• Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022
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What's behind the violence in Israel and Gaza?

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File photo of rescuers search for people in the rubble of a building at the site of Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City May 16, 2021 Reuters

Israeli Defence Minister said there would be talk of peace only if they achieve complete peace

Violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip shows no sign of ceasing despite growing international calls for a cease-fire.

The mounting death toll now includes more than 200 Palestinians, including dozens of children, according to Palestinian health officials. On the Israeli side, 12 people, including two children, have been killed amid a barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

Riots and physical fights between Jewish and Arab Israelis have also broken out in cities and towns across Israel, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to threaten to use military force to quash the "anarchy."

The escalating conflict follows weeks of clashes and demonstrations amid rising tensions in Jerusalem. On the morning of May 10, hundreds of Palestinians were injured in a police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. By the evening, militants in the Gaza Strip had fired rockets toward Jerusalem for the first time in years, and Israel responded with airstrikes.

A confluence of factors - some decades old, others more immediate - has contributed to the worst violence in years.

Here's what you need to know.

What's behind the unrest in Israel and the Gaza Strip in recent days?

May 10 began with more than 300 Palestinians - who had come to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City during the holy month of Ramadan - injured in clashes with Israeli forces, who fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. Confrontations between Israeli police, Palestinian protesters and far-right Jewish Israelis continued throughout the day.

The city remained tense ahead of a contentious march by nationalist Jews that was set to pass through Palestinian neighbourhoods as part of Jerusalem Day, a flag-waving Israeli holiday. The route was to include Damascus Gate, one of the few centres of Palestinian life in the contested city. In recent weeks, Israeli forces and Palestinians have clashed over Israeli restrictions on nightly gatherings there after the Ramadan fast.

Soon before the march was to proceed, Israeli authorities ordered it rerouted. Organizers called it off in protest but said participants should still gather at the Western Wall, the holiest site in the city for Jews, situated below al-Aqsa Mosque, which Jews call the Temple Mount compound.

That was around the same time that Hamas, an extremist group that controls the Gaza Strip, announced that it would fire rockets if Israeli settlers did not withdraw from al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem where Arab families are facing evictions after years of court battles waged by Israeli settlers. Nightly confrontations have occurred in the area between Israeli far-right nationalists and Palestinians, who have faced a heavy-handed police response.

How did this escalate into rocket attacks and airstrikes?

On the evening of May 10, Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem and southern Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes that were met with even more fire. The Israel Defence Forces said that one rocket was being fired toward Israel every three minutes, on average.

The retaliatory exchanges of fire have continued throughout the past week and shown no sign of ceasing. Schools and businesses near the Gaza Strip remain closed and residents are being urged to stay home and take shelter.

The Israeli army has struck 600 targets in Gaza since the conflict began, a spokesman said on Thursday. Militants have fired more than 1,600 rockets from Gaza, according to Israeli officials, but the majority have been disabled by the Iron Dome defence system.

What are the political factors?

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival after four recent deadlocked elections that have left Israel in political turmoil. He is at the helm of a caretaker government as he fights corruption charges, while opposition parties struggle to form a viable alternative government.

The prime minister has aligned himself with far-right politicians. Among them is Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the extremist Jewish Power party, who has been part of the confrontations in Sheikh Jarrah and around the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu's critics say tensions have in part been permitted to escalate because he was distracted by these other affairs.

For Palestinians, several recent developments have stoked fears and frustrations about the future of their demands for sovereignty and rights in Jerusalem and an end to the Israeli occupation.

In late April, President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, which has control over some parts of the West Bank, announced that he was postponing what were supposed to be the first Palestinian elections in 15 years. In theory, the elections were to take place in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. But Abbas is at odds with Hamas, which rules in Gaza, and Israel has barred the Palestinian Authority from operating in East Jerusalem, where most Palestinians are not Israeli citizens. Abbas, who was lagging in polls, blamed the cancellation on Israel, saying it had not agreed to a mechanism for East Jerusalem residents to vote.

Against that backdrop, Israeli restrictions around access to the Damascus Gate and al-Aqsa Mosque became flash points as many Palestinians gathered there to observe Ramadan.

What else is at play here?

Conflicts around al-Aqsa Mosque have flared up before, igniting tensions in the Middle East. But in recent days, international attention has also increased around the decades-old legal battle in Sheikh Jarrah, where a group of Israelis is trying to evict and replace mostly refugee Palestinian families from homes. 

Many Palestinians say the case is emblematic of their displacement from Jerusalem. Arab citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank and neighbouring Arab countries, have been protesting in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah.

A final ruling by the Supreme Court was originally set for last week - but Israel's attorney general postponed it in an effort to de-escalate tensions.

In the meantime, Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel, has sought to fill the political void. The militant group is facing its own pressures in the Gaza Strip, which is beset by multiple humanitarian crises 14 years into an Israeli- and Egyptian-led siege.

Regionally, relations between neighbouring Jordan, which is a custodian of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and Israel are tense. That's in part because Israel has been growing closer with Arab gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, with which it signed a normalization agreement in September. These developments have also angered Palestinians, who say these deals come at the expense of their rights.

Over the past week, as Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers have traded fire, violent clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens have also ramped up in cities across Israel. 

Many of the Arab Israelis who have taken to the streets are protesting not only the ongoing bombing of Gaza, where many have family ties, but also their own experiences of discrimination within Israel.

What could happen next?

Unless diplomats broker a cease-fire soon, the conflict seems poised to spiral into a full-fledged war.

The Israeli military has readied troops for a possible ground assault on Gaza that would mark the first such incursion since 2014, and three brigades of ground forces began shelling the territory on Friday. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz told reporters on Wednesday that "there is currently no end date for the operation" and said there would be talk of peace "only when we achieve complete quiet."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Hamas said on Monday that the militants would "go back to attacking Tel Aviv" if Israel didn't stop its airstrikes on "homes and residential buildings" in Gaza.

Diplomats from the United States, the Middle East and Europe have been pushing for de-escalation, and President Biden is facing mounting pressure to take a tougher stance on Israel, a key US ally. 

France has circulated a draft UN Security Council Resolution calling for a cease-fire, Axios reported. The Biden administration has opposed other similar resolutions, saying they could be an obstacle to behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but Palestinian officials say that strategy is not working.