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Explainer: What sparked the latest escalation in Israeli-Palestinian clashes?

Israeli air strikes today wounded 125 people and killed 25, including nine children.

Explosions following Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis.
Explosions following Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis.
Image: PA

Updated May 12th 2021, 8:56 AM

A RECENT ESCALATION IN violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, east Jerusalem and Israel has sparked international concern and condemnation.

There is never a simple answer to the ‘why?’ question in this region’s history of conflict, but a number of events over the weekend did contribute to the recent escalation.

Clashes erupted on Friday as Muslims pack the Al-Aqsa mosque compound – Islam’s third holiest site – to pray on the last Friday of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

israel-palestinians-ramadan Worshippers take part in the last Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Source: PA Images

Violence had been building in the Holy City and occupied West Bank for the previous week. The site is also sacred to Jews as the location of two biblical-era temples.

Palestinians hurled stones, bottles and fireworks at police who returned fire with rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades. More than 220 people, mostly Palestinians, were wounded.

On Saturday prayers at the mosque compound were held peacefully, but violence flared up elsewhere in east Jerusalem.

Some 121 Palestinians were wounded overnight, many hit by rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades, the Palestinian Red Crescent has said. Israeli police have also said 17 of its officers were wounded.

israel-palestinians Palestinians run from stun grenades fired by Israeli police officers during clashes at Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City. Source: Oded Balilty/PA

The Middle East Quartet – the US, Russia, EU and the UN – expressed “deep concern” over the violence.

Court case delay

Much of the recent unrest stems from the long-running legal effort by Jewish settler groups to evict several Palestinian families from their homes, in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The case dates back to before the creation of the state of Israel, when a small Jewish community lived in Sheikh Jarrah. After Israel’s independence and the 1948 war with its Arab neighbours, east Jerusalem came under the control of Jordan.

Many refugees settled in the district after fleeing Zionist forces in other parts of what was now Israel. Israel then seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it.

Early this year, the Jerusalem district court ruled in favour of Jewish settlers who laid claim to land in the Sheikh Jarrah district, now home to around 30 Palestinians from four families.

A Supreme Court hearing on a Palestinian appeal, due to take place Monday, was postponed by the justice ministry in light of “the circumstances”. A new hearing is to be scheduled within 30 days. 

Third night 

After Saturday night’s flare up, scuffles between Palestinians and Israeli police in east Jerusalem had continued overnight into Sunday. Pope Francis joined global calls for an end to the violence.

On Sunday evening, Israeli police again faced off against mostly young Palestinians at several locations in east Jerusalem.

mideast-gaza-khan-younis-protest Palestinian protester throws back a tear gas canister during a protest against the violence in Jerusalem. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s response to the protests and rioting.

March cancelled 

In clashes Monday morning at the mosque compound at least 395 Palestinians were wounded, with more than 200 hospitalised, the Palestinian Red Crescent has said.

Fears of further chaos eased temporarily when a planned ‘Jerusalem Day’ march to celebrate the Jewish state’s 1967 capture of the Old City was cancelled.

But then Hamas, the militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, threatened escalation unless Israel pulled its security forces out of the compound, with more than 200 rockets reportedly fired by Palestinian militants towards the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas had “crossed a red line” by targeting Jerusalem and vowed that the Jewish state would “respond with force”.

That response was 130 strikes by fighter jets and attack helicopters on “military targets” in the Hamas-run enclave.

Twenty-two Palestinians – including nine children – were killed in the exchange of fire.

israeli-palestinian-violence-in-gaza-palestine-10-may-2021 A Palestinian boy with his father cries following the deaths in Israeli-Palestinian violence. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Palestinian militants and the Israeli army exchanged a barrage of deadly fire yesterday and into the early hours of this morning, as intense fighting continued overnight, with UN envoy for Middle East Peace Tor Wennesland warning the two sides were heading “towards a full-scale war”.

Israeli police reported two people had been killed after Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they had launched more than 300 rockets into Israel in retaliation for attacks on buildings and civilians. 

In response, the Israel Defense Forces said they had launched their largest strike across the Strip since the 2014 Gaza conflict, including targeting the homes of senior Hamas figures.

The heaviest fire in years between the foes has been triggered by violence in Jerusalem, and has killed at least 35 Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip and five people in Israel, as well as wounding hundreds more.

In the crowded, Israeli-blockaded enclave of Gaza that Hamas controls, 12 children and one woman were among those killed since Monday night.

A further 230 people were reported wounded from the ongoing Israeli air strikes, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings.

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Earlier, Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned “this is just the beginning” of Israel’s strikes. 

International concern

The United Nations rights office has said it is “deeply concerned” over the escalation of violence.

“We condemn all violence and all incitement to violence and ethnic division and provocations,” spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.

He said Israeli security forces must allow the freedom of expression, association and assembly. Colville said the office of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet was particularly concerned about the impact of the violence on children.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken today said “all sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down”. He strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas, saying they “need to stop immediately”.

Diplomatic sources have said Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, are attempting to calm tensions.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit condemned Israel’s Gaza strikes as “indiscriminate and irresponsible … and a miserable display of force at the expense of children’s blood”.

- With reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

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