The relationship between the US and Israel, one of its closest allies, is facing one of its most serious tests. President Joe Biden increased his public pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden wants Israel to end the fighting with the Palestinian group Hamas, which the US considers a terrorist organization.
The White House says Biden told Netanyahu “that he expected a significant de-escalation” on Wednesday. Biden hoped that would be the beginning of a “path to a ceasefire.” Analysts believe the public comment about the conversation between the two leaders indicates Biden is losing patience with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu responded by saying he appreciated “the support of the American president.” But he vowed to press on with intense airstrikes on Gaza. Hamas is mostly based there.
The current fighting between Israel and Hamas began on May 10. That’s when Hamas began firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. Most of them targeted Jerusalem. The rocket fire followed days of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in an area holy to both Jews and Muslims. Those clashes, together with protests over the threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, inflamed the tensions.
Israel responded by bombarding Gaza. Its airstrikes have damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings. At least 12 Israelis and 227 Palestinians have reportedly died in the conflict.
Also on Wednesday, officials confirmed several rockets had been fired from Lebanon into Israel. That risks the possibility of the conflict expanding into a dangerous regional war.
🍊 Extra Juice: A Never-Ending Struggle Over the Holy Land
What is Israel?
It is a country in the Middle East along the Mediterranean Sea that is regarded by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as a holy land. Israel, the world’s only Jewish State, has a population of roughly 9 million and is relatively small, about the size of New Jersey.
Israel was founded as an independent state in 1948 under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which was meant to create an Arab state, a Jewish state, and an independent city of Jerusalem. The countries that formed the Arab League rejected the plan and began a war against the new state of Israel. Israel won the war and greatly expanded its territory, including control of West Jerusalem.
Israel has a complex history that includes periods of peace and war, particularly among religious groups, which have both expanded and reduced its territory.
Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
What is Palestine and a Palestinian?
Palestine is a small region of land in the Middle East, amid what is present-day Israel, that has played a large role in ancient and modern religious and political history. Palestine has been at the center of violence because of its historic and cultural value to various religions. Its history, in fact, is marked by violent battles for control of its land. Modern-day Arabs who are considered Palestinians have long wanted to create a free Palestinian state on this land, which brings them in continual conflict with the Jewish state of Israel.
The State of Palestine is recognized by the UN and most of its members, but not the US or most European nations. It covers two territories that aren’t connected. One is the West Bank (between Israel and Jordan) and the other is Gaza (bordered by Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean). It claims East Jerusalem as its capital, but is run from the West Bank city of Ramallah. Most Palestinian leaders, however, consider all of Israel to be theirs.
What is Hamas?
Founded in 1987, Hamas is a Palestinian-rooted militant group that is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, Israel, and other nations, although not by the United Nations. Israel and Hamas have engaged in various conflicts and wars of varying degrees in recent decades over control of land considered to be holy by each side. Hamas has explicitly stated that its goal is the destruction of Israel as a state.
What are the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
The West Bank is territory located between Israel and the country of Jordan. Gaza is territory that borders Israel and Egypt. Control over these regions also has been the source of continual conflict and war, and there is no international agreement on which country or religious group has rights to them. Many areas that Palestinians claim as their rightful land have been controlled by Israelis for years, sometimes bringing Israel and Palestinians into deadly conflict.
Leadership in those territories, for all practical purposes, is split between two different Palestinian factions. The Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of the Fatah party, is technically in control of both the West Bank and Gaza, but Hamas is effectively in control of the latter .
What is Jerusalem?
Besides the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem is at the center of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel captured all of the city of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, along with the other two territories. Jerusalem straddles the border between Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians regard all three as theirs and want control of them as a future Palestinian state, with the eastern part of Jerusalem to serve as the capital. But Israel annexed East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, although that move has not been recognized internationally. The control of East Jerusalem has been one of the most contentious issues in the failed peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and is home to some of the holiest sites to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Old City of Jerusalem consists of four quarters: the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Armenian quarter, and the Christian quarter.
What’s happened in recent weeks inside Jerusalem?
Israeli police and Palestinian protesters have clashed violently around Jerusalem’s Old City, a walled area of less than a mile in the center of Jerusalem that is the oldest part of Jerusalem. This area constituted the entire area of Jerusalem until the late 19th century. The confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians focused on a disputed hilltop compound within the Old City. Jews refer to the area as the Temple Mount because it was the location of biblical temples. Muslims refer to the plateau as Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), and consider this area the third holiest in Islam. It is the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, another important Islamic shrine. Clashes there last week injured several hundred Palestinians, 21 Israeli police officers, and seven Israeli citizens.
The latest fighting began when Israel moved to block some Palestinian gatherings at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sensitivities. After those restrictions eased, Israel planned to push out dozens of Palestinians from an East Jerusalem neighborhood, which ignited further confrontations.
On May 10, Israelis were to mark Jerusalem Day, a national holiday that celebrates the annexation of the city. Some Israelis, usually religious nationalists, have marched through the Old City as part of that celebration. These marches have been viewed by many Palestians as provocative in nature, especially this year, since they are following other hardline Israeli nationalist events in recent days in Jerusalem that have provoked altercations with Palestinians. This year’s march did not go through Muslim areas.
So, all of these incidents have evolved into a more widespread collision between the two sides?
Yes. On Sunday, Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas pounded each other with airstrikes and rockets in the deadliest day since the conflict erupted last week. Israeli airstrikes destroyed three major buildings in Gaza City, killing at least 42 people, and Hamas launched rockets from inside Gaza, one striking a synagogue .
Might tensions between the two sides cool down?
The situation doesn’t appear to be moving in that direction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the fighting could continue for some time. He said Hamas crossed a “red line” with the rocket launches. “Whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price,” Netanyahu said.
What is the US saying?
President Biden told Netanyahu Wednesday that he “expected a significant de-escalation” in the conflict that would provide a path to a ceasefire. But Netanyahu vowed to continue Israel’s intense airstrikes on Gaza, though he said he appreciated “the support of the American president.” Analysts believe that the White House making the comments public signals that Biden’s patience with Netanyahu is wearing thin.