An escalating war in the Middle East
The TLDR: As Israel pummels Gaza to the ground, diplomatic efforts to broker a truce have failed—and Hamas remains defiant despite the growing humanitarian toll. We look at why this is happening right now, and the high stakes for all involved.
What’s happening now?
Sunday was the deadliest day so far of the conflict—marking the end of an already bloody weekend. Two Israeli airstrikes in Gaza killed at least 43 Palestinians—including eight children—and injured 50 others, most of whom were women and children. Meanwhile, Hamas fired over 100 rockets but there were no reports of fresh Israeli casualties. The death toll in Gaza so far: 197—including at least 58 children and 34 women—while 1,235 have been injured. The number of Israeli casualties: 10. Watch a ten-year-old express her bewildered anguish:
Point to remember: In the 2014 war, 2,200 were killed in Gaza, approximately half of them civilians, including more than 550 children.
The notable targets: over the weekend included the house of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar—who escaped unhurt. But the bombing that got everyone’s attention was the strike on a building that housed the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media outlets. The Israeli military claims it was being used by a Hamas military intelligence office and for weapons development. The occupants were given an hour’s notice to evacuate. Foreign media organisations are insisting on proof—perhaps due to the fact that Israel recently lied to journalists about a ground attack. Read AP’s statement, and this AP journalist’s account of the attack. Watch this remarkable clip of the building owner bargaining with the Israelis for more time:
How did we get here?
Here’s a brief timeline of the most relevant parts of a complicated history:
- In 1947, the United Nations voted to create two separate states: Israel and Palestine—while Jerusalem would become an international city. Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it.
- But in the war that ensued—a year later in 1948 when the British just upped and left—the proposal went out the window. Palestinians were forced out of their homes—an event now referred to as the Nakba or The Catastrophe—as Jewish and Arab forces fought over the land.
- Once the dust settled, Israel controlled most of the territory while Jordan grabbed the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. Jerusalem was split into two—East and West—between Jordanian and Israeli forces respectively.
- In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel took control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights in Syria, Gaza, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula—and most importantly, East Jerusalem.
- As of today, parts of the West Bank and Gaza are supposed to be self-governed by Palestinians. The reality is that Israel maintains direct control of the majority of the West Bank—while the rest of it is ruled by the elected Palestinian Authority. And Gaza is essentially controlled by Hamas—a militant jihadist group that has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, UK and others.
- Most recent conflicts have been between Hamas and Israeli forces—typically ending in high Palestinian casualties and a stalemate.
What was the trigger this time?
The mosque: Al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in the world in Islam—and is administered by a religious board supervised by Jordan. Only Muslims are allowed to pray here—which is an ongoing sore point for rightwing Jewish groups. The reason: Jews also consider the area holy, calling it the Temple Mount. Last month, the Israeli police decided to ban evening gatherings by Israeli Arabs on the steps of the mosque—which has long been a tradition during Ramzan. As one Israeli journalist puts it, “That was the match. The fuel is that Arabs are 40% of the city and have no rights.” The move triggered violent confrontations with the police over weeks.
- In 1948, Palestinian/Arab refugee families lost their homes in West Jerusalem when it became part of Israel. When Jordan had control over East Jerusalem, it compensated a number of them with property in the area. This included houses in the Al Jarrah neighbourhood.
- But now that Israel rules all of the city, these fall under Israeli law. And that law allows Jews to reclaim homes they lost during the conflict, but does not give Arabs the same right.
- As a result, these families are being evicted from their homes by Jewish settler organisations. The appeal is being considered by the Supreme Court.
- The imminent ruling further fuelled popular rage—and the overwhelming sense that Arabs/Palestinians are being evicted from East Jerusalem, both from their homes and their mosque.
The tipping point: All these tensions came to a boil exactly a week ago. May 10 was when the Supreme Court was supposed to hear arguments on Sheikh Jarrah—but then deferred the session due to the charged atmosphere. Monday was also Jerusalem Day. The date marks the day Israel took control of all of Jerusalem—an occasion marked by big nationalist rallies by rightwing Jewish groups. And right on this day, the Israeli police stormed the mosque’s compound and attacked the protesters with tear gas and stun grenades. The show of force had an instant incendiary effect, as political analysts note:
“[Violence at] al-Aqsa mosque is probably the number one reason for most of the escalation… Even though Israel is aware of the sensitivity of the place, for some reason we make the same mistake over and over again. To break into the mosque with grenades and all of these things, it adds to the fire when you have this tension all around, of Ramadan, and Eid al-Fitr and Jerusalem Day, all together.”
The fallout: Almost immediately, Hamas stepped into the fray and launched seven rockets at Jerusalem—and 200 more at southern Israel. Tel Aviv retaliated with counter-attacks. And an “internal security” issue turned into an international conflict.
Is this method or madness?
While the conflict is deep-rooted, its timing has less to do with history than political calculation. Both Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are battling for political power—but that fight is not with one another.
Hamas’ motives: The Hamas greatest political rival is Fatah (formerly the Palestinian Liberation Organisation) which is the ruling party in Palestine. Elections were supposed to be held on May 22, but President Mahmoud Abbas postponed them—afraid that his party may lose out to the far more popular Hamas. A big reason: Ever since then President Donald Trump officially recognised Jerusalem as part of Israel—and essentially kicked the Palestinians to the side—Abbas has lost most of his domestic clout. The Al Aqsa plus Sheikh Jarrah crisis therefore opened a huge window for Hamas, as experts note: “Hamas leaders want to show that they are the real defenders of Jerusalem, and that Abbas is just a tool of the other side.”
And this: Hamas is also relying on a far less pro-Netanyahu White House under Joe Biden. The shifting sands of Middle East diplomacy suggest that Israel may not have a free pass to do as it likes—especially now that the stakes are far greater for Arab countries:
“This time the struggle is not only about Gaza but about Jerusalem and Al Aqsa and Muslims are committed to their defense… Hamas has done a good job in its messaging strategy, and Arab countries must deal with this interpretation.’’
But, but, but: Here’s the big risk: “For Hamas, its initial success (in its own terms) is likely to be a double-edged sword as it will push Israeli military and political leaders to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad more effectively than during the past three major conflicts.”
Netanyahu’s motives: Israel has held four elections over two years and failed to elect a government. No single party has been able to secure a ruling coalition. The latest election—pitting Netanyahu versus everyone else—was no different. Once again, Bibi was not able to secure sufficient allies to get to the majority mark. And just a week ago, his rival Yair Lapid was given a Presidential mandate to form the government—fusing together an unlikely alliance of left-wing, right-wing, centrist, and Arab parties. As the New Yorker notes:
“Netanyahu knew very well that his only chance to preëmpt this government, whose members would be united mainly in opposition to him, was to create an atmosphere that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central issue.”
And he appears to have succeeded. Rightwing Jewish nationlist parties have backed away from Lapid, and the Arab parties are looking shaky. As one analyst explains, Netanyahu may have already won the battle that matters most:
“Netanyahu was days away from getting ousted. [The new coalition] was already set up and ready to go. Surely this escalation served him very, very well, because this [Lapid] government that was formed just collapsed. And he will be staying in office in the coming months, maybe for a few years.”
PS: This may be why Netanyahu says he will do “whatever it takes to restore order,” but that “it will take some time.”
But, but, but: Netanyahu may not be able to control the wildfire he helped spark. For the first time, Israel is fighting a ‘two front’ war—one at home and the other on its borders. Israeli cities are exploding with Jewish-Arab riots—as lynch mobs from both sides rampage through the streets. According to Israeli experts, the situation is unprecedented:
“I don’t think that, since the creation of the state of Israel, we’ve seen this kind of domestic violence… We are not far from... not a civil war, but a level of violence that I don’t know if we can control.”
The bottomline: A former Israeli Prime Minister says, Netanyahu “wanted passions to rise just to a boil.” Sometimes you get far more than you asked for. For all that, as The Guardian notes, the result may remain the same:
“Previous rounds of fighting suggest the likely outcome is bleak. The US and other countries will back Israel in a military campaign until the civilian human cost becomes unbearable, and only then will there be meaningful pressure for an end to the bloodletting. And, if history is anything to go by, a return to the grim status quo.”
BBC News has the best overview of the complex history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Guardian offers the best analysis of the current conflict, and where it’s headed. The New Yorker has an excellent essay on the political math deployed by Hamas and Netanyahu. Vox offers an in-depth look at the riots within Israel. The Hindu has a very good introduction to Hamas. New York Times explains why Arab countries are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Politico reports on how rising civilian casualties are upping the political pressure on the Biden White House.