War looms as Israel and Palestine trade blows

Cycle of violence: Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the last 15 years. © Getty

Is the terrible bloodshed in Jerusalem inevitable? Today, Israel and Palestine are teetering on the brink of another war, and each side blames the other for this new bout of violence.

It was just after 6pm on Monday when the air raid sirens went off in Jerusalem. Israelis rushed to bomb shelters as rockets peppered the city, killing two people. Many families stayed huddled in the shelters overnight. Then it was the turn of Palestinians to cower in their homes as Israeli air strikes raked Gaza, killing 28 people, nine of them children.

The night of violence followed a week of unrest in Jerusalem sparked by Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

But tensions finally boiled over on Monday after Israeli forces stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Palestinian paramilitary group Hamas responded by firing a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem. Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian towns soon followed.

Both sides blame each other for the deadly escalation. Israel argues that Hamas made the first move by firing missiles. Hamas counters that it was only defending Palestinians from Israeli aggression.

Yet the violence draws on much deeper resentment between the two peoples.

Two thousand years ago, modern-day Israel and Palestine were home to a Jewish kingdom, Judea. After it was conquered by the Romans, many Jews left to settle in Europe and the wider Middle East.

But they never forgot their ties to their ancestral land, and in the 20th Century, many returned there, often fleeing European persecution. They were encouraged by the British Empire, which took control of the region after World War One.

But by then, another people had been living in the so-called Holy Land for 1,300 years: the Palestinians, an Arab nation including Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Finally, in 1947, the United Nations divided the region into two states, Israel and Palestine. Jerusalem was split between the two: the western half went to Israel, the east to Palestine. However, war broke out. Israel took much of the territory assigned to Palestine, while the rest, including East Jerusalem, was occupied by Jordan and Egypt.

The war forced 700,000 Palestinians to leave their homes, an event they refer to as al-Nakba: the Catastrophe. At the same time, many Jews fled East Jerusalem as it was invaded by Arab forces.

Then, during a short war in 1967, Israel took the remaining Palestinian territories and annexed East Jerusalem. It announced that Jews whose families had lived there before the 1947 war would have the right to reclaim their property.

But this means evicting Palestinians who have lived there for decades. Palestinians claim that Israel is committing ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. Israel argues that it is simply returning homes to their original owners.

Is the bloodshed inevitable?

The promised land

Yes, says one side, so long as Israel continues to provoke it. It was Israel that tried to force people out of their homes so that Israelis could live in them. It was Israel that used rubber bullets and tear gas on the Palestinians protesting against their treatment. And it was Israel that sent armed police into the al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. At every stage, Israel has provoked the Palestinians.

Not at all, say others. Israel’s decision on Monday to reroute the Flag March away from the Palestinian quarter proves that it has been trying to defuse tensions with the Palestinians. While the unrest in Jerusalem before then had been far from peaceful, there had not been any deaths. It is unlikely that anyone would have died had Hamas not decided to start a fight by firing at Israel.

You Decide

  1. Is violence ever justifiable?
  2. On what basis, if any, should a group of people be able to claim that land is theirs?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a child in Israel or Palestine hiding from air attacks. Then swap it with the person next to you and compare your ideas with theirs.
  2. Get in a small group and make a presentation on one aspect of the history of Israel and Palestine.

Some People Say...

“Peace can happen in 24 hours… just like war can happen in 24 hours.”

Sari Nusseibeh (1949 – ), Palestinian philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict are too often steeped in racism. Critics of Israel sometimes engage in anti-Semitic tropes, implying that international media are under Israeli influence, or using the imagery of the Holocaust. But Israel’s defenders sometimes use Islamophobic language against the Palestinians, accusing them of being fanatical Islamists, or less “enlightened” than the Israelis.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not peace can still be achieved. In recent years, Israel has been run by a succession of extremely right-wing governments that have promised to annex more Palestinian territory. Illegal Israeli settlements have sprung up across the Palestinian West Bank, leaving less and less land for the Palestinians. Palestinians have so little faith in their own leaders that some observers think there is nobody with the authority to negotiate a peace deal on their behalf.

Word Watch

Jerusalem
The city is a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to the international community, half belongs to Israel, the other half to Palestine. Both claim the whole city is their capital.
Gaza
A Palestinian territory to the south-west of Israel and home to 1.85 million people. Since 2006 it has been under the control of Hamas.
Al-Aqsa Mosque
An ancient mosque built on the site where Muhammad is believed to have ascended to Heaven. The site is also holy in Judaism as the location of the Second Temple destroyed by Rome.
Hamas
An Islamist paramilitary organisation and political party. When it was set up its aim was to destroy Israel entirely, although it has since moderated this and called for a two-state solution.
British Empire
In 1917, the British Empire issued the Balfour Declaration, stating that it would support the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in what was then Palestine.
Jordan
The country that neighbours Israel and Palestine to the east. In 1947 it occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish population of these areas fled west to Israel.
Al-Nakba
700,000 Palestinians, about half the territory’s population, fled or were expelled from their homes. Many were never resettled and their descendants are still refugees today.
Ethnic cleansing
Expelling or otherwise removing people of a different ethnicity from an area of land in order to make it ethnically homogeneous.
Ramadan
The ninth month in the Islamic calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to engage in prayer and reflection with their community, as well as fasting during daylight hours.
Flag March
An Israeli festival that celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem. It is associated with far-right politics: in recent years, marchers have attacked Arabs and vandalised Palestinian shops and homes.

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