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Understanding Israel and Hamas: Why this conflict differs from others

Published: Friday, Aug. 1 2014 8:05 p.m. MDT

Nima Samatar listens during a pro-Palestine rally in Salt Lake City, Thursday, July 31, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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

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