This Insight should be read as correct at the date of publication.

Major violence between Israel and Palestinians has taken place since 10 May, which the UN has warned could escalate into a “full scale war.”

UN OCHA reports that as of 17 May, 200 Palestinians, including 60 children have been killed in Gaza due to Israeli air strikes.

20 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces and nearly 5000 injured. In Israel, 10 people have been killed in rocket attacks from Gaza and hundreds have been injured.

The fighting escalated over the weekend of 15 May when 40 people are estimated to have been killed in a series of overnight airstrikes on residential areas in Gaza city. The escalation has increased fears for the humanitarian situation in Gaza with 58,000 people now displaced. The UN has called for the opening of Gaza crossings to allow in humanitarian supplies.

The UK Government has said it is deeply concerned about attacks on schools and hospitals and has called on both parties to de-escalate.

This Insight looks at the causes of the fighting including the wider political context in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including postponed elections.

Unrest in Jerusalem

There have been a series of confrontations with police since the start of Ramadan in mid-April. These have been especially intense near the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest mosque in Islam—on a hilltop which is also revered by Jews for whom it is known as the Temple Mount.

East Jerusalem has long been a flashpoint, with an uneasy coexistence there between Jews and Arabs. Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and considers the entire city its capital. Palestinians claim the eastern half of Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for state of their own.

Most other countries do not recognise Israel’s claim. Although former President Trump moved the United States embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, almost all other countries have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv.

It is now the scene of nationalist and religious tensions with Palestinians clashing with ultra-nationalists and Israeli police forces trying to keep them apart. Arabs living in Israel have joined the protests in support of the Palestinians.

The escalation of conflict is arguably “connected to a broader landscape of destabilising factors whose cumulative weight led to the current crisis after months of incubation,” as noted by Professor Carlo Aldrovandi.

Eviction of Palestinian families

Near to East Jerusalem is the predominantly Arab district of Sheikh Jarrah. Here several Palestinian families face eviction by the Israeli courts in a dispute about who can claim or reclaim property in East Jerusalem. The dispute is the latest episode of longer term efforts by Israeli settler groups, often supported by recent Israeli governments to make Jerusalem “more Jewish.”

The court ruling, due on Monday 10 May was postponed. Israelis used that day to celebrate ‘Jerusalem Day’, marking the occupation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. This led to further violence.

Concerned about the escalation, the UN Security Council discussed issuing a statement calling on Israel to cease evictions and for “restraint” and respect for “the historic status quo at the holy sites” on 10 and 12 May and again on 16 May. Each time, the US Administration was keen not to do anything which might escalate tensions, stating it preferred to work behind the scenes.

More recently the US President is reported to have called for a ceasefire and discussed negotiating with Egypt. Netanyahu has indicated he has national and international support for Israeli actions.

Palestinian in-fighting

On 10 May, Hamas issued an ultimatum, that all Israeli security forces should be removed from the Temple Mount and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood by 6pm or Hamas would attack Israel.

The firing of rockets by Hamas from Gaza in retaliation for the injuring of Palestinians in Jerusalem could be interpreted as a sign of solidarity across the territories, and between Hamas and President Abbas’ Fatah Party.  However, it is a commonly-held view that Hamas is attempting to increase influence among Palestinians outside of Gaza in the run up to elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs).

Parliamentary elections were scheduled for 22 May and presidential elections for 31 July. Both were postponed on 30 April because of disputes over voting rights in East Jerusalem and divisions in the Fatah Party.

Many Palestinians regarded the dispute on voting in East Jerusalem as an excuse to avoid elections that Fatah might well lose to Hamas, as it did in the last parliamentary ballot in 2006.

There are also reports of rivalry within Fatah. Younger challengers to President Abbas have weakened his grip on power.

A ‘forever conflict’?

Despite the ongoing peace process, little has changed in recent years which would demonstrate progress towards a two-state solution. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen said:

The fundamental reason for the renewed violence does not change. It is the open wound of the unresolved conflict between Jews and Arabs that has blighted and ended Palestinian and Israeli lives for generations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas had crossed a red line by firing rockets into Israel. He added:

Israel will respond with great force … I say to you, citizens of Israel, the current conflict could continue for some time. We do not seek escalation but whoever chooses to escalate will feel the weight of our arm.

It’s possible that the fighting is being used by Netanyahu to increase his chances of forming the new government following inconclusive election results in March. Times of Israel Middle East analyst, Avi Issacharoff writes: “A prolonged conflict against Hamas could actually give the Netanyahu government the oxygen it needs to torpedo the establishment of a “change bloc” coalition.” This refers to efforts by Yair Lapid, the centrist opposition leader, and Naftali Bennett, a Jewish nationalist to forge a coalition with the Arab Islamist party Ra’am.

Others argue there can be no winners. Instead, Netanyahu appears weakened nationally and isolated internationally. Many commentators agree that the basis of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians must change. In a recent report, the Carnegie Endowment says:

the current peace process scaffolding sustains occupation and is structurally incapable of delivering peace and human security.

About the author: Anna Dickson is Head of the International Affairs and Defence Section at the House of Commons Library.

Image: Jerusalem by Sander Crombach on Unsplash

This Insight was updated on 18.05.21 to reflect the latest figures and response from international leaders.

Related posts