What do rockets from Gaza have to do with a housing dispute in Jerusalem? Here's what's behind the latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence

·National Security Correspondent
·4 min read

The outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas is the latest in a bloody series of confrontations — including in 2008, 2012 and 2014 — that have shaken the Middle East and beyond.

The spark was an impending decision by the Israeli Supreme Court involving a decades-old land dispute involving dozens of Palestinian families facing eviction in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The area, which is predominantly Palestinian, is in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state. (Israel has occupied the area, as well as the West Bank, since capturing the territory from Jordan in 1967.)

On May 6, violent clashes broke out between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem over the anticipated evictions. Violence intensified the next day — the last Friday of Ramadan — as stone-wielding Palestinians faced off against Israeli security personnel in and near Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. (The Temple Mount compound, of which Al-Aqsa is a part, is the holiest site in Judaism.) Israeli police used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters, including within the mosque.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli police during clashes at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, amid tension over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 7, 2021. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli police at the compound housing Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem on May 7. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, soon joined the fray, issuing an ultimatum to Israel — one it knew would be ignored — to withdraw from the Al-Aqsa compound; when the deadline passed, Hamas launched rockets toward Jerusalem, thus initiating the latest shooting war between Israel and the Islamist group. Since then, Hamas has launched thousands of missiles at major Israeli population centers, though most have been neutralized by Israel’s "Iron Dome" missile defense system.

Israel, meanwhile, has undertaken a series of punishing airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, including buildings it claims are linked to Hamas’s military (one of which housed the Associated Press, among many international media organizations). It has also destroyed a large network of tunnels beneath Gaza used by Hamas to ferry militants and weapons. Israeli strikes have killed more than 200 Gazans, including over 60 children. Hamas rocket attacks have killed at least 12 Israelis, including two children.

For decades, Al-Aqsa has been a critical flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; protests around the mosque launched the second Palestinian intifada (or uprising), which began in 2000. But why did Hamas decide to launch rockets toward Jerusalem now — and, indeed, for the first time since 2014? What was Hamas’s objective, since the rocket attacks would have no tangible effect on the Israeli occupation?

Supporters of the Palestinian Hamas movement gather during a rally to mark al-Quds (Jerusalem) day, following the last Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, outside the Dome of the Rock mosque at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islams third holiest site, in Jerusalem's old city, on May 7, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)
Hamas supporters outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

The answer has less to do with Israeli-Hamas relations than with the dynamics between different Palestinian factions. Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, while the Gaza Strip is run by Hamas. Hamas and Fatah have been estranged since 2007, when the two sides fought a short but bloody civil war. Since then, both sides have sought to burnish their credentials in Palestinian public opinion. And, in particular, both sides want to be seen as the rightful defenders and protectors of Palestinian territorial claims — especially sites with acute religious and national significance to Palestinians, such as Al-Aqsa.

The decision by Hamas to show that it — and not Fatah — represents the Palestinian national movement by launching rockets at Israel may have been prompted by the recent decision of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to postpone the first presidential and parliamentary elections in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 2006. While Abbas stated he was scuttling the elections because of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem, many believe the real reason was fear among Fatah leadership that Hamas might win the vote.

Smoke billows from Israeli air strikes in Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, on May 11, 2021. - Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza exchanged heavy fire, killing at least 26 Palestinians and two Israelis, in an escalation sparked by violent unrest at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. (Anas Baba/AFP via Getty Images)
Smoke billows from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, controlled by Hamas, on May 11. (Anas Baba/AFP via Getty Images)

Hamas’s actions have bolstered embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and undermined the ideologically diverse group of Israeli political parties that were, until the start of the war, negotiating to form a coalition to remove Netanyahu from the premiership, which he has held since 2009.

Meanwhile, experts say that the latest outburst of violence, though bloody and destructive, will have little effect on the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the events follow a familiar cyclic pattern in Hamas’s and Israel’s actions.


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