EXPLAINER: Why Mideast tensions are soaring yet again
JERUSALEM (AP) — Everyone worried this might happen.
In the weeks before a rare confluence of major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, with tens of thousands of visitors expected in Jerusalem for the first time since the pandemic, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders discussed how to calm tensions.
Israel took steps to ease the conditions of its nearly 55-year military rule over millions of Palestinians, lifting some movement restrictions and issuing thousands of work permits. Israeli police said they would work to ensure everyone could pray in peace.
The goal was to avoid a repeat of last year, when weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem eventually helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers.
It hasn’t worked out as planned.
Israel has seen the deadliest string of attacks in years. Its troops have launched arrest raids deep inside the occupied West Bank, triggering gunbattles. Clashes have broken out at a major site in Jerusalem sacred to Jews and Muslims and rockets have been fired from Gaza.
Here’s a look at how we got here:
A WAVE OF ATTACKS
On March 22, a Palestinian citizen of Israel killed four people in a car-ramming and stabbing rampage in the city of Beersheba. Shooting attacks by Palestinians over the next three weeks, including in the heart of Tel Aviv, killed another 10.
Israeli authorities said the attackers acted mostly alone, and while Hamas and other militant groups cheered the attacks, none claimed them. Some of the assailants supported the Islamic State group, but there’s no evidence it organized the attacks.
Israel launched raids across the occupied West Bank, arresting dozens. Palestinians hurled stones and firebombs, and in Jenin, a longtime militant stronghold, gunbattles erupted.
At least 26 Palestinians have been killed, according to an Associated Press count, including the attackers and many who took part in the clashes. But the dead also include a lawyer and an 18-year-old woman who appear to have been bystanders, as well as an unarmed woman shot dead at a checkpoint.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state.
Israel has full control of over 60% of the West Bank, where it has built more than 130 settlements that are home to nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers. The increasingly unpopular Palestinian Authority administers major population centers and cooperates with Israel on security.
CLASHES IN JERUSALEM
On April 15, clashes erupted at dawn between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. The police say Palestinians hurled stones at them and in the direction of an adjacent Jewish holy site, forcing them to move in. Palestinians say they used excessive force.
More than 150 Palestinians and three Israeli police were wounded. Police fired rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades and Palestinians hurled stones and fireworks. At one point, police burst into the mosque itself to arrest suspected stone-throwers inside.
Smaller confrontations have broken out since then, and on Sunday, Palestinians pelted buses with stones just outside the Old City.
“A Hamas-led incitement campaign has been waged against Israel,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said this week. “Israel is doing everything so that all peoples, as always, can celebrate the holidays safely — Jews, Muslims and Christians.”
The sprawling esplanade where the mosque is located is the third holiest site in Islam and the holiest for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because two Jewish temples stood there in antiquity. It lies at the emotional core of the century-old conflict and has been ground zero for several outbreaks of violence.
The Palestinians view regular visits by nationalist and religious Jews under police escort as a provocation and possible prelude to Israel taking over the site or partitioning it. Israeli authorities say they are committed to maintaining the status quo.
The Old City is part of east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in a move not recognized internationally and considers part of its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
Discriminatory policies in east Jerusalem support the expansion of Jewish settlements. Palestinians are systematically denied construction permits, forcing many to build without authorization, risking home demolition. Dozens of Palestinian families are at risk of being forcibly removed from their homes because of a decades-long campaign by settlers to expand the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem.
Jews born in Jerusalem are Israeli citizens. Most Palestinians refuse Israeli citizenship, but those who seek it must go through a long and uncertain bureaucratic process. Palestinians who spend too much time outside east Jerusalem, for work, study or family reasons, can lose their residency and be prohibited from returning. That policy does not apply to Jews.
ROCKETS FROM GAZA
On Monday night, a rocket was fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. The military intercepted it and carried out airstrikes. No one was hurt, and no one claimed the rocket — the first to be fired at Israel in months. Two more rockets were fired overnight, the army said Thursday, and Israel carried out more airstrikes.
Israel and Egypt have imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces 15 years ago. Unemployment hovers around 50%, electricity outages last around 12 hours a day, tap water is undrinkable, and Hamas remains firmly in power.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since 2008, compounding the misery of the 2 million Palestinians who live in the narrow coastal strip. Gaza has barely started to rebuild after the most recent one, which left more than 250 Palestinians dead, including 129 civilians, according to the U.N. Fourteen people were killed in Israel.
Gaza’s woes long predate Hamas, which burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, during the first of two Palestinian uprisings against Israeli rule. The militant group — branded terrorists by Israel and Western countries — does not recognize Israel and has carried out numerous deadly attacks on Israeli civilians over the years.
More than half of the 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza are the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel who fled or were driven out during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.
Around 60% of Palestinians in all three territories are under the age of 30, with little or no memory of the Mideast peace process, which broke down more than a decade ago.
“We have a very radicalized generation,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University “They don’t really care if we go to another war with Israel or not, whether it’s over Al-Aqsa or any other thing.”
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