The Israeli-Palestinian conflict evokes intense emotions worldwide. ‘That's why it's crucial right now to provide context and to keep thinking critically,’ says prof Karène Sanchez-Summerer, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the Faculty of Arts. Together with dr Pieter Nanninga, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, and dr Karim El Taki, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Politics, she is organizing the sold-out Studium Generale lecture: 'Gaza in Context' on 14 December.
Few conflicts are as sensitive and emotionally charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the violence intensifying since 7 October, people are scrambling to form opinions and take sides. This is not always done with the historical, ideological, or geopolitical context needed to comprehend this complex situation.
‘It is our responsibility as an academic community to provide this context, each from our own expertise,’ says Professor Karène Sanchez-Summerer.
During the Studium Generale on 14 December, Sanchez-Summerer, Nanninga, and El Taki aim to demonstrate the importance of understanding history to comprehend the present. They guide the audience through some stepping stones, crucial moments in history that help us understand the area.
Today, with 2.2 million inhabitants, the Gaza strip is a densely populated area hermetically sealed off from the outside world. However, it has not always been this way, as Sanchez-Summerer explains: ‘Few people are familiar with the history of this small piece of land, which was once a very open and accessible area. Before and during the interwar period, between the First and Second World War, not many people lived there: primarily Arabs, Muslims, and a handful of Christians. They could freely travel back and forth to their families in places like Hebron, Haifa, and Lebanon.’
An essential moment in history is the end of the First World War, when the Gaza Strip became part of the British Mandate for Palestine assigned to Great Britain. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stipulated that Great Britain would assist in building "a National Home for the Jewish People in Palestine," where primarily Arabs lived at that time.
Another crucial stepping stone is the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a few years after the end of the Second World War. Many of the dispossessed and displaced Arab inhabitants of Palestine sought temporary refuge, including in the Gaza Strip.
Gaza initially fell under the Egyptian government until Israel conquered the area in 1967. Under Israeli rule, Jewish settlers moved in, causing significant unrest among the population. Israel eventually withdrew from Gaza in 2005. When Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, Israel sealed the borders of the area hermetically.
‘Since the 1920’s until now, Gaza has reaped the bitter fruits of a very long occupation,’ says Sanchez-Summerer. ‘In these very difficult circumstances, development on social, economic, and cultural levels was very challenging. Education was largely organized by UNRWA, the United Nations agency focused on assisting and developing Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. The majority of the inhabitants are subjected to dire conditions. Different population groups are packed into that small piece of land, the borders of which suddenly closed. This has consequences in all aspects. The historical approach helps us understand how a centuries-long process of economic impoverishment and political marginalisation transformed Gaza from a central border area into a peripheral space.’
Assistant Professor Pieter Nanninga delves deeper into the role of Hamas in this conflict during the Studium Generale lecture. ‘We mostly know Hamas as a religious, terrorist organization. However, that image is too one-dimensional’, he says. ‘Through history, I want to show that Hamas is a complex, diverse, and layered movement.’
Hamas emerged in 1987 during the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. Founded from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas also had the ideal of Islamising the Palestinian population from below through preaching and education.
Later, Hamas evolved from a resistance movement into a political one. In 2006, they participated in the Palestinian legislative election, which they won. After an internal conflict with Fatah, they became the dominant party in Gaza.
‘As far as ideology is concerned, religion and Palestinian nationalism go hand in hand with Hamas,’ says Nanninga. ‘Moreover, Hamas is often very pragmatic. For instance, Hamas strongly opposed the peace talks with Israel in 1993, also known as the Oslo Accords. However, the Oslo Accords were very popular among Palestinians. Therefore, Hamas decided to use violence at strategic moments, for example, as a retaliatory act after a massacre committed by a Jewish settler in Hebron.’
Regarding Hamas's violence, Nanninga emphasises the importance of distinguishing between the organization and individuals. ‘An organization often has strategic motives for committing violence. For individuals, those motives are more personal, political, social, or psychological. Regarding the violence on October 7, we can't say much about individual motives yet. When looking at the organization, history shows that Hamas uses violence in a very strategic and pragmatic way. They are driven not only by ideals but also by the internal political situation in the Palestinian territories and Israel.’
Nanninga stresses that he never approves of violence: ‘What I want to express is that we should be critical of the terms we use. Indeed, we can analyse Hamas's actions from a terrorism studies perspective, but we also need other approaches. Seeing Hamas exclusively as religious terrorists might imply, for example, that negotiating with Hamas is almost impossible. While history teaches us that it can indeed happen.’
The current situation in the Middle East also affects the courses of the Middle Eastern Studies programme. How do the teachers adapt? Sanchez-Summerer says, ‘In essence, we also provide insights to our students by having them read documents and show historical visuals, along with our regular programmes. Everything is focused on nuance and critical thinking, never drawing hasty conclusions.’
She gives an example: ‘In the Master's programme, we study sectarianism and minorities in the Middle East. We discuss how the British introduced sectarianism in Palestine at the time and how it developed further after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. And in the Bachelor's programme, we teach a module on Cultural and Soft Power in the Middle East. We examine the impact of films, for example, both Israeli and Arab-Palestinian, before and after the establishment of Israel.’
Nanninga adds, ‘I teach the Master's course Conflicts in the Middle East. Each week focuses on a theme crucial to understanding conflicts in the Middle East. What we often do is read theoretical literature and apply it to a case. In recent years, we have often done this concerning Syria. This year, we choose more often to look at the conflict in Gaza. For example, by examining Hamas as a social movement: what does that reveal about Hamas? What do we learn from that? Or: what is the role of religion in Hamas's actions? Our courses are more tailored to this conflict, but always from an academic perspective and based on scientific insights.’
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