Photo: Amir Levy via Getty Images
The Deadly Israeli-Palestinian Escalation
May 11, 2021
Weeks of rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem broke into large-scale violence on Friday, May 7. When Israeli police moved on Palestinian Muslims gathered at a site holy to Jews and Muslims alike in the midst of Ramadan, more than 200 Palestinians were injured. Hamas launched a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in response, and Israel responded with an air attack on Gaza that killed more than 20 Palestinians. Several Israelis were killed in the subsequent exchange of fire.
Q1: Why now?
A1: Tensions had been rising over the impending eviction of some Palestinian families from disputed land in East Jerusalem and an increasing set of skirmishes between Israelis and Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem. Then, two sets of events converged last weekend. Palestinian Muslims streamed to the Haram al-Sharif for Ramadan prayers, with large numbers assembling for Leilat al-Qadr on the evening of May 8 to mark the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad—considered not only the most sacred night of Ramadan, but of the whole Islamic calendar. Meanwhile, some Israeli Jews were gathering ahead of Jerusalem Day on Monday, May 10, marking Jewish control over the Old City of Jerusalem secured during the 1967 war. The focal point of those celebrations is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount—the same elevated platform that Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif.
Q2: What is the danger?
A2: These tensions come at a time of simultaneous political crises in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel recently failed in his bid to put together a ruling coalition after the fourth round of elections in just two years. He is potentially facing the end of his political career, and he lacks a popular mandate. Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas just canceled legislative elections, which would have been the first held since 2006, after his party was trailing badly in the polls. The 85-year-old president was elected in 2005, and his term was set to expire 12 years ago. With leaders on both sides lacking legitimacy, there is an increasing danger that they will act rashly to preserve their political fortunes, or that they will be overwhelmed by external political dynamics.
Q3: Could these tensions expand into broader conflict?
A3: It is hard to say at this point. Smaller incidents have turned into full-blown conflicts, while larger incidents have been contained. There is a line of thinking in the Israeli security establishment that it needs to strike Gaza periodically in order to continue to deter Hamas. They refer to this activity as “mowing the grass.” It is possible that Israeli actions will draw the country into an open-ended conflict in Gaza, as happened in 2009, and it is possible that its actions will precipitate a Palestinian political crisis that may or may not resolve in Israel’s favor.
Q4: How will Israel’s new Arab partners respond?
A4: Most Arab states are hostile to Hamas, and therefore sympathetic to Israeli strikes against Hamas. They have objected strenuously to Israeli actions on the Haram al-Sharif, however, seeking to differentiate between the Palestinian people and the Hamas fighters lobbing rockets at Israel. The protests are likely to be transient assuming that the Israeli response is short-lived. A longer-term response would have a chilling effect on ties but would not end them.
Q5: What will the United States do?
A5: In the past, the United States has emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself from attack and has refrained from criticism for a week or two. The Biden administration is deeply sympathetic to Israel, but it is alert to the possibility that the surrounding political context could prove explosive. While the instinct will be to keep the conflict at arm’s length, that calculus could change quickly after a week or so.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program
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