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Explainer: Israeli-Palestinian hostilities could lead to “full-scale war”

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May 14, 2021

Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians lead Tor Wennesland, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, to say on Tuesday, “We’re escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of deescalation.”

The recent tensions appear to be due to a pending decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that could evict approximately 75 Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. Violent clashes also resulted when Muslims were reportedly blocked from Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. The terrorist group Hamas, which controls the area of Gaza, escalated the conflict by firing approximately 1,500 rockets at civilian targets in Israel, killing five people and injuring over 200.

The Israeli Defense Force responded by launching airstrikes targeting missile launching sites in Gaza. Because Hamas often uses civilian neighborhoods as “human shields,” the air strikes have reportedly led to the deaths of 65 people in Gaza, including 14 children.

What is the origin of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

The ancient nation of Israel ceased to exist when in AD 138 the Roman emperor Hadrian crushed the Bar Kochba revolt and banned all Jews from Palestine (i.e., the biblical regions known as the Land of Israel). Over the next 12 centuries, the land was conquered and reconquered by various nations and empires. In 1517, the land was captured by the Ottoman Empire, which would retain control until 1917. During World War I, the British captured Jerusalem and drove the Turks out of Ottoman Syria. Following that war the British controlled the area known as Palestine, and were given a mandate by the League of Nations to provide security and order within the territory.

Because the land was now in the hands of the British, it became an ideal location for Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Ukraine. This influx of Jews from 1919 and 1923, along with the Balfour Declaration, led the Arab inhabitants of the land to develop their own political movement known as Palestinian nationalism.

As historian Martin Bunton notes, “Before the First World War, there was no ‘Palestine’ as such; rather the territory consisted of the districts of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Acre, all of which were defined according to an evolving framework of Ottoman administration.” Since then, Arabs in the region adopted a national identity as Palestinians, with the primary objective of opposing Zionism (i.e., the reestablishment of the Jewish nation of Israel).

The United Nations voted in 1947 for the areas occupied by Palestinians to be split into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem becoming an international city. While Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, it was rejected by the Arab contingent.

Why are Palestenians being evicted from East Jerusalem?

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the western part of Jerusalem was captured by Israel, while the area known as East Jerusalem was captured by Jordan. Israel took over East Jerusalem after defeating Jordan in the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. Since then Israel has considered the area to be a part of their nation while the U.N. and most of the international community (with the exception of the U.S.) considers it to be occupied territory. 

In 1956, Palestinian refugee families were relocated to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem with the support of the U.N. and Jordanian government. But the Israeli courts contend that these Palestinian families are living in houses built on land owned by Jewish religious associations before the establishment of Israel in 1948. While many Israelis believe it is merely a legal dispute over land ownership, many Palestinians consider it a strategy to expel them from East Jerusalem

Who controls Palestine?

In 1994, Israel agreed to allow the Palestinian National Authority, an interim self-government, to govern the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, which currently exists within the boundaries of the modern State of Israel. In 2007, these two areas, sometimes referred to as the “occupied territories,” were divided between two political entities, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Hamas has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Jordan, Egypt, and Japan. 

Where does Hamas get its rockets?

After Israeli security forces pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas was able to smuggle in rockets and mortar shells produced by allies, such as Iran. More recently, Hamas has claimed that they are now able to build rockets themselves in Gaza.

Despite having fired more than 10,000 rockets into Israel since 2005, the Israeli government believes that Hamas still has an arsenal of between 5,000 to 6,000 rockets that can strike anywhere between the Gaza border communities and 25-35 miles into Israel.

How many Palestinians identify as Christian?

Based on the 2017 census by the Palestinian Authority, there are roughly 47,000 Palestinians, about 1% of the population, who identify as Christian. 

A survey taken in 2020 found that about half of Palestinian Christians (48%) are Greek Orthodox while slightly more than a third (38%) are Latin Catholic. About 4% identify as Evangelicals and Lutherans. Out of those, only about 1 in 3 label themselves as “religious” (36%). 

Photo Attribution:

MENAHEM KAHANA / Getty Contributor