What Is Happening In Israel – Backgrounder

JB Shreve
May 13, 2021 9 mins to read
Reading Time: 7 minutes

More than 1,000 Hamas rockets have been fired from Gaza toward Israel since Monday. Israel has responded by carrying out hundreds of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip – one of the most densely populated pieces of land, per square foot, on the planet. Since Tuesday, Israel has taken out three tower blocks in the Gaza Strip. Israeli airstrikes also targeted residential neighborhoods in Gaza. Israel justifies airstrikes on largely civilian areas by stating Hamas officials live in the neighborhoods. The current death count is 83 on the Palestinian side and six on the Israeli side. At least 17 Palestinian children are counted among the dead so far. The United Nation’s Middle East envoy warned yesterday that both sides were “escalating towards a full-scale war.”

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The violence has quickly escalated beyond the expectations and seeming control of Israeli and Palestinian leadership. In the surrounding countryside and cities, various mobs on both sides have ruthlessly attacked individuals. Israel declared a state of emergency in Lod. This is the first time Israel has declared a state of emergency in an Arab city since 1967. It was in Lod earlier in the week that Palestinians torched a synagogue. In Bat Yam, about 8 miles south of Tel Aviv, right-wing Jewish Israelis ransacked stores and beat a man they believed to be Palestinian. Footage aired on national television showed the man pulled from his car and beaten in the street. In Acre, a northern coastal town, an Arab mob beat a Jewish man with sticks and rocks, leaving him in a critical condition. In nearby Tamra, an Arab mob nearly stabbed a Jewish man to death.

The Immediate Background

A convergence of Islamic and Israeli holidays marked the outbreak of violence in Israel this week. Sunday marked what is known as the Night of Destiny and the end of the final weekend of Ramadan on the Islamic religious calendar. Tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims converged upon the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to celebrate. Simultaneously, Monday represented Israel’s Jerusalem Day. Annually, thousands of young Israelis march through the old city of Jerusalem, inhabited chiefly by Palestinians, on Jerusalem Day to celebrate the city’s capture from Arab forces in the 1967 Six Days War. The Israeli celebration is seen as a taunting provocation each year and usually results in levels of violence. Thirty thousand Israelis were expected for the march on Monday.

Both events were scheduled to occur when Israel’s Supreme Court planned to decide a significant case regarding Israeli settlements and Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Tensions between the two sides have been growing for weeks in anticipation of that Supreme Court ruling. Israel has ordered the eviction of 70 residents from Sheikh Jarrah, where the country plans to build new Jewish settlements. Palestinians are protesting the right of Israel to build the settlements under international law and the right of Israel to evict Palestinian families from East Jerusalem. The United Nations has warned that Israel’s planned forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah violated international law and “may amount to war crimes.”

Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.It’s part of the Holy Basin that encompasses places in the Old City of Jerusalem that are holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Israeli evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem are part of an ongoing strategy by the Israeli government to displace Palestinians. The settlement strategy makes it illegal for Palestinians to build or rebuild their homes and allows Israeli settlers to supplant Palestinian populations in areas of the country that are historically home to Palestinians.

The Trigger

Protests and growing anger between Palestinians and Israelis have escalated in recent weeks as the Sheikh Jarrah decision approached. Those served as the background to the explosion of tensions over the weekend, becoming the worst violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen since 2014.

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A fight between Israeli forces surrounding the Al Aqsa Mosque and young Palestinian protesters burst wide open as Israeli troops chased the youth into the famous mosque. The presence of armed soldiers and boots within the mosque violated Islamic traditions. Worshippers within the mosque turned the forces back, throwing stones, chairs, and bottles at the soldiers, but the spillover was only beginning. Multiple raids by Israeli troops upon the Al Aqsa Mosque over the weekend resulted in hundreds of injuries.

Hamas, in retaliation for Israeli aggression at the mosque, began firing rockets from Gaza toward Israel. Hamas fired most of these rockets toward Tel Aviv and directed some toward other Israeli population centers, including Jerusalem. In retaliation for Hamas’s rocket fire, Israel continued the process of escalation when the government unleashed air raids into Gaza.

Fire billow from Israeli air strikes in Rafah the southern Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. May 11, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib

Locked in Conflict

Many Palestinian of Gaza describe their home as a prison. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade has stopped trade in and out of the area since 2007. That blockade has resulted in a thriving smuggling industry for the sake of the people’s survival. Often, smugglers include far more than food and goods in the trade routes of Gaza’s underground tunnels. Israel utilizes the discovery of these smuggled weapons shipments through Gaza’s underground tunnels as justification for the government and military’s harsh tactics. Along its borders, Gaza is encircled by sensor-studded fences, concrete walls, galvanized steel barriers, and the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel restricts boats from Gaza to some 16 nautical miles offshore. Israel controls the water, utilities, and sanitation in Gaza and frequently limits all of these to exert pressure and humiliate Hamas.

Concrete wall of the Israel-Gaza border.

Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas crossed a red line when the trajectory of their rockets shifted toward Jerusalem. Officials within the Israeli government and military sometimes express a measure of sympathy for the Palestinian people who bear the weight of Israel’s counterstrikes on Palestinian neighborhoods, streets, and businesses. But the same leaders remind the world this is the inevitable result of choosing terrorists for your leadership.

As a reminder, there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism. While wicked and barbaric terrorist organizations obviously exist and require defeat, more frequently, governments utilize the term “terrorist” as a politically charged word that justifies governments to commit otherwise unacceptable humanitarian atrocities. Every definition (and there are many) of terrorism that Israel applies toward Hamas and prior representative organizations of the Palestinian people includes criteria that could just as conveniently be applied to the Israelis. The Israelis are killing civilians, including women and children. The Israelis are striking civilian targets. The Israelis have adopted policies that appear bent on the destruction of Palestinians.

View of Israeli settlement.

The Israeli settlement issue has been a longtime source of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. No modern Israeli leader has pushed the issue harder than Prime Minister Netanyahu. Since the founding of Israeli in 1948, more than 900 Israeli settlements have been established in Israel. Many of these are built on top of towns and neighborhoods where Israeli military forces forcefully displaced Palestinians. Compare that to seven total communities built for Palestinians in the same time period. Permits for Palestinian construction are challenging to obtain in Israel. As a result, Palestinian construction results in numerous demolitions every year.

Israel’s Right to Defend Itself

In response to this week’s surge of violence between Israel and Palestine, President Biden said on Wednesday, “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.” The fact that Israel has a right to defend itself is a no-brainer common sense logic, but Israel’s response is far beyond self-defense.

According to the Israeli Defense Forces, by Wednesday, Hamas had fired 1,050 rockets toward Israel. Nearly 20% of these crashed before leaving Gaza. The remaining 850 rockets were either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome Air Defense System or made touchdown in Israel. The “rockets” fired by Hamas are dangerous instruments, as demonstrated in the six Israeli deaths that have resulted from Hamas’s rockets. We should recognize these are not sophisticated weapons. They are, in fact, rather crude, thus the effectiveness of the Iron Dome. That does not excuse the absolute

The Israeli government has taken multiple steps to protect its citizens from Palestinian rocket fire and decades of other sources of violence within the conflict. Iron Dome is the most familiar of these steps, but there are others. Today, most new buildings in Israel include the construction of a bomb shelter. However, the most significant step toward self-defense and security would be to realistically deal with the Palestinian issue. Nothing legitimizes Hamas, like Israeli missiles killing Palestinian children. The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is littered with missed opportunities to confront the injustices on both sides and work toward a reasonable peace agreement. Peace cannot include the Palestinian refusal of Israel’s right to exist. It also cannot include Israel’s unrepentant oppression of the Palestinian people.

Palestinian children hold candles as they sit on the rubble of a house destroyed during Israeli airstrikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 7, 2019.

Many of my friends are taking to social media this week to voice their support for one side or the other in this century-old conflict. There is no side worth taking here. Corruption, injustice, and futility are the hallmarks of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The leadership of Hamas and the leadership of Israel are provoking the violence. Caught in the middle are innocent lives. Fathers, mothers, and children make up the daily wounded and dead totals in the absurd conflict. Their lives should provoke a more responsible accountability from the leadership on both sides of the conflict. We should not reward wicked men and wicked systems with our loyalty.