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20 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:21am

Israel-Gaza ceasefire: the 2021 conflict explained

The dispute is decades old – but this year’s fighting was exacerbated by very modern factors. 

By Ido Vock

Israel and Hamas, the militant group which rules the Gaza Strip, have reached a ceasefire agreement after 11 days of intense fighting in the region. The agreement should put an end to the worst of the violence in Gaza, where a relentless escalation had seen rockets fired by Hamas at Israeli cities being met with Israeli bombings, killing at least 230 Palestinians this month. Twelve people were also killed in Israel.

At the same time, in Israel proper, gangs of Arabs and Jews marauded across mixed cities, seeking out members of the other ethnic group and setting their businesses and homes alight. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces harshly cracked down on protests by Palestinians, killing at least 26 people. 

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is decades old, but the most recent wave of fighting was exacerbated by developments since 2014, when the last major conflict took place in Gaza. 

[See also: Why Netanyahu and Hamas both risk losing control of the conflict]

When was modern Israel founded and why is it in conflict with the Palestinians?

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The state of Israel was created in 1948 after a war with Arab forces who sought to prevent the creation of a majority-Jewish state in historic Palestine. The state was seen by the Zionist movement as the best way to address the hardships suffered by Jews living as minority communities in Europe and elsewhere, which culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. Around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Israeli forces from land that became Israel, an event known by Palestinians as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe. A ceasefire was reached, resulting in Israel controlling what is now internationally recognised as its territory, while Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. 

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In the 1967 Six-Day War Israel captured swathes of land, including the West Bank and Gaza. Soon after, Israeli civilian settlers began moving into the new territories, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, changing the area’s demographics and increasing tensions with Palestinians. 

Over the following decades, the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza became accepted by most observers as the only way to solve the conflict. Despite decades of negotiations, however, this has never happened because of differences between the two parties on issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and Israeli settlements. The violence never really stopped, not even when negotiations were in full flow: Israeli military incursions and air raids, and Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, marked the years of the so-called “peace process”.

[See also: A new and dangerous form of violence has broken out in Israel]

Why is Jerusalem a flashpoint for tension?

The Temple Mount, or the Haram esh-Sharif, a holy site for Islam, Judaism and Christianity, is situated in the Old City, which was captured from Jordan by Israel in 1967. Israel annexed the eastern part of the city and declared it its capital, a move was, for decades, recognised by very few international actors. 

In 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that the US embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision angered Palestinian leaders, who viewed the move as another obstacle to their hopes of forming an independent state with a capital in East Jerusalem. 

What is the background to the most recent wave of fighting in Gaza?

Palestinians had long felt negotiations with Israel were not bringing them closer to statehood, but Trump’s four years in office were marked by a series of diplomatic decisions which Palestinians saw as rewarding Israel for failing to make progress in negotiations. 

Trump moved the embassy; recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (occupied in 1967); declared that West Bank settlements did not contravene international law; and defunded the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides healthcare and education for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Most egregious of all was Jared Kushner’s nakedly one-sided “peace plan” which would have created a much-reduced Palestinian statelet. Though the proposal was rejected by the Palestinians as soon as it was presented in January 2020, it signalled to them that the US was all too willing to sacrifice the Palestinians’ national ambitions for the sake of its support for Israel.

In addition, the increasing prominence of far-right extremists in Israeli politics – including figures who advocate outright Jewish supremacism – caused further despair. The far-right party Jewish Power was elected to the Israeli parliament in March 2021 after signing a “surplus vote” agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party (which some viewed as a de facto endorsement of Jewish Power’s politics by Israel’s leader).

There was also a spate of violence against Palestinians by West Bank settlers in the first few months of 2021. The UN recorded at least 210 violent “price tag” attacks by settlers in the first three months of the year, slightly above the rate for the year before. The attacks may have been prompted, in part, by anger from settlers over the death in December 2020 of a 16-year-old Israeli boy, who was killed in a car crash while fleeing police after allegedly throwing stones at Palestinians.

What triggered the 2021 fighting between Israel and Hamas?

The build-up of tension over recent years bubbled over into violence in early May, after the scheduled date of a long-anticipated court decision on whether to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah coincided with a planned Israeli nationalist march through Muslim areas in Jerusalem. Although the court decision was delayed and the march was cancelled by police at the last minute, protesters clashed in the streets and Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque, reportedly injuring hundreds.

Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to remove its forces from the mosque on 10 May. When Israel failed to meet the deadline, Hamas fired rockets towards Israel, prompting the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to bomb targets in Gaza.

There is an absence of leadership for Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, many of whom are disillusioned with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. John Lyndon, the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, told me this has opened up a space for Hamas to trigger an escalation, thereby presenting itself as the vanguard of the movement to defend Al-Aqsa.

In addition, both the Israeli government and PA are locked in a protracted political crisis. Some argue that Netanyahu was not incentivised to de-escalate the situation as he is attempting to remain in office with the support of right-wing and far-right parties, while Abbas’s PA lacks the authority needed to contain an escalation of violence.

Could the fighting affect the Palestinian struggle for statehood?

Some Palestinians may conclude from the international attention paid to the conflict that violence brings scrutiny of Israel. After seven years of relative peace since the last major escalation in 2014, which failed to result in diplomatic progress and eventually ended in Palestinian hopes of statehood being trampled by the Trump administration, some will likely have lost faith in the longstanding policy of non-violence espoused by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation since 1993.

[See also: The Palestinian cause is perilously close to becoming a lost one]