The Israel-Palestine Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Portents
The Israel-Palestine Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Portents
Palestinians look on as they inspect their residential building which was damaged in an Israeli air strike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
Q&A / Middle East & North Africa 19 minutes

The Israel-Palestine Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Portents

The confrontations across Israel-Palestine are well on the way to becoming one of the worst spasms of violence there in recent memory. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts explain what is behind the explosive events and where they might lead.

How serious is the most recent flare-up in the conflict? 

It is extremely serious, partly because it is taking place on several fronts at once: Israeli police actions against Palestinians protesting home evictions or praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, cross-border fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, marches from Jordan on the West Bank border, and violence in Israel’s mixed cities – towns with significant numbers of Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Combined, these confrontations are well on their way to becoming one of the worst spasms in the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The flare-up could get worse still, namely if Israel decides to launch a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials are still reportedly considering this option, with tanks and heavy artillery close to the territory’s northern perimeter and already involved in fighting, though from the outside; residents in the northern parts of the strip have started evacuating their homes in response. The situation will be further compounded if Israel deploys its military battalions into the mixed cities, an option it also appears to be considering. 

Even if the parties can bring some of the fighting to a halt through, for example, a Gaza ceasefire, all the underlying problems remain, now much further inflamed, and crying out for a far more serious effort to forge a durable solution than has been the case in the conflict to date.

The toll in human and material terms is already shattering. By 10 May, some 250 Palestinians had been injured during police operations against what started as peaceful protests in East Jerusalem. Since then, when Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that governs Gaza, began firing rockets at Israel and Israel mounted retaliatory airstrikes, the fighting has become much bloodier. The health ministry in Gaza has recorded 830 Palestinians hurt and 119 killed, including 31 children, as a result of Israeli aerial and artillery bombardment. During the same period, nine Israelis, including one child, have been killed and over 400 injured in Hamas rocket attacks. 

In an unprecedented wave of violence, dozens of people have been injured throughout Israel’s mixed cities and neighbourhoods. Some of the worst attacks occurred in Lod/Al-Lid. On 10 May, Palestinians set fire to a synagogue and police cars, and a Jewish gunman shot dead a Palestinian during altercations, after which the government placed the city under a nightly curfew, which ultra-nationalist Jews subsequently breached. Authorities also imposed a state of emergency – for the first time since Israel dismantled its military rule over its Palestinian citizens in 1966 – and moved Border Police units into the city from their main area of operations in the occupied West Bank. On 12 May, Israeli ultra-nationalists attacked Al-Lid’s Al-Omari mosque ahead of the curfew, which led the mayor, Yair Revivo, to declare a state of civil war. 

Similar incidents took place elsewhere. Jewish mobs from Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, organised through cell phones and social media, sought out and attacked Palestinians in various cities, at times under the gaze of Israeli security forces nearby. In Acre, Palestinians assaulted a Jewish man, leaving him in serious condition. In Bat Yam, dozens of nationalist Jews bearing the Israeli flag assaulted a Palestinian citizen, who was hospitalised. In West Jerusalem, a Palestinian was stabbed on 12 May and remains in serious condition.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli strikes have done enormous damage to buildings and civil infrastructure, bringing down several apartment and office towers and levelling government buildings, service facilities such as schools and banks, homes and security compounds, including several police stations. As of 13 May, Hamas had fired over 2,000 rockets and mortars at Israel (a number of which misfired, and most of which Israel intercepted with its Iron Dome air defence system, but some of which landed in Tel Aviv and other urban areas); and Israel had carried out hundreds of air and artillery strikes. Hamas’s firepower, both in terms of number of rockets and their reach, far surpasses earlier escalations, and Israeli retaliation has been swift and devastating, making this episode’s destruction more comparable to the four earlier Gaza wars – in 2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014 – than any of the flare-ups in between. 

Most significantly, perhaps, this occasion is the first since the September 2000 intifada when Palestinians have responded simultaneously and on such a massive scale throughout much of the combined territory of Israel-Palestine to the cumulative impact of military occupation, repression, dispossession and systemic discrimination.

Combined, these confrontations are well on their way to becoming one of the worst spasms in the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What triggered it?

It all began with a number of separate but interrelated incidents in East Jerusalem, which escalated, became militarised and then metastasised, building on points of conflict that had been smouldering for years and now rapidly received oxygen. 

One catalyst was at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City at the Damascus Gate, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, 13 April, when Israeli authorities banned East Jerusalem residents from congregating on the gate’s steps and barricaded the area. Damascus Gate is a social hub for many of the Old City’s Palestinian residents, a platform for civic and cultural gatherings and events. Palestinian youth saw the placement of metal barriers as a provocation and launched what became nightly protests; these were not linked to political factions or any other wider agenda. Within days, ultra-nationalist Jews responded by marching through central Jerusalem toward Damascus Gate, chanting “death to Arabs”. The outrage these marches aroused among Palestinians spilled over into the adjacent West Bank and neighbouring Jordan, while militant groups in Gaza fired dozens of rockets into Israel. Palestinians filmed attacks on Jews and posted them to social media to seek sympathy and support, while ultra-nationalist Israeli Jews roamed Jerusalem’s streets attacking Arabs. Following twelve days of violent confrontation in East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities took down the barricades on 25 April. 

Next came a second trigger in the form of growing popular anger over an Israeli Supreme Court ruling – subsequently delayed – concerning the planned expulsion of four Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighbourhood that connects the Old City to the West Bank. The case had been wending its way through the Israeli court system for years before landing in its uppermost forum. Local Palestinians organised daily iftar sit-ins to break the Ramadan fast and protest the expulsions, which were part of a sweep of at least 27 other households yet to be carried out. These attracted the attention of ultra-nationalist Jews, who, accompanied by newly elected Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir, entered Sheikh Jarrah on 10 May to disrupt the protests and at times assault those who had gathered peacefully. Israeli police fired sponge bullets, stun grenades and skunk water, causing hundreds of injuries. Numerous Palestinians were subsequently beaten by police as they were taken into custody. Tensions and arrests are continuing to date.

Further inflaming the situation around this time was the decision by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, on 29 April, to “indefinitely postpone” legislative elections in the occupied Palestinian territories scheduled for 22 May. Abbas likely feared that his fractured Fatah movement would fare poorly in the polls, but the reason he cited for the postponement was the absence of Israeli assurances that East Jerusalem residents would be permitted to participate. In fact, Israeli authorities had disrupted election campaigning in East Jerusalem throughout April, arresting Palestinian politicians and their supporters. The detentions infuriated Palestinians across the political spectrum, as these actions threatened to obstruct their attempt at renewing their national institutions through the democratic process, as international actors had been encouraging them to do.

The fourth trigger proved the most serious. On the evening of 7 May, Israeli police clashed with young Palestinians and used force against worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque inside the walled Old City, injuring dozens. Police also closed the gates leading to the mosque, which is the third holiest site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina; such categorical access restrictions, even when in response to violent protest, nearly always lead to further escalation. The police worsened matters further when they blocked busloads of Palestinian citizens from entering Jerusalem on 8 May, preventing thousands of Muslims from reaching Al-Aqsa for prayers on laylat al-qadr, the holiest night of Ramadan. Israeli forces then attacked Muslim worshippers at the Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) that same evening. The following day, Israeli forces breached the compound, firing stun grenades and tear gas canisters at worshippers, pushing their way into the mosque and attacking people inside. Scores of Palestinians were injured and many detained. On 10 May, Israeli soldiers staged another raid and confiscated the keys to the mosque’s main gates. 

The events of that day, 10 May, coincided with what Israelis celebrate as Jerusalem Day – what they see as the reunification of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, with West Jerusalem during the 1967 war. The same day, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem had protested Jewish ultra-nationalist plans to march through the Old City toward Al-Aqsa. Following international, including U.S., pressure, Israeli authorities redirected the march to avert further violence, but tensions had already risen to dangerous levels. 

Responding to the events in Jerusalem that same day, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, admonished Israel to halt violence against Palestinians in the city. Palestinian armed factions had already started issuing warnings two weeks earlier, saying they would respond to the escalations in Jerusalem. On 10 May, the Joint Chamber of Palestinian Resistance Factions in the Gaza Strip issued an ultimatum, declaring that Israel had until 6pm local time to withdraw its forces from Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah, and to release all those it had detained during these events. Shortly after the deadline expired, Hamas fired a series of rockets toward Jerusalem. Israeli forces retaliated by launching airstrikes on Gaza, killing 28 people, including nine children, in the first few hours, and threatening an expanded response lasting days, including a ground invasion.

Militarily, Israel was caught off guard by Hamas’s expanded operational capacity to fire so many rockets at once and at such distant targets.

How is this set of events different from previous ones?

Militarily, Israel was caught off guard by Hamas’s expanded operational capacity to fire so many rockets at once and at such distant targets. On 13 May, Hamas unveiled its longer-range Ayyash rocket, firing one at Ramon International Airport outside Eilat at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. Politically, this series of events was a wake-up call for those in Israel hoping that the conflict is “containable” or even largely over – that they could ignore the Palestinian issue and pretend it had been largely settled in Israel’s favour. That sense has deepened over the last couple of years with the Abraham Accords normalising relations between Israel and important Gulf Arab states and the continued rise in the Israeli economy and living conditions. Israeli leaders also saw Hamas break from its Gazan confines by using its escalation with Israel to attempt to negotiate concessions on Jerusalem, not solely the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, as it had done in the past. In so doing, Hamas appeared to be usurping leadership of the Palestinian national movement from President Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. 

While the 2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014 wars were all focused on Gaza, the new round of fighting, including in Gaza, has reaffirmed the centrality of Jerusalem in the conflict. The evolving situation in East Jerusalem – at the Holy Esplanade and in neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah – has come to epitomise the fundamental elements underlying the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the experiences of Palestinians living through it. The latest altercations in Jerusalem brought these to a head, and found common resonance throughout Palestine’s geographically scattered communities, including in the diaspora. 

With growing frequency, Palestinians in these protests raised calls for Hamas, a self-described Islamic national liberation and resistance movement, to step in and do something, clearly positioning the movement in Palestinian eyes as a bulwark against Israeli aggression in contrast with Fatah in the West Bank. At these same protests, Palestinians hurled insults at Abbas and the PA for their ineffectiveness at defending Jerusalem, particularly after they had used the city as the pretence for cancelling Palestinian legislative elections. Indeed, throughout the events that have transpired over the past month, the PA has been consistently mocked. In turn, the PA and Fatah have been relatively silent about these developments, while also cracking down on protests in the West Bank that have erupted in solidarity with Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

The novelty this time around, which will inevitably carry longer-term ramifications, was the popular agitation of Palestinians throughout Israel-Palestine, as if boundaries – and particularly the Green Line, marking the armistice line after the 1948 war and today separating Israel from the West Bank – had vanished. Protests spread from Ramle and Al-Lid to Jaffa, Haifa, Umm al-Fahm, Nazareth, Rahat, Hebron, Nablus, Tarshiha, Bethlehem, Tulkarem, Jenin and Qalandia refugee camp in a kind of non-organised pan-Palestinian movement, only to be met with police brutality. The mobilisation occurred despite decades of Israeli attempts at territorial cantonisation that had in effect cut off East Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland, of which it is an intrinsic part, in the two and a half decades since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, and separated Palestinian citizens of Israel from Palestinians in the occupied territories since 1948. 

The widespread nature of the fighting and unrest means that a single ceasefire is not going to restore calm, even if it may take the edge off the worst of the violence.

What are leaders on all sides saying?

In the wake of the 23 March Israeli elections, from which a new coalition government has yet to emerge, Israeli politicians are taking hawkish stances. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, as well as their major opponents, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, have all said they want to deal a major blow to Hamas. On 11 May, Netanyahu declared, “Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid and – I tell you here – will pay a very heavy price for their aggression. I say here this evening – their blood is on their heads”. 

Gantz warned on 12 May that, “Israel is not preparing for a ceasefire. There is currently no end date for the operation. Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm”. Israeli military spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said on 13 May that the army has not ruled out a ground invasion: “We have a foot on the gas”. Others criticise the government for its lack of strategy regarding Gaza since Israel pulled soldiers and Jewish settlers out of the strip in 2005. Giora Eiland, a retired major-general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council, chided the leadership in comments to Crisis Group for having “kept the status quo for fifteen years. The state is evading other options. It is not even discussing other strategies. They are in default mode”. 

Israel benefits from being able to conflate the Palestinian struggle for freedom with Hamas’s Islamist ideology and indiscriminate rocket fire at residential areas. It can use the latter in particular to justify responding with even greater force, highlighting the severe power imbalance between the two sides, and dodging responsibility for its own attacks taking civilian lives by claiming that Hamas, a designated “terrorist” organisation, is using Gaza residents as “human shields” for its military facilities. 

Israeli commentators and military analysts have started assembling a victory narrative, talking about how heavy a hit Hamas has taken, giving the appearance that the war may wind down within a matter of days. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Bennett has called off efforts to form an alternative coalition with Lapid, saying he will go back to negotiating with Netanyahu to form a government. Alternatively, Israel would go to yet another election. In either case, Netanyahu would succeed, for now, in his effort to stay in power. 

Hamas has issued a list of demands, all of which, unlike in past escalations, have centred on Jerusalem. It has made clear that it will not consider a ceasefire until Israel ceases its expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah, and evacuates its forces from Al-Aqsa mosque, allowing for freedom of access to and worship at the mosque. Beyond these two central demands, Hamas has also called for the release of all prisoners detained in these recent events and Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian legislative elections including in East Jerusalem. Unlike in previous Gaza wars, Hamas has deliberately sidelined the issue of Gaza and centred its demands solely on Jerusalem in a clear demonstration of its intent to represent itself as the defender of all Palestinians across Palestine’s divided terrain. 

Hamas is unlikely to see its demands regarding Jerusalem fulfilled – no Israeli government can afford to make concessions in that respect. In Gaza, the Islamist movement will have to consider how much destruction it can allow, given that the task of rebuilding will fall on its shoulders. Its endgame remains unclear.

The PA has been largely silent, offering little more than soundbites condemning Israeli violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh criticised the UN Security Council for failing to produce a joint statement on the situation in a 13 May tweet – but PA officials have said little else of note. 

Other Middle Eastern countries have deplored the turn of events but likely to little avail. The Arab League issued a statement on 11 May, condemning Israeli airstrikes on Gaza as “indiscriminate and irresponsible”, and stating that Israel had provoked the escalation with its actions in Jerusalem. Egypt declared its “total rejection and condemnation of these oppressive Israeli practices” in Jerusalem, and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo had reached out to Israel in an attempt to calm tensions but was met with indifference. Jordan was slow to react, but issued statements supporting the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and decrying Israel’s heavy-handed retaliation. Turkey has expressed similar sentiments. 

Wider international reaction has likewise been muted, at least at the government level, reflecting a deep malaise in diplomacy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Wider international reaction has likewise been muted, at least at the government level, reflecting a deep malaise in diplomacy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. The UN Security Council has failed repeatedly to issue a statement calling for calm, due to U.S. opposition. The U.S. also blocked the Council from holding a public session on the crisis on 14 May, though it has agreed that this meeting can take place on 16 May. As on many past occasions when it has blocked UN action on this file, the U.S. said the world body’s intercession would unduly complicate its own behind-the-scenes efforts. This position, which echoes the stances of previous administrations, leaves Washington isolated diplomatically. Moreover, blocking statements and debate on Gaza at the Security Council will benefit China (which has been working on draft Council statements on the crisis with Tunisia and Norway) and Russia, which can use it whenever the U.S. raises matters such as Syria or Xinjiang for discussion and a vote. 

The Biden administration entered office hoping not to spend significant time or political capital on the Israel-Palestine conflict and, to date, it has shown no sign of getting more involved. In public, U.S. spokespersons have stuck to the line uniting Democratic and Republican administrations during flare-ups in Israel-Palestine in the post-Oslo era, calling on “both sides” to de-escalate while affirming Israel’s “right to defend itself”. Top officials, including President Joe Biden himself, but also National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, have placed calls to their Israeli counterparts, reportedly to counsel restraint, but as is often the case, it is not clear what message is received. Biden said Netanyahu had told him that Israel would conclude military operations “sooner rather than later”; the Israeli readout of this conversation said the prime minister told Biden that strikes on Gaza would proceed. Biden has sent a special envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr, to the region but without a clear mandate.

Without a U.S. lead, European states are unlikely to take dramatic steps of their own. The European Union, along with France, Poland and Sweden, issued statements emphasising both sides’ responsibility to restore quiet. Representatives of other countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, have denounced the rocket attacks by Hamas but refrained from critical comment about Israel’s actions. Russia, for its part, suggested reconvening the Quartet – the U.S., the UN, the EU and itself – to discuss what can be done. The Quartet’s past interventions, however, have been largely ineffectual.

What will happen next, and what should happen for things to calm down?

Hamas issued its demands when it first launched rockets at Israel over the Jerusalem crisis. Yet it is unclear what it could hope to achieve beyond a ceasefire and a return to the political status quo ante, at which point it will face huge physical devastation in Gaza, especially to its own facilities and capabilities, and to some extent also to its military capacity and command structure. The Israeli military claims it has killed at least 100 Hamas fighters, including commanders, so far, as well as its military research and development team. It posits that these losses, along with the fact that Hamas has used most of the rockets in its arsenal, will force the group to pursue a ceasefire – at which point Israel would need to decide what to do next. 

Outside powers could help in laying the ground for a ceasefire. Turkey and Qatar enjoy proximity to Hamas, but Egypt, because of its longstanding interest in what happens on its northern border, is particularly well suited for this task. When the last major Israel-Gaza war happened in 2014, Cairo’s rulers were new in their seats, fresh off the 2013 coup deposing President Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member. They were in no rush to press for a ceasefire, seemingly content to let Morsi’s ideological confreres in Gaza take a beating. Since then, Cairo’s rulers have become more pragmatic, in part because of the Abraham Accords, which threaten their privileged status as Israel’s main partner in the Arab world. They have pressed for a ceasefire since fighting broke out, in an effort to divert attention from their internal challenges and demonstrate their relevance and diplomatic worth, especially to a new administration in Washington. But with Hamas focused on Jerusalem, and Israel bent on crushing Hamas, their effort so far has come to naught. At the moment, Cairo can give neither side what it most wants.

While the UN and Europeans, too, can play useful roles, today only the U.S., Israel’s primary backer, is able to make a real difference in Israel’s calculations. So far, the Biden administration seems content to follow Israel’s lead. Israel will want to be able to claim to its public that it has exacted the right price for Hamas’ rocket barrage – that it has, in the words of its security establishment, “restored deterrence”. With the Security Council meeting on 16 May, however, the White House’s diplomatic considerations might change. So, too, might its domestic considerations. The longer the fighting in Israel-Palestine goes on, the greater the risk of spillover into U.S. domestic politics and disruption of Biden’s agenda. Already, the crisis has started to bleed into Congressional debates. 

There is another variable at play in this escalation that has not been there before: the violence between Palestinians and Israelis on the streets of Israel itself. Whether a ceasefire with Gaza would end all this violence is unclear. But continuing the bombardment of the coastal strip likely will keep feeding the country’s internal convulsions. Israel must make a choice: seek a quicker ceasefire than it otherwise might like or see a quicker unravelling of its social fabric. 

This new situation gives Hamas new leverage, but it also confronts the movement with a new quandary. Does it continue to press for substantial Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, which are difficult to imagine, or does it consider the sort of deal that in its past wars was unachievable but today might be more plausible and within Cairo’s ability or even Israel’s willingness to deliver, such as a more substantial relaxation of the blockade? Today, Hamas says such a step-back is off the table – that it has its sights set on Jerusalem and has rockets sufficient for a two-month war. But as time drags on, its arsenal is depleted, Gaza’s destruction mounts and, most importantly, the Palestinian death toll climbs, it might wish that it had looked for the deal that it had been unable to achieve in four previous wars.    

As for Israel’s choice, if it wishes to prevent a slide into deeper civil strife, Israel should end categorical limitations on Palestinian access to the Holy Esplanade, and remove its soldiers from the compound in all but the direst circumstances, while Muslim religious authorities (the Waqf) should control stone throwing and other violent protest activities there. Israel also should immediately call a halt to evictions of families in East Jerusalem, or at least communicate privately to Egypt and other parties that it will indefinitely postpone any further action. 

More broadly, Israel should denounce violence and incendiary hate speech, no matter the source, and mete out impartial justice to all. Israeli officials have a particular responsibility to combat ethnic hatred emanating from the Jewish far right and to make sure Palestinian citizens are protected from both police and civilian violence in the same way that Jewish citizens are. Palestinians leaders in Israel have a parallel obligation within their own communities. Many around the globe, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been surprised by the images of Jewish mob violence, but the sentiments they embody did not spring up overnight. They have long been cultivated and endorsed at the highest levels of the state. Tamping down ethnic incitement is a matter of self-preservation for the Jewish majority, because the alternative, a steady escalation of civil strife, is already on the horizon.

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