explainer

"Towards a full-scale war": What you need to know about the deadly Israel/Palestine conflict.

The hostility between Israel and Palestine is often referred to as the Middle East's 'open wound'. This week, that wound is bleeding once again.

Rockets are being hurled from both sides and lethal street clashes are raging, in the latest escalation of a deadly, decades-old conflict between the two states.

It's the worst violence seen in years. Buildings have been flattened, children killed, and there are reports of attempted lynchings on both sides. And there are fears it's only going to get worse.

Having survived a surge of Israeli airstrikes on Wednesday, a 30-year-old Gaza man told The New York Times, "The sound was very, very horrific. It was like a state of war. It was the first time I ever heard anything like this."

So what's triggered this latest conflict? And what caused the wound in the first place?

Let's take a look.

Start from the beginning. What's behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

At its most basic, it's a dispute about territory.

In the late 1800s, a movement called Zionism emerged among Jews, calling for the establishment of Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Tens of thousands migrated to this ancient holy land, seeking connection to their ancestors and proximity to sites of sacred significance. Most notably, Kotel or the Wailing Wall, the last remaining portion of an ancient retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism.

After World War II, during which over 6 million Jews were slaughtered, the push for a Jewish state intensified. And ultimately, it came to pass.

The Wailing Wall (right) is on the perimeter of a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. To the former, it's known as Temple Mount and to the latter, Haram al-Sharif or the al-Aqsa Mosque Compound. Image: Getty.

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In 1947, the United Nations voted in favour of a plan to partition Palestine into three sections:

  • The Jewish state of Israel;
  • The Arab state of Palestine;
  • And a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem to be administered by the United Nations.

The Arabs objected to the plan, arguing the UN had no right to carve up their land. Jerusalem, of course, is also home to Dome of Rock (the gold-roofed building in the image above) and the al-Aqsa Mosque: among the holiest sites in Islam.

But the following year, Israel was declared an independent Jewish state, and a prime minister was appointed.

In the decades since, there have been several wars between the two states and borders have shifted many times. Of the several disputed territories, Jerusalem remains the most contentious: both Israel and Palestine cite it as their true capital.

What triggered the recent fighting?

Tensions have been simmering for weeks between Israel and Palestine, and there have been multiple flashpoints in the conflict (more on that shortly). But it all centres around the planned eviction of six Palestinian families from the majority-Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. 

Palestinian families settled in the area as refugees after being displaced by the conflict that surrounded the creation of Israel. However, Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967 and took control of the area (the victory was not internationally recognised and much of the world still considers it to be occupied territory).

In the years since, Israeli courts have ruled in favour of Jewish settler organisations taking ownership of Palestinian's homes, arguing the land historically belonged to Jews.

For many Palestinians, these evictions are emblematic of the steady displacement of their people by Israel since 1948. And that's driving much of the recent conflict.

Footage recently went viral of a Palestinian woman in Sheikh Jarrah confronting a Jewish settler for "stealing" her family home. The settler, replied simply, "If I don't steal it, someone else is is going to steal it." 

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"You are stealing my house."

This is what a Palestinian woman told an Israeli settler, as he tried to take over her family's home in occupied East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. pic.twitter.com/6s3TqHMR1r

— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 5, 2021

But how did it get to rockets being fired?

Back to those flashpoints.

Last month, citing public order, Israeli police banned Muslim Palestinians from gathering at Damascus Gate, the traditional location of festival activities during the holy month of Ramadan. This sparked almost nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli authorities, with the former allegedly hurling rocks and the latter retaliating with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.

Tensions rose further after two Palestinian teens filmed themselves on a light-rail train slapping an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, and uploaded the footage to TikTok. The footage, along with similar attacks, caused anger in Israel. Hundreds of young Israelis took to the streets in protest, where they were heard shouting, "Death to Arabs!"

Then comes Monday. 

Tensions were already high in anticipation of a court decision on the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah (it was later postponed). Then Israeli police raided the compound at al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslim Palestinians had previously been staging sit-ins to protest the evictions.

Accounts of the events vary. For example, some claim Palestinians attacked with rocks first. But footage shows Israeli forces, in large numbers, hurling tear gas and stun grenades into the holy building. More than 300 Palestinians and 21 Israeli police officers were reportedly injured.

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In response, Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, issued an ultimatum to Israel, saying it had until 6pm Monday to withdraw its forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

When the deadline passed, Hamas fired several rockets towards Israel. And here we are.

What happens now?

Israel and Palestine have been exchanging rocket fire all week. 

Though with Israel's highly sophisticated anti-missile technology, known as the Iron Dome, many of the estimated 1,600 rockets hurled by Hamas have been stopped mid-air.

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(As of Saturday) Israeli authorities are reporting a death toll of eight, including at least one child.

On the less-equipped Palestinian side, the death toll stands at 132 people, including 32 children.

There's no sign of de-escalation either. 

On Thursday, Israel’s military spokesman said forces were massing on the border with the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and that the state was "preparing the option of a ground manoeuvre".

And on Friday morning, the Israel Defence Forces announced that ground assault had begun.

Mediators from Egypt and the US have been dispatched in an attempt to calm tensions. And UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland urged a swift end to the violence.

"Stop the fire immediately. We're escalating towards a full-scale war," he tweeted earlier this week. "The cost of war in Gaza is devastating and is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now."

Yet it seems unlikely the wound will be tended to anytime soon.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia