have been killed, according to authorities in Gaza, and at least 2,751 others have been injured. Reports said children were among those killed.
TODAY breaks down the complicated and often bloodied history between Hamas and the Jewish nation-state, the ongoing conflict, and what it means for Singapore and the rest of the world.
WHAT IS HAMAS, AND HOW DID CONFLICT BEGIN?
Hamas, which stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic, is a Palestinian militant and political organisation founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising.
The founding of Hamas is a result of many decades of religious conflict between the predominantly Jewish population of Israel and Muslim-majority Palestine — both of which were considered as part of one state controlled by the British before 1948.
In 1947, following the second World War, the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. While the Jewish leadership accepted the plan, the Arab leaders did not — in large part due to disputes on who the land belonged to.
Nonetheless, Israel declared independence the following year, almost immediately setting off the first Arab-Israeli war which also involved neighbouring Arab states. Since then, there have been at least six more instances of military conflict involving Israel and other Arab states.
Unlike the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization coalition, Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist as a state and has spoken about driving all Jews from the region.
Since 2007, after defeating its rival political party Fatah, Hamas has politically controlled the Gaza Strip — a coastal territory that is one of the most densely populated areas in the world — home to more than two million Palestinians.
There, Hamas is known to provide social services for its people, such as in education and medical care in hospitals.
The Gaza Strip, which has been plagued with civilian casualties and infrastructural damage due to military conflict, is also blockaded by Israel.
This means the import of goods like electronic and computer equipment that could be used to make weapons is restricted, and most people are prevented from leaving the territory — resulting in the deterioration of its economy.
As Hamas has both political and military wings, countries around the world are divided on the designation of the organisation.
The United States, United Kingdom and Canada for instance have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation due to its attacks on Israel, while other countries like New Zealand only deem Hamas’s military wing to be a terrorist group.
Hamas is part of a regional alliance comprising Iran, Syria and the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which all broadly oppose US policy in the Middle East and Israel.
Saturday’s attack coincides with US-backed moves to get Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel in return for a defence deal between Washington and Riyadh, a move that would in turn negatively affect the kingdom’s recent rapproachment with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel out of solidarity with Palestinians but had seemed ready to change its policy.
WHAT TRIGGERED THE CURRENT WAR?
Dr Jean-Loup Samaan, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) of the National University of Singapore, told TODAY that there was “no apparent trigger” for Hamas’s offensive on Saturday.
However, Dr Samaan noted that the ongoing conflict is the fifth one between Hamas and Israel since 2008, with each prior round ending in a “temporary truce in the battlefield without any political settlement”.
Because of this, Saturday’s attacks could have resulted from the fact that the “Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been frozen for two decades”, he said.
In a statement published on Hamas’s official website, the commander-in-chief of Hamas’s military wing Mohammed Deif said that the attacks were in response to Israel not heeding its warnings “against continuing their crimes” — which he said included displacing Palestinian people and “hundreds of massacres… in violation of all international norms and laws and human rights conventions”.
He also accused Israeli occupation forces of banning Palestinian citizens from accessing the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque — a site which holds significance for both Jews and Muslims — and allowing “Israeli colonial settlers to defile the Muslim sacred site and conduct daily raids into the Muslim holy compound”.
Laura Blumenfeld, a Middle East analyst at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, told Reuters that Hamas may have struck due to a sense that it was facing irrelevance as efforts advanced toward broader Israeli-Arab relations.
“As Hamas watched the Israelis and Saudis move close to an agreement, they decided: No seat at the table? Poison the meal,” she said.
WHAT WILL ITS IMPACT BE ON THE WORLD AND SINGAPORE?
Dr Samaan of MEI said that the conflict is a “stark reminder of the lingering issues of the Middle East”.
“It comes at a time when there were hopes of a new Middle East where stability and commerce were to prevail. This will surely impact this dynamic,” he said.
Dr Samaan added that the conflict will also likely put on hold the Israeli-Saudi normalisation project — a deal to broker diplomatic ties between both countries which may include possible Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
Closer to home, he believes the conflict could also impact energy prices, noting that the price of oil barrels is already increasing.
Brent crude, the international benchmark, climbed by US$2.25 (S$3.08) a barrel to US$86.83 on Monday. Israel and Palestinian territories are not oil producers but the Middle Eastern region accounts for almost a third of global supply.
A major war could also fuel tensions between Muslim and Jewish communities beyond the Middle East, Dr Samaan said, not just in Europe but in Southeast Asia as well.
According to the Singapore Census of Population 2020, 15.6 per cent of the population identify as Muslim.
While there are no official figures on the size of Singapore’s Jewish community, the Jewish Welfare Board — a committee of volunteers from the community — states that the country is home to “2,500 Jewish residents, mainly expatriates from Israel, America, Australia and Europe”.
On Saturday, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “strongly condemns the rocket and terror attacks from Gaza on Israel, which have resulted in deaths and injuries of many innocent civilians”.
“We call for an immediate end to the violence and urge all sides to do their utmost to protect the safety and security of civilians.”
On Sunday, it urged Singaporeans to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Israel’s borders with the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria. Singaporeans are also advised to avoid all non-essential travel to Israel in view of the ongoing conflict.