Over the past two weeks, the slow burn of the crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories has erupted once again into violence. Seeking to understand the basics of this outbreak can be daunting, as rival narratives compete for the emotions of two large diasporas (and of the rest of the world in which both are embedded). Here is a short introductory guide to what has been unfolding, with the acknowledgment that in a situation as fraught and complex as this one, any explainer will necessarily be incomplete.
There are (at least) five chains of events that observers say fueled the tensions that ultimately exploded: the protests surrounding threatened evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the clashes between police and Palestinians at the Damascus Gate, the so-called “Tiktok Attacks,” a spate of shootings and arson attacks in the West Bank and the unrest surrounding Jerusalem Day on Monday, May 10.
Then, on that day, there was a marked increase in the level of violence, first with Israeli police incursions at al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and then by rocket fire aimed from Gaza at Israeli cities by Hamas.
Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Named for a physician to Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, who conquered the Crusader States in the 12th century, it also contains what is thought to be the tomb of Simeon the Just, a Jewish High Priest from the Second Temple period. The area was home to a peaceful community of both Jews and Arabs until the Jews were forced to leave East Jerusalem when it came under Jordanian control in 1948. The Jordanian government resettled Palestinian refugees there, but the land reverted to Jewish control and, legally, ownership after 1967. Eviction proceedings by Jews against Palestinian tenants began soon after that and have been underway ever since, with cases tangled in multiple contested agreements under Israeli, Jordanian and even Ottoman law. A major decision by Israel’s Supreme Court was also due May 10, fueling the tension.
This May 11 overview from the Israel Policy Forum contains an in-depth look at the convoluted history of Sheikh Jarrah and shows how it is a much more complex issue than a simple real estate matter. Here is another view, from the Arab Center in Washington, DC that highlights the ways in which Israel’s property ownership laws systematically favor Jewish expansion into areas now inhabited by Palestinians.
The clashes at Damascus Gate (as seen in this footage from CNN) started on April 12 when Israeli police barred access to an area adjoining the gate, where Palestinians typically gather to break their fasts during Ramadan. This move was done in the name of public order, but resulted in nightly clashes.
Another factor that raised the level of tension was a series of “TikTok attacks,” in which Palestinian youths filmed themselves assaulting Orthodox Jews and distributed the images on social media. At the request of the Israeli government, the videos were removed. Still, the videos led several hundred Israelis—many affiliated with the far-right racist Kahanist nationalist group Lehava—to march to Damascus Gate shouting slogans that included “Death to Arabs.” Here is an article from the Israeli news site Ynet about the attacks. For a closer look at Lehava itself, see this article from Middle East Eye.
One final thread to consider is a series of violent episodes in the West Bank that raised the level of tension between settlers and Palestinian residents in the weeks leading up to May 10. On May 2, apparently motivated by the situation at Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian man shot three Israeli yeshiva students at Tapuah Junction, killing one. On May 5, IDF soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian youth in a village near the West Bank City of Nablus, stating that several Palestinians had thrown firebombs towards soldiers. That same day, Israeli settlers burned the crops of several Palestinian families near Burin. What happened there is still under debate: Israeli forces told Middle East Eye that the Palestinians set the farmland on fire themselves.
Monday, May 10
Jerusalem Day is typically marked by a contentious Flag Parade (as explained in the Times of Israel) through the Arab Quarter of the Old City, including—you guessed it—the Damascus Gate. Jerusalem Day was Monday, May 10—coincidentally, the same day the decision was expected on the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah by the Supreme Court. Given the tension in the city, international actors urged Israel to reroute the march, which it did at the last minute. Responding to similar pleas, the Supreme Court delayed issuing its ruling—and has still not ruled.
Meanwhile, worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque began throwing stones and fireworks at Israeli police officers, who then stormed the holy site with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Per Reuters, the Palestinian Red Crescent stated that more than 300 Palestininans were injured, and the Israeli police said 21 officers suffered injuries.
Tensions climbed even higher at 5:20 p.m., when Hamas delivered an ultimatum for all Israeli security forces to leave al-Aqsa by 6 p.m. Shortly after 6 p.m., the rocket warning sirens started blaring in Jerusalem.
For more detailed background on the lead-up to May 10, you may want to listen to this episode of The Daily, a podcast by the New York Times, which was published on May 13.
Since Monday, May 10
As of May 20, Hamas had fired more than 4,000 rockets from Gaza into Israel. Twelve Israelis have been killed in the rocket attacks, including two children. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 200 people including over 60 children have been killed during this round of violence.
Unlike in previous clashes, such as the 2014 Gaza war, the violence has also been taking place within Israel, with multiple confrontations between Palestinians and Jews throughout the country and the West Bank, leading to fears of civil war.
Accounts of the human toll on both sides are circulating widely on social media. Many of us have read and heard accounts of friends and family fleeing to Tel Aviv bomb shelters or stairwells, with elderly parents or small children. Read also this essay by a Gazan journalist, which describes the heartbreaking human reality on the receiving end of Israel’s air strikes.
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Where is this going?
Voices from all sides have expressed dismay and confusion. The same Gazan media outlet, We Beyond the Fence, movingly described the cycle of violence Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in this Facebook post: “We all know there will be no end to a circle like this. Hamas will not be able to defeat Israel in battle once and for all. And Israel, as much as you try, will not be able to defeat Hamas in battle once and for all. You have to think differently.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a televised press conference on Sunday, May 16, said, “We are acting now, for as long as necessary, to restore calm and quiet to you, Israel’s citizens. It will take time.”
Some, though, have suggested that this round of violence is to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Talks aimed at creating a “change government” coalition with the participation of Arab and Islamist parties, reported close to success just before the al-Aqsa crisis, have now fallen apart. Veteran negotiator and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow Aaron David Miller and others have argued that there is an ongoing codependent relationship between Hamas and Israel, particularly the Netanyahu government.
Meanwhile, on social media and around the world, there have been anti-Israel demonstrations, some of which have led to anti-Semitic attacks, including in Germany and England. U.S. political candidates have gotten involved: Andrew Yang, front runner in the Democratic primary for New York City’s mayoral election, tweeted support of Israel and drew heavy criticism from progressives such as U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And that pushback has created counter-pushback, typified perhaps by opinion writer Bari Weiss’s essay “The Bad Optics of Fighting for Your Life,” in which she excoriates Ocasio-Cortez and others for, in her view, unjustly condemning Israel’s acts of self-defense. A number of widely circulated memes seek to portray Hamas’ actions toward Israel as comparable to the struggle for racial equity or even to the actions of a victim resisting rape. On April 27, even before this outbreak of fighting, a report from Human Rights Watch deemed Israel an apartheid state, a first for the organization, leading to a round of passionate back-and-forth—far from the first such public argument—on whether the term is appropriate.
Update: After 11 days of violence, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire as of 2 a.m. Friday morning, local time. Continue checking Moment for fresh updates and analysis on this situation.