The worst fighting recorded in Israel and Gaza since 2014 is proving an early test for Joe Biden's presidency. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has held emergency meetings this week to broker a de-escalation. By Jonathan Pearlman.

UN fears ‘full-scale war’ between Israel and Palestine

A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli air strike on targets in the southern Gaza Strip midweek.
A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli air strike on targets in the southern Gaza Strip midweek.
Credit: Youssef Massoud / AFP

What happened this week

Violence erupted in Israel and Gaza this week as escalating tensions led to the worst conflict between Israelis and Palestinians since 2014.

By Friday, 119 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including 31 children, and eight Israelis had been killed, including one child. The conflict spread as violence involving Israelis, Arabs and Jews occurred across cities in Israel, including in the mixed Arab–Jewish town of Lod, where the Israeli government has declared a state of emergency.

Tensions have been growing for weeks in Jerusalem, but violence escalated on Monday after Israeli police cracked down on Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa compound, a site regarded as sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, then began firing rockets at Israeli cities. Israel responded by launching air strikes in Gaza.

The airstrikes continued to intensify throughout the week, destroying Gaza City's Hanadi Tower among other high-rise buildings.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the attacks were “only the beginning”.

“We will inflict blows on them that they have never dreamed of,” he said.

Hamas confirmed in a statement that several senior commanders had been killed, adding: “Thousands of leaders and soldiers will follow in their footsteps.” The group fired more than a hundred rockets towards Tel Aviv on Wednesday, prompting a brief shutdown of Ben Gurion International Airport.

Also on Wednesday, the United Nations warned that the violence was approaching “full-scale war” and called for an end to the attacks.

“Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation,” Tor Wennesland, the UN’s Middle East envoy, said in a tweet. “The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people … Stop the violence now.”

By Friday, the Israeli military confirmed that ground forces had carried out shelling attacks on the Gaza Strip but had not yet crossed the border.

Jerusalem tensions

One source of the recent Jerusalem tensions was a decision in April by Israel’s inexperienced police chief to block Palestinians from holding their traditional Ramadan celebrations in the square outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate. The decision led to violence between police and protesters, and some initial rocket fire from Gaza, before the police chief overturned his decision and reopened the square.

Meanwhile, Palestinians demonstrators had been holding regular gatherings in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem to protest attempts by right-wing Israelis to evict a group of Palestinian households.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court was due to hold hearings about the evictions.

Separately, Israeli nationalists planned to hold a march on Monday for Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s capture of the Old City and east Jerusalem in 1967. The flag-waving march was set to wind through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City – a move seen as an inflammatory provocation by Palestinians.

As tensions increased, Israeli authorities postponed the court hearings and rerouted the march away from contentious areas. But, on Monday morning, more than 500 Palestinians were injured during violence between Israeli police and protesters. Twenty-one police were injured.

At about 5pm on Monday, Hamas warned that it was giving Israeli forces an hour to withdraw from the al-Aqsa mosque and Sheikh Jarrah. Israel’s Defence minister, Benny Gantz, warned that Israel would respond “with an iron fist”. A few minutes after the deadline expired, Hamas fired rockets into Israel. Israel launched its own series of air strikes.

The subsequent fighting has been the worst between Israelis and Palestinians since 2014, during which 2251 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed. That conflict lasted 50 days, ending with a ceasefire brokered during talks in Cairo.

Political crises

The current fighting comes as both Israel and Palestine face political crises.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was unable to form a ruling coalition after an election in March. He is now struggling to hold on to power, just as he faces a criminal fraud trial that will be difficult to fight off if he is out of office.

As the conflict erupted this week, Israel’s opposition was reportedly on the verge of assembling a ruling coalition. But the fighting brought a halt to the coalition talks and could lead to fractures among the various parties, whose politics – and views on the longstanding Israeli–Palestinian conflict – differ wildly.

Netanyahu, who clung to power after the Covid-19 pandemic interfered with a previous attempt to unseat him, now has an opportunity to try to rally support by presenting himself as a tested wartime leader.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas recently postponed long-awaited elections – a move credited to fears that he and the deeply divided Fatah party were set to lose to Hamas. The Palestinians have not held parliamentary elections since 2006, when Hamas won in a landslide.

Hamas described the election postponement as a “coup” and warned that Fatah “bears responsibility for the consequences”.

Testing Biden

The spectre of war marks an early test for Joe Biden, who had indicated that – unlike his recent predecessors – he did not plan to focus on achieving an Israeli–Palestinian peace deal.

Biden has not yet appointed an ambassador to Israel, nor – prior to this week’s fighting – spoken to Abbas. He has signalled strong support for Israel but indicated he will not follow Donald Trump’s staunchly pro-Israel policies, which included the controversial move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Biden spoke to Netanyahu and expressed “unwavering” support for Israel’s security.

“Israel has the right to defend itself,” the US president told reporters after the call. “My hope is that we’ll see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later.”

Some Democratic lawmakers criticised Biden, a Democrat, accusing him of refusing to acknowledge Israeli misconduct.

“Blanket statements like [Biden’s] … imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations. It’s wrong,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent Democratic member of Congress, in a tweet.

The Arab League and Turkey both condemned the Israeli air strikes as “indiscriminate”.

The UN Security Council held emergency meetings this week to discuss efforts to end the violence. But the US reportedly blocked the release of a joint statement on the conflict, saying it would be “unhelpful”.

Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials, who have previously mediated between Israel and Hamas, were all reportedly trying this week to achieve a ceasefire.

Israel rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying it would continue its attacks until there was “complete quiet”.

“There is currently no end date for the operation,” said Gantz, the Israeli Defence minister. 

This article was last updated on Friday, May 14.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "UN fears ‘full-scale war’ between Israelis and Palestinians".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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