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  • Matthew Stern

On the Brink of War: Israel and Palestine

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

May 2021 marked perhaps the lowest point in Israel-Palestine relations in recent years. Protests, riots and rocket fire brought this volatile region to the brink of full-scale war.

As in any armed conflict, civilians were made to pay the heaviest price; over 240 Palestinians and 10+ Israelis were reportedly killed.

This article will explain how Israel and Palestine came to the brink of war, what happened during the 10 days of armed conflict between the two sides, how the international community has responded and what the future now holds for Israel and Palestine.

Disclaimer: We've done our best to present the truth of what happened in Gaza during the 10 days, however these are ongoing events which are extremely difficult to report on. We aren't experts, but we still think it's important to cover this and are open to feedback on all of our resources.

Tensions rise

On April 13th, Israeli police raided Haram al Sharif, also known as Temple Mount, a holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, in order to prevent the Al-Aqsa Mosque sounding the call to prayer so the speech being delivered by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for Memorial Day in Israel, would not be disturbed.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim worshipers congregate outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem in order to hear the prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque marking the end of the daily fast. However, this year Israeli Police decided to barricade the area surrounding Damascus Gate, something that the police commissioner said happens every year despite video footage and verbal testimony contradicting his statement. Angered by this, many Muslims took to the streets to show their frustration which led to violent confrontations between Israeli police and protestors.

Tensions further rose a couple of days later when a video circulated of a Palestinian teen slapping an orthodox Jewish man which has led to many copycat incidents of young Palestinians assaulting Jews. Just one day later, Israel imposed a 10,000 person limit on prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque due to COVID-19 further angering the Muslim population. On the same day a Rabbi was beaten by two Arab-Israeli men in Jaffa. It's since been confirmed that this attack was not racially motivated, however at the time it lead to protests by the local Jewish population which prompted counter protests by local Arab-Israelis. On April 22nd, the far-right Jewish supremacist group Lehava, organised a march through Jerusalem chanting ‘death to Arabs’ which saw tensions rise even further.

Then on April 23rd, 36 rockets were launched from Gaza towards Southern Israel by fringe militant groups. There were no injuries. It's worth noting here that there are sources reporting that Hamas initially called for these strikes, demanding that police withdraw from Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah. However, claims that Hamas conducted the strikes are unfounded.

Some of these rockets were linked to a small military group affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, yet the IDF struck Hamas’ underground infrastructure and rocket launchers in Gaza. Two more rockets were fired the following day as hundreds of Palestinians protested along the border.

Hamas = a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist, militant, and nationalist organisation. It's labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States, and its military wing is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom.

Further, an Israeli court had called for the eviction of 13 Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem once again angering the mostly Palestinian inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah. On May 6th, Palestinian and Israeli settlers clashed near where the Palestinian families were expected to be evicted with both sides throwing rocks before police intervened. The Israeli Supreme Court was meant to rule on this eviction on May 10th however on May 9th it was decided to delay the decision for 30 days following an intervention from the Attorney General of Israel, Avichai Mandelblit.

During the final Friday prayers of Ramadan on May 7th, large numbers of Israeli police were deployed to Temple Mount. What happened here is disputed, with both sides reporting different events. Middle East Eye reports that Israeli forces used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets to disperse the thousands of worshippers who were mid-prayer. They state that Muslims hurled rocks and stones at police in self-defence. Israeli media outlets allege the opposite; that following evening prayers, Muslims hurled stockpiled rocks and stones at police and police officers responded with stun grenades which landed in the mosque compound.

The next few days saw more clashes between Israeli police and protestors as the police attempted to clear the Old City in Jerusalem to allow Israelis to visit according to a mosque spokesman. 215 Palestinians were injured in the clashes and on the night of May 10th militants fired more rockets into Israel from Gaza, though many were intercepted by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system.

Riots spread to cities in Israel with large Arab populations and led to the Mayor of Lod asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deploy Israel Border Police to help quell the violence in Lod following the burning of three synagogues and dozens of cars. Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in Lod, the first time since 1966 that Israel had used emergency powers over an Arab community.

The conflict escalates

Following the attacks from Gaza, Israel launched an airstrike on May 11th against Hanadi Tower in Gaza which they claim contained offices used by Hamas. Israel reportedly gave residents advance warning of the strike and there were no reported casualties from the airstrike. In response, Hamas fired 137 rockets at Tel Aviv in 5 minutes stating it was their ‘largest ever barrage’.

The next day saw 850 rockets cross into Israeli territory having been launched from Gaza whilst 200 rockets were launched at Gaza from Israel. Of the 850 rockets that were launched by Hamas, several made direct hits on buildings and cars and five Israelis were killed. Further, an anti-tank guided missile was fired by Hamas and directed at an Israeli community and school, just north of Gaza. Three people were critically wounded and an Israeli soldier was killed in the attack. In response to these attacks, the Israel Defence Force announced that schools were to close for the remainder of the week.

Palestinian military group Hamas
Palestinian military group Hamas

Following the barrage of attacks from Palestine the previous day, Israel mobilised 9,000 reservists which concerned the international community as this suggested Israel was preparing for a ground invasion of Palestinian territories. Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel, targeting Israel’s largest and second largest airport. Rockets were also reportedly launched towards Israel from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Israel then responded with its own barrage of attacks on Hamas’ tunnel network in Gaza as well as strategic Hamas positions, causing heavy casualties. According to Israeli officials, hundreds of Hamas personnel and 20 commanders were assassinated by Israeli airstrikes.

Israel the following day launched an attack against the al-Jalaa building in Gaza which was home to the media outlet Al Jazeera and Associated Press journalists. The building was hit by 4 missiles after Israel apparently called the building’s owner to warn of the attack and advised evacuation. Israel stated that the building contained ‘Hamas military intelligence’. Associated Press however said they had never seen Hamas in the building.

The Gaza Ministry of Health stated on May 17th that 212+ Palestinians had been killed and 1400 were injured. By the 22nd May, the death toll had reportedly reached 248+. In addition, the only COVID-19 testing lab in Gaza being destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. The Ministry of Health said it would take at least a day for the lab to become operational again.

On May 20th, Israel and Palestine agreed to a ceasefire, brokered by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and President of the United States Joe Biden, starting at 2:00am the following day. Despite the ceasefire, unrest continued at Temple Mount between worshipers at the Al-Aqsa mosque and police.

International response

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed deep concern surrounding the situation between Israel and Palestine, calling for immediate de-escalation from both sides.

The European Union labelled the attacks from Hamas against Israel unacceptable whilst condemning the eviction of Palestinian families and called for both sides to stop the violence in order to prevent civilian casualties.

President of the United States, Joe Biden, reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas and insisted that Israel and Palestine must co-exist. It's worth noting here that the US has been accused of bias towards Israel, with Al Jazeera reporting that the US twice-blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning Israel's response and calling for a ceasefire.

In addition to condemnation of the violence from world leaders, there have also been wide scale protests in countries across the world in support of Palestine. Protests were seen in New York, London and Paris to name a few.

The future of Israel-Palestine relations

While a tentative ceasefire has been agreed by the two sides, continued unrest in large Arab communities in Israel proves that this dispute is not going to be solved overnight. In fact, given the continued unrest between Arab-Israelis and the police, it could be argued rather convincingly that the ’10 day war’ between Israel and Palestine failed to resolve any problems.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any easy solution to this complex conflict that has been raging for years. And while the future does seem bleak with both sides and both leaderships intent on continuing this conflict, there are glimmers of hope. For example, the Centre for Emerging Futures hosts regular meetings on the Israel-Palestine border to encourage young people from both sides to listen to one another, engage in conversation and discover the shared humanity between people from both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide. It is without doubt that a peaceful future between Israel and Palestine relies on young people deciding that they want to stop violent conflict and to realise they have the power to do so.

Therefore, while an immediate peaceful co-existence looks unlikely, we can hope for a brighter, more peaceful future which is undoubtedly going to rely on the next generation of leaders.

For more articles and resources on events happening abroad, head to our dedicated Foreign Affairs section.

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