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11 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 5:58am

Israel-Palestine: What caused the worst violence in years?

Protracted political crises on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides have contributed to the instability.

By Ido Vock

Twenty-four Palestinians, including nine children, were killed during all-night Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry, after days of mounting tensions over Israel’s half-century occupation. Two Israelis have also reportedly been killed by rockets launched into Israel by Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. The Israeli military has suggested the civilian casualties in Gaza could have been caused by rockets misfired by Hamas.

In the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, close to the Old City and home to the al-Aqsa mosque, a long-running legal battle is being fought between Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents.

[Hear more on the World Review podcast]

The settlers argue that the Palestinians are living illegally in homes that rightfully belong to Jews who left after the establishment of the state of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank by Jordan in 1948. 

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The Palestinians believe they are the rightful residents of homes they have lived in for more than 70 years. They argue that an Israeli law permitting Jews to reclaim property lost in 1948 is discriminatory, as no such law exists for Arabs, around 700,000 of whom fled or were expelled from their homes in what became Israel, an episode known to Palestinians as the Nakba. An Israeli court ruling on the claims was due to be handed down on Monday, but was delayed because of the unrest. 

The tensions were compounded by Israeli ultra-nationalists’ plans to march through Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem on “Jerusalem Day”, the Israeli national holiday commemorating the day the Israel Defence Forces captured the east of the city, unilaterally declaring it as its capital. The itinerary of the march was changed shortly before it was due to begin on Monday.

Israeli police also fired tear gas inside the al-Aqsa mosque on 10 May during the Muslim festival of Ramadan, wounding 300 Palestinians in the confrontation.

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Protracted political crises on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides are contributing to the instability. Israel, which held its fourth election in two years in March, is ruled by a lame duck prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was unable to gather a majority of lawmakers in the Knesset to form a government, but still retains his seat in a caretaker capacity. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, cancelled planned elections that were due to be held this month, which would have been the first since 2005. Hamas called the move a “coup”. 

Netanyahu, keen not to appear weak before a Knesset composed of some of the most extreme parties in Israeli history (such as the openly supremacist Jewish Power), might be resistant to holding back. Hamas and other groups in the enclave, meanwhile, may want to demonstrate they still have some capacity to pressure the Israeli government (mostly by launching rockets at Israeli cities). The risks of this dynamic are enormous: every new round of casualties invites further, wildly imbalanced tit-for-tat and makes de-escalation ever more difficult. 

Even if the current hostilities pause, the impending court decision on Sheikh Jarrah, whichever side it favours, risks setting the violence in motion again.