Threats inside and out
Israel-Palestinian conflict flares with new fury
The most common description of life inside Gaza is that it’s like a prison. That’s how I felt entering it in 2010. A lengthy approval process gave me permission to enter, but I wasn’t prepared for the border-crossing mind-flip.
In southern Israel the cars were new and commercial farms at a peak of production—almond and peach trees blooming, orange groves filling the air with sweetness. The Erez Crossing into Gaza was a gray wall of foreboding concrete, broken by observation towers. I passed through a maze of mechanized gates, each closing behind me. No Israeli guards were visible, only disembodied voices giving directions over a loudspeaker.
On the other side of the half-mile tunnel through the buffer zone, young men were digging potatoes and dumping them into a cart pulled by mules. Those carts and beat-up sedans dodged potholes along the road into Gaza City, where high-rises stood bombed and askew, just weeks after another confrontation ended.
Israel and Gaza militants have traded rocket fire in spates of conflict since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. But the assaults of mid-May are unprecedented: Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched more than 2,000 rockets from Gaza in the week ending May 14. That’s about what was fired in a month of Gaza rocket launches during a similar conflict in 2014. The terror groups have upgraded their range and production capability, thanks to help from Iran.
With more long-range rockets, they can hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. By saturating the skies, they can overload Israel’s missile defense system, Iron Dome. Israel saw more casualties in a week of rocket fire in May 2021 than a month in July 2014. Israelis had to remain in bomb shelters, yet a 5-year-old boy died when shrapnel made it through the fortified room where he and his mother took shelter. On both sides, civilians who aren’t terrorists become prisoners, forced to take cover as schools and airports closed.
President Joe Biden spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks. But it is also important to protect civilian life inside Gaza, where residents have no option of fleeing.
Israel’s retaliatory strikes into Gaza also were unprecedented, as Israeli forces targeted high-rises they say housed launchers and rocket production sites. The Palestinian Ministry of Health reported 1,300 injuries and 35 deaths in the West Bank and Gaza on May 15 after one sustained barrage of Israeli airstrikes.
The worst fighting in years began over a long-standing dispute centered in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. There, just outside the walls of the Old City, Palestinians have for decades lived in housing ceded to them by Jordanian authorities controlling most of Jerusalem prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. But Israeli courts have ruled that Jewish religious associations legally owned the homes before the country’s establishment in 1948.
Palestinian families appealed to the Supreme Court after an appeals court decision evicted more than 70 Palestinians currently living in Sheikh Jarrah.
That, coupled with restrictions Muslims faced during Ramadan this year, sparked protests that turned to riots and violence. On May 7 Israeli police, responding to rock throwing and skirmishes, fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located in the Old City on what Jews consider the Temple Mount. Friday worshippers were injured in what for Muslims is the holiest site outside Mecca and Medina.
Violent reactions spread to the mixed Arab, Jewish, and Christian towns in central and northern Israel. In Lod, Arab protesters torched a Jewish synagogue, and a Jewish resident shot dead an Arab man. In Acre and Nazareth, Arab gangs torched restaurants and shops.
Arab Israelis living in these areas are citizens, unlike Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Most have lived peacefully with Jewish and Christian neighbors for decades, but they’ve seen a rise in organized crime prior to this latest violence. “This is new and may be the most disturbing thing that’s happening,” said Robert Nicholson, president of the Philos Project, a U.S. group that sponsors cross-cultural exchanges in Israel among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups.
Israel has long focused on fortifying its borders, including security walls through the West Bank and around Gaza. Now it faces new threats both inside and outside those walls.
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