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How 6 months of Israel's war in Gaza have upended the Middle East

A young Palestinian sits on the rubble of a destroyed home following an Israeli military strike on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip, on Oct. 15. Sunday marks six months since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Mohammed Abed
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AFP via Getty Images
A young Palestinian sits on the rubble of a destroyed home following an Israeli military strike on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip, on Oct. 15. Sunday marks six months since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas unleashed its early morning rampage in southern Israel six months ago this Sunday, igniting the deadliest war ever between Israelis and Palestinians.

To look at how the war is reshaping the region, and where the war could be heading, a trio of NPR correspondents drew on their deep experience of reporting in the region, including the current conflict.

The three are Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv; Jane Arraf, who's based in Amman, Jordan; and Greg Myre, who's based in Washington and has been working in the region.

How have the past six months changed Israel?

Daniel Estrin: The Hamas-led assault on Israel was the deadliest single attack against Jews since the Holocaust, with around 1,200 dead, by the Israeli government's count. Israelis speak about the Oct. 7 attack as a "second Holocaust" because of the atrocities committed. Israelis were hiding at home when they were killed. Some were burned alive. Others were shot and killed in fields at a music festival. Corpses were decapitated and mutilated, among other acts of violence documented by the United Nations. More than 250 hostages were taken to Gaza.

Families of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza and supporters march their way through Jerusalem on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza and supporters march their way through Jerusalem on March 2.

The brutality of the surprise Hamas attack tapped into Israelis' generational trauma from the Holocaust and it helps explain how Israelis have responded. Hundreds of armed civilian squads were formed. People's hearts were hardened. A common Israeli phrase now, referring to the entire Palestinian population in Gaza, is, "There are no uninvolved civilians in Gaza."

Israelis are glued to the news, but they're not seeing the horrors of war that Palestinians are enduring in Gaza.

The war has devastated Gaza. Can you tell us how it has been transformed?

Estrin: Israel's relentless bombardment in response to the Oct. 7 attack has decimated Gaza to its core. More Palestinians have been killed in this conflict than in any other in their history. The figure has topped 33,000, according to Gaza health authorities, and roughly two-thirds are believed to be civilians.

Gaza residents have been blown to pieces or buried under rubble in Israeli airstrikes that have flattened buildings. There's no escaping the war, unless you're wealthy or have connections to a foreign government that have allowed a limited number of people to leave the territory.

There's not nearly enough food in Gaza, malnutrition is soaring, particularly among children, and the United Nations projects that a famine could be imminent in northern Gaza.

In a territory with more than 2 million Palestinians, most homes, roads, water systems, health facilities and historical landmarks have been mostly damaged or destroyed.

A Palestinian public opinion poll last month found 71 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Many see it as a triumph of resistance to Israeli oppression. But only 1 in 5 Palestinians surveyed in the poll said they saw videos showing what Israelis endured the day of the Hamas assault.

These are two societies that each sees itself as the victim and the other as the aggressor.

This war has also had a powerful effect on the United States too, hasn't it?

Greg Myre: We saw widespread support for Israel on the day of the Hamas attack. Less than two weeks later, we saw President Biden fly to Israel, even as rockets were still raining down on Tel Aviv and other parts of the country. Biden embraced Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the airport tarmac to show solidarity.

Palestinian workers bury bodies at a grave for victims killed in the Hamas-Israel conflict in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, on March 7.
/ Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
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Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Palestinian workers bury bodies at a grave for victims killed in the Hamas-Israel conflict in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, on March 7.

But as Israel waged its aggressive air and ground campaign, and the civilian Palestinian death toll soared, we've seen unprecedented criticism of Israel, a country that has long received bipartisan backing in the U.S. This criticism is coming from many sources — some members of Biden's Democratic Party to college campuses to the broader public. Most Americans supported Israel's war effort at the start of the fighting. But a recent poll found a majority of Americans now disapprove of the way Israel is conducting the war.

Shortly after the war began, Biden proposed $14 billion in additional military assistance for Israel, which is already the leading recipient of such U.S. aid. That plan is still on the table, though it's being blocked in Congress.

Meanwhile, we've seen Biden go from totally supportive of Israel, to mildly critical about its military operations. On Thursday, we saw the president's sharpest criticism yet, which came in a phone call with Netanyahu.

Biden told the Israeli leader that he must urgently do more to protect Palestinian civilians and allow in more humanitarian aid. Biden warned that if Israel doesn't change the way it wages the war, the U.S. will change its approach to Israel. Within hours, Israel announced plans to expand aid deliveries to Gaza.

We should stress that Biden hasn't changed his policy at this point — he is still backing the Israeli aim of defeating Hamas. But if you look at how the president's position is evolving, we're now hearing things we certainly didn't expect to hear at the beginning of the war.

What is the fallout of the war in the wider Middle East?

Jane Arraf: This conflict has brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront for really the first time in decades. The issue is that 76 years after the state of Israel was created amid the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians still lack a homeland. There are 6 million Palestinian refugees today, successive generations of families who fled or were forced from their homes and not allowed to return.

The normalization efforts with Israel spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates have papered over what countries like Jordan say is inevitable instability as long as that issue is unaddressed. In Jordan, one of only two countries that has a peace treaty with Israel, tension has risen along with the death toll in Gaza.

Protests near the Israeli Embassy in Amman are an almost nightly occurrence. And as the civilian death toll climbs in Gaza, more anger - in Jordan and many other Arab and Muslim countries - is being directed at the U.S. because it is the main military supplier to Israel.

In Lebanon, the focus is on the southern border, where Israel is trading regular attacks with the Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah. There's growing fear that the presumed Israeli attack on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, this week, could spark a wider war.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah just told his followers they can be sure that Iran will avenge the deaths, but they shouldn't be in a hurry.

What is the U.S. trying to do to keep the war from spreading in the region?

Myre: The U.S. stepped up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean as a show of force. Despite this, relatively small U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq came under fire from various militia groups, which led the U.S. to hit back. For the past month or so, those militia attacks have stopped.

The U.S. Navy is also in the Red Sea, off the coast of Yemen, trying to stop the Houthis from firing missiles at commercial ships. However, the Houthi attacks are still taking place on a regular basis.

The U.S. says Iran is stirring the pot, supporting proxy groups across the Middle East. But so far, the wider region has not yet boiled over, though it remains very tense.

Palestinians are standing next to a vehicle Tuesday in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, where seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli airstrike.
/ Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Palestinians are standing next to a vehicle Tuesday in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, where seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Part of that tension is the killing of a team of aid workers with World Central Kitchen in Gaza, including an American. What have the repercussions been?

Arraf: This looks like it could be a turning point in President Biden's willingness to exert more pressure on Israel. Israel has now agreed to U.S. demands that it open up a third border crossing and allow more trucks through the existing ones.

The reason World Central Kitchen was delivering food by sea, and the U.S. and other countries are dropping aid by plane, are Israeli restrictions on aid going by road into Gaza. Israel cites security concerns.

Some children have already died of starvation, according to U.N. and aid groups. Today, only about half the aid is getting into Gaza as compared to before the war, and Palestinians need assistance much more now because so much of its infrastructure - including food production and water treatment - has been destroyed.

You've all covered wars in the region. How is this one different?

Arraf: I was at the southern Lebanese border one day watching a Lebanese man sitting in a plastic chair in the courtyard of his damaged home, surrounded by shattered glass, looking out across the Israeli border.

For decades, people in neighboring countries have expected anything they build to come crashing down because of the region's instability. But the international attention focused on this war has, for first time in decades, prompted some hope that there could be a Palestinian homeland.

Also, this war is unprecedented in terms of media coverage. In past wars, journalists could usually go into Gaza. This time, Israel is not allowing journalists in, except for brief visits when they are escorted by the Israeli military. At the same time an unprecedented number of local journalists and media workers have been killed.

I and many other journalists covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the major battles afterward on the ground — which is the only real way to see what's happening first-hand. We are barred by Israel from being on the ground to see what's happening in Gaza.

Estrin: One moment I experienced that sums up what it feels like to be here was the morning we learned an Israeli commando raid in Gaza had rescued two Israeli hostages. Israeli airstrikes provided cover for the commandos and killed scores of Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

Our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, recorded the sound of a mother wailing over her child who was killed. I was driving in Tel Aviv and listening to the cries of the Palestinian mother, as an Israeli drove past on his motorcycle with a bumper sticker that read, "Go IDF!" a reference to the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces. One people's tragedy is another people's triumph. Israelis and Palestinians live in two irreconcilable worlds.

A billow of smoke rises over buildings after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A billow of smoke rises over buildings after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Myre: I first covered Israel-Palestinian fighting in Gaza in the early 2000s, when the Palestinians waged an uprising. Back then, Hamas was sending individual suicide bombers into Israel. Israel was carrying out individual airstrikes against Hamas leaders.

This was very bloody, but today the fighting is exponentially worse. Clearly there's a need to stop the killing and ease the human suffering, though it's also important to think about what comes next.

If there's a cease-fire, but if Hamas remains in power, continues to hold Israeli hostages, and poses an ongoing threat to Israel, that's not going to be acceptable to Israel.

From the Palestinian perspective, if Israeli troops remain in Gaza, if there's no plan to rebuild the devastated territory and no political horizon for a Palestinian state, that's not going to be acceptable to Palestinians. You want to end this war as soon as possible. But you don't want to leave in place the conditions that could spark another conflict a couple years down the road.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.