Understanding The Basics Of the Conflict In Gaza

Fighting between Israel and Hamas escalated over the weekend as Israeli forces shelled the town of Shejaia in Gaza. Host Michel Martin learns the latest from Zack Beauchamp of Vox.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We want to begin today by trying to understand two international stories that have been dominating headlines. In a few minutes we'll find out the latest in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. That's important because the U.S. and many other analysts believe the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down over Ukrainian territories last week was a casualty of that conflict. But first we turn to the Middle East where the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza escalated over the weekend. Israeli forces used ships, artillery and tanks to combat members of Hamas in a border town on Sunday. At least 100 Palestinians were killed in the violence just this weekend, along with 13 Israeli soldiers. Overall, more than 400 people have been killed in this latest conflict which obviously has very deep roots. But we felt this would be a good opportunity to try to help understand what's going on right now and why. Zack Beauchamp just tried to do this in a report for his news outlet. He's world correspondent at Vox, and he's with us now in our studios in Washington, DC. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we get to the specifics of this - I mean, many people do recall that these three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, later found killed, and it's understood that a Palestinian teenager was, you know, killed and beaten in retaliation. Is that what set this off? Or something else?

BEAUCHAMP: In a way, yes. It started with the killing - well, initially, kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. Israel conducted a manhunt - possibly they knew the kids were already dead to begin with - to find them. And that arrested a member of Hamas operatives. That triggered rocket fire because it was obviously an operation targeted at Hamas. Then when the Palestinian teenager was killed, as well as his cousin being beaten in Israeli custody - a Palestinian-American, that inflamed Palestinian sentiment further. It led to increased rocket fire. It also led to retaliation from the IDF. The cycle of violence - and to use a cliched phrase - essentially escalated into the ongoing conflict we see right now.

MARTIN: Well, why is Hamas, again, firing these rockets? That would seem to be a very - a losing strategy since they are clearly outgunned as it were - just to use a very simple phrase. They are clearly outgunned. They do not have, kind of, the level of weaponry and the level of organization of the Israeli government. So what is the strategy behind firing these rockets at this point?

BEAUCHAMP: Hamas's political legitimacy depends on the idea of "resistance to Israel." That is of showing that they can stand up and create a sense of agency in response to Israeli military actions. So the rocket fire is their way of saying that we are still resisting the Israeli occupation and the Israeli - of the West Bank - and the Israeli blockade of Gaza. So this is a domestic political ploy. It's also a targeted strategy often to extract concessions from particular people. For instance, some very knowledgeable analysts believe that what Hamas is trying to do here is to get Egypt to let more goods into Gaza through the Rafah crossing on the West and to give them more money. The idea is they leverage Egyptian public sentiment, angered Israel, into Egyptian concessions. And indeed, Egypt signaled today that they're interested in accommodating Hamas terms to broker a cease-fire.

MARTIN: What is the relationship right now between Hamas and Egypt?

BEAUCHAMP: Egypt does not like Hamas. The Egyptian military controls the Egyptian government. Because they control the government, they have tried to root out the Muslim Brotherhood, who's the main opposition, in fact. They took over from the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup. Hamas has very close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. And in its charter it describes itself as the Palestinian Muslim brotherhood. They're separate organizations, but the Egyptian government doesn't trust Hamas at all. They've declared it an illegal organization through court system and have cracked down on their supply lines - they're critical supply lines - their tunnels that go under the Gaza border. As a consequence, Egypt and Hamas are in very tenuous terms.

MARTIN: What has been the response to the rising death toll both in Gaza - in the region and internationally among key players - especially kind of the disproportionate nature of the casualties. I mean, obviously, all death - all deaths - especially of innocence is, you know, regrettable and terrifying. But what's been the response to this rising death toll?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, there's been widespread international anger and...

MARTIN: Right. At whom?

BEAUCHAMP: Principally, one would say probably at Israel. If you look at - take social media as a parameter, you saw disproportionate - sorry about that phrasing - but a disproportionate number of tweets about- relative to there, you know, being two sides - criticizing Israel versus criticizing Hamas in the operation. So there's been a lot of demonstrations against Israel. The U.S. has been supportive of the air campaign in Gaza, but it also has been quite critical of the ground escalation, or at least more critical than it usually is. The U.S. always couches its criticism of Israel in sort of very moderate terms. And so Obama on Friday - or rather, sorry, on Sunday - gave his most important statement - or most serious concern about civilian casualties in Gaza.

MARTIN: Well he called - to that end - this is the final question - he called for an immediate cease-fire after the violence on Sunday. The U.N. has also urged an end to the violence. Are these appeals relevant? Is there any relevant actor here?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, it's hard to say right now. Secretary Kerry is in Cairo right now probably working with the Egyptian government to facilitate another cease-fire operation or offer, which is what Egypt had done previously. So it's possible the U.S. could help broker a deal, but it's hard to be optimistic right now in the short-term given the escalation in conflict.

MARTIN: Recognize this is a very complicated issue. Thank you for making it as simple as possible. Zack Beauchamp with Vox. Thank you so much for joining us.

BEAUCHAMP: Thank you.

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