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Understanding Israel and Hamas: Why this conflict differs from others

SALT LAKE CITY — A humanitarian cease-fire that went into effect early Friday between Israeli and Hamas forces fell apart less than two hours after it began when one Israeli soldier was captured and two others were killed in Gaza.

The failed cease-fire attempt illustrates the complexity and zeal surrounding the conflict on both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains determined to eliminate Hamas "terror tunnels" entering Israel with or without a cease-fire. Meanwhile, Hamas continues calling for Israeli forces to depart from the Gaza Strip.

Utah experts say injustice on both sides, religious extremism and geopolitical tension are the important factors to consider when trying to understand why peace in Gaza seems far off. And they provide a key look into helping those here understand just why this conflict differs from many around the world.

Grievances on both sides

While the U.S. has provided large support to Israeli forces, legitimate injustice exists for people on both sides of the conflict, according to Daniel Peterson, a BYU professor of Arabic and director of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative.

"It is significant for us because a lot of Utahns have a particular interest in Palestine and Israel, and many have been there," Peterson said. "I would just hope they would be somewhat even-handed. The fact is that neither side is flawless in this conflict, and I hear things on both sides that really disturb me."

Social inequity and discrimination abound for Palestinians in many areas who have been forced out of much of their homeland. Living as second-class citizens is something Hisham Arafat's family have had to get used to in Palestine.

"It's despicable," said Arafat, who attended a pro-Palestinian rally in Salt Lake City Thursday. "It's a sad world where one race can treat another race in such a manner that they're beneath them. And that's what Israel has been doing."

Legal aspects of life are slowly improving for Palestinians, however, and livable alternatives outside Israel are few, according to Peterson.

"In many cases, a Palestinian can actually sue the Israeli government and have a chance of winning in an Israeli court," Peterson said. "They enjoy rights under Israeli rule that they wouldn't enjoy under any Arab state currently in the region. It's always a question of the good being the enemy of the best and looking for a perfect situation when actually the real alternatives are not perfect, they're bad."

Israel has responded to risks posed by a network of tunnels constructed by Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni Islamic sect. Iran has also openly admitted to supplying Hamas with more sophisticated weapons, putting about 60 percent of Israel's population in the line of fire, according to Amos Guiora, professor of law at the University of Utah College of Law and co-director of the Center for Global Justice.

Hamas launches most of its rockets from schools, hospitals and mosques in Gaza while its leadership remains bunkered beneath the city, unreachable by Israeli forces, Guiora said. Despite the risk to Palestinian civilians, Israel has been obliged to fight back with greater military prowess.

"The question is, what's the right response?" Guiora said. "Israel has planes, tanks and artillery. Hamas doesn't. ... There's asymmetry here. Israel is determined to wipe out the tunnels and to wipe out the rocket launchers. This is a nasty battle."

Israel, however, sees the risk of not responding to intruders and aerial attack as unacceptable.

The cost of war

"On the whole, I think the Israelis are within their rights," Peterson said. "They have to respond to the provocation of rockets coming across their border."

The New York Times reported Friday that more than 1,500 Palestinians and 66 Israelis had been killed 25 days into the conflict.

"No country deserves this," Arafat said of the death toll. "No human race, no ethnicity, nobody deserves such a massacre that's going on."

Daniella Gitlin is an American-Israeli living in New York. In a contributing article for the Washington Post, Gitlin says civilians on both sides are tired of violence.

"Israel is small enough that everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been injured or killed," Gitlin writes. "Sirens have been going off twice a day in Tel Aviv."

While the civilian-to-combatant ratio of Palestinian casualties remains unclear, Hamas strategy is obvious, Guiora said.

"What's clear is that a significant percentage of those innocent civilians are a human shield," Guiora said.

Such has led to further hostility toward Israel, according to Peterson.

"A lot of Palestinians are very upset about the civilian casualties that have occurred in Gaza," Peterson said. "You can't blame them. It's been terrible."

Religious extremism

Fueling Hamas' will to fight is a deep and intrinsic belief system that has resulted in short-lived compromises with Israeli forces, Peterson said.

"This is a religious fight, and that always makes it worse because negotiating religious differences is much more difficult than just negotiating a few things over land and water rights and this and that. It becomes more absolute," Peterson said.

Guiora calls it Hamas' "apocalypse moment."

"This is a fight to the finish," Guiora said. "This is not some casual round of exchange. The Hamas culture calls for the destruction of Israel. That's what their whole purpose of existence is — to destroy Israel. So if you have a cease-fire, why would they stop?"

Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas' military wing, uses religious extremism in justifying the sacrifice of innocent lives in furthering the cause of the Islamic Resistance Movement, according to Guiora.

"The civilians are getting hammered, and these guys are in bunkers," Guiora said. Deif "is calling the people to fight on, in essence, for martyrdom. It's this love of death. You and I love life. They love martyrdom and death, and they're willing to sacrifice their lives," he said.

Gitlin says much of the discontent stems from how poorly Palestinians are treated in Israel.

"Israel isn't fighting for its survival right now," Gitlin writes. "It's fighting a volatile and armed organization whose antagonism has only been nourished by the Israeli government's determination to keep Palestinians as second-class citizens, by its expansionist policies, by its refusal to stop building settlements on Palestinian land."

Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza have mounted during Israel's attempt to disable Hamas resources, but Peterson says Israel is not as intrinsically motivated.

"I don't see most of the Israelis as monsters," Peterson said. "They don't take pleasure in killing civilians. But it has made the hostility very, very deep. It was always there, but this just makes it worse."

"I don't think there's any justification in anybody killing anybody," Arafat said.

Guiora says eliminating the tunnels remains a top priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it is unknown whether destroying the tunnels will bring an end to the conflict.

"From what I can tell, Netanyahu has no interest in a fight to the finish," Guiora said.

Geopolitical tension

What sets the current conflict apart from others is a more significant involvement from surrounding countries, according to Guiora.

"All the chefs are in the kitchen," he said. "There are a lot of players who all of a sudden feel they have a stake in the conflict."

Extensive outside involvement has led to tension between the U.S. and countries such as Egypt, Israel and Palestinian authorities, according to Guiora.

Iran supplying weapons to Hamas presents an alarming trend, Peterson said.

"We ought to be a little worried about the increase in Iranian power in the region," Peterson said. "The Iranians are seeking a considerably larger regional role. ... We ought to be watching the Iranians carefully."

Qatar, however, is the only Arab country still in support of Hamas.

"What the conflict has done, and I think this is really important geopolitically, is it's shown significant measures in the Arab world," Guiora said. "The Arab world has turned its back on Hamas."

Peace, although becoming more distant, remains possible, Peterson said.

"I'd say, don't look at it as if it's hopeless or that it's just gone on for four-thousand years and will never end," he said. "It's a very specific historical situation that has created this difficulty. ... Unfortunately, I think a solution is quite a ways off."

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