Why are Israel and Hamas at War? A Basic Explainer.

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Palestinians search the rubble for victims of an airstrike on Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 17.

Israel and Hamas have been at war for more than six weeks. Over 11,100 Palestinians had been killed as of Nov. 10 – one out of every 200 people in Gaza – according to its Health Ministry, which says it can no longer provide an official death toll because of the intensity of fighting and repeated communication breakdowns. At least 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Here is a basic explainer of the reasons behind the current war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

What started the latest war between Israel and Hamas?

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants launched an unprecedented cross-border attack on Israel. In a highly organized stealth assault, they bulldozed the border fence in multiple places, caught Israel’s security apparatus off-guard and overwhelmed military defenses. Surprised by the lack of resistance, the attackers turned the operation into a bloody and chaotic rampage through civilian areas.

Militants took captives from a swath of territory more than 20 miles wide, reflecting the broad sweep of the incursion across Gaza’s border with southern Israel. The majority of the captives identified by The Washington Post were civilians, including women and young children. At the site of a dance festival three miles from the border fence, more than 260 bodies were recovered. Israeli officials said 5,400 people were injured in the attack, and at least 32 U.S. nationals have died.

Hamas, a militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, has said the aim of the attack was “to free Palestinian prisoners, stop Israeli aggression on al-Aqsa Mosque, and to break the siege on Gaza.”

The day of the attack, Israel declared war on Hamas. Since then, Gaza has been bombarded with Israeli air and artillery strikes, killing thousands and injuring more than 26,400 people, many of them children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Why are Israel and Hamas fighting?

The roots of the latest fighting predate the establishment of the state of Israel 75 years ago and the founding of Hamas in 1987. Palestinians and Israelis alike consider the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as their own.

Periodic bouts of violence, armed conflict and displacement followed. Before Oct. 7, there were 6,407 Palestinian and 308 Israeli fatalities in the past 15 years, according to U.N. data.

Most recently, Israel has coexisted uneasily with Hamas – cycling between bloody escalations and periods of relative peace, including times when Gazans were able to work in and export goods to Israel.

Hamas – which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization since 1997 – won elections in Gaza in 2006, defeating Fatah, the main Palestinian party that still controls the Palestinian Authority, the U.S.-backed government based in the West Bank, the second Palestinian territory.

In 2007, Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and seized full control of the enclave. Elections have not been held in Gaza since. Hamas, unlike the Palestinian Authority, does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. The group, supported by Iran, has used explosives and rockets, along with suicide bombings and kidnappings, to target Israel since gaining control of Gaza.

Israel has retaliated with a years-long blockade, restricting imports and exports and the movement of civilians in and out of the Strip, which has a population of about 2.1 million, in a strategy that rights groups have decried as collective punishment and a violation of international law.

The power imbalance and lack of movement toward peace and Palestinian statehood have kept tensions simmering. In May 2021, Israeli attempts to evict families from a Palestinian neighborhood in favor of Jewish Israelis in East Jerusalem led to violent clashes, prompting Hamas to launch rockets at Israeli cities.

This April, Israeli forces stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred Muslim site in Jerusalem. The following month, a five-day conflict between Israel and Islamic Jihad, another armed Palestinian faction, killed at least 22 people in Gaza and two in Israel. It was a rare summer of quiet in the Gaza Strip until late August, when Israel halted new work permits and barred workers with permits from entering the country, blaming Hamas for a string of attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

What are Israel’s military objectives in Gaza?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a unity government with a political rival, has promised to end Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s military has said a key target of this war is the militant group’s leadership, and leaders have said they will collapse its military and governmental capabilities to the point that they cannot recover.

Previous ground offensives by Israel into Gaza, in 2014 and 2019, were more limited in aim – intending to punish and degrade Hamas but not remove it completely. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed during the 2019 campaign; the death toll in 2014 exceeded 1,500, including more than 500 children.

What is the situation for people in Gaza?

Aid agencies say the enclave is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis, which Israel’s bombardments and demands for more than 1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to flee southward have worsened.

Since early October, residents of the Gaza Strip have been largely cut off from internet and cellphone and landline networks, further isolating them from the rest of the world. U.S. officials have directly linked the power and digital blackouts to Israel and said Washington had applied pressure to have communications restored. The United Nations and others have also said a lack of fuel and communications has restricted their aid efforts.

Unable to leave the enclave through its closed borders, many Palestinians are facing critical shortages of basic resources amid collapsed infrastructure. A deal was eventually reached to allow some humanitarian aid in through Egypt, and supplies are slowly trickling into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing. Israel has restricted fuel deliveries, saying they could be used by Hamas, while hospitals such as al-Shifa and others say they have been pushed to the breaking point by the lack of power. Limited openings at the crossing have also allowed some injured Palestinians and foreign citizens to leave for Egypt.

In interviews with The Post, residents said they had no electricity, no water and nowhere to flee. Journalists on the ground attempting to report on the conflict have also been killed. Since Oct. 7, at least 50 journalists and other media workers have been killed: the majority Palestinian, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

What are the details of the agreement to a four-day pause in hostilities?

A deal reached Wednesday between Israel and Hamas seeks to pause fighting in Gaza for at least four days, in exchange for the release of at least 50 of the 240 hostages held inside the enclave, the Israeli government said. The agreement marks the first cessation since a six-week air and ground assault and caps weeks of tense international talks, mediated by the Qatari government and with the heavy intercession of the Biden administration.

As part of the deal, each hostage will be traded for three Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Israel will allow more fuel and humanitarian aid into the enclave, and the pause could be extended by a day for every additional 10 hostages who are released above the initial group of 50, the officials said. None of the Gazans who have been displaced from their homes in northern Gaza would be permitted to travel back during the pause.

What could happen next in the Israel-Gaza war?

Israeli leaders have said they will continue military pressure on Hamas to secure the release of the remaining groups of hostages. Israeli forces have urged civilians in the south to move to unspecified “safe zones,” following evacuation calls from the north. The White House has cautioned Israel against moving on the south “absent a cohesive plan” to protect “a dramatically increased civilian population” of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said.

Questions also remain over who will run Gaza when the war is over. Netanyahu said Israel doesn’t “seek to occupy Gaza” after previous comments – that Israel would be responsible for the enclave’s security “for an indefinite period” – raised red flags in the Biden administration. “Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, adding: “It’s also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s administration would return to Gaza only as part of a “comprehensive solution,” his aides said, though critics bashed the idea, slamming his leadership as dated and corrupt.

Also growing is the risk that the conflict could draw in neighboring countries or even global powers. A potential flash point is Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where a risk exists of a second front opening up between Israel and Hezbollah – the well-armed and battle-trained Lebanese Shiite political and militant group that has fought Israel for decades from its base in southern Lebanon.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, has denied having any role in the original Hamas attack. But Tehran has warned that it could take unspecified “preemptive action” to deter an Israeli assault on Gaza; an Iranian intervention would risk engulfing the region in a wider conflict.