mideast conflict

History of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict and What's Behind the Latest Clashes

Jerusalem has been the scene of violent confrontations between Jews and Arabs for 100 years and remains one of the most bitterly contested cities on earth

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For weeks now, Palestinian protesters and Israeli police have clashed on a daily basis in and around Jerusalem's Old City, home to major religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the emotional epicenter of the Middle East conflict.

Jerusalem has been the scene of violent confrontations between Jews and Arabs for 100 years and remains one of the most bitterly contested cities on earth. The latest clashes began a month ago with an Israeli move to block some Palestinian gatherings at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, already a time of heightened religious sensitivities. After those restrictions eased, tensions over a plan to evict dozens of Palestinians from an east Jerusalem neighborhood continued to fuel confrontations.

Here's a look at the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, why Jerusalem always seems to be on edge — and what set off the latest round of violence.

WHAT IS PALESTINE?

Until 1948, Palestine typically referred to the geographic region located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Arab people who call this territory home are known as Palestinians since the early 20th century. After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, the British took control of the area. The land was inhabited by a Jewish minority and Arab majority.

Much of this land is now considered present-day Israel. That's because in 1947, after more than two decades of British rule, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine into two sections: an independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state. 

The city of Jerusalem, which was claimed as a capital by both Jews and Palestinians, was to be an international territory with a special status. 

WHAT STARTED THE ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT?

Jewish leaders accepted two-state the plan, but many Palestinians — some of whom had been fighting British interests in the region for decades — opposed it and it was never implemented.

The British withdrew from Palestine in 1949 and Israel declared itself an independent state. Palestinians objected and neighboring Arab countries mobilized to prevent the formation of the Israeli state, sparking the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. By the time the fighting ended a year later, Israel controlled most of the territory under former British Mandate, including a large part of Jerusalem, while Jordan took control of the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza. Over half of the Palestinian Arab population fled or were expelled, according to the UN.

Without an agreement, wars and conflicts continued. In 1967, during what became known as the Six-Day War, Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan, citing Arab aggression at its borders. Israel offered to return the territories in exchange for Arab recognition of the right of Israel to exist and guarantees against future attacks. Arab leaders at the time declined a peace agreement, however, Egypt would eventually negotiate the return of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel.

Israel’s continued occupation of the seized territories and its ruling over millions of Palestinians have sparked decades of conflict and violence. And while the mainstream Palestinian leadership still says it wants a peace deal that includes a two-state solution, Jews continue to build settlements in the occupied lands in a way that makes a future partition difficult, perhaps impossible. And neither side is willing to compromise on terms.

WHY IS JERUSALEM IMPORTANT TO ISRAEL AND PALESTINIANS?

Israel views Jerusalem as its “unified, eternal” capital. It had captured east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, in the 1967 Mideast war, along with the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians want those territories for their future state, with east Jerusalem serving as their eventual capital. But Israel annexed the eastern part of the city in a move not recognized internationally.

The fate of east Jerusalem has been one of the thorniest issues in the peace process, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

Israelis on Monday were set to mark Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the annexation. In past years, thousands of Israelis — mainly religious nationalists — have marched through the Old City, including the densely populated Muslim Quarter, in a display considered provocative by many Palestinians.

In recent days, hard-line Israelis have staged other events in east Jerusalem, leading to scattered, violent altercations with Palestinians.


Fighting between Israel and the militant group Hamas has killed more than 100 people, with the death toll largely among Palestinians, over the past few days, with an exchange of airstrikes and rocket fire escalating to mob violence in the streets. Whether Americans know it or not, our country is already embroiled in this conflict, explains NBC News and MSNBC foreign correspondent Matt Bradley.

DOME OF THE ROCK, WAILING WALL, AL-AQSA MOSQUE: WHY ARE THEY SO IMPORTANT?

This week's clashes took place in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. The mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam and sits on a sprawling plateau that is also home to the iconic golden Dome of the Rock. Muslims refer to the compound as the Noble Sanctuary.

The walled plateau is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, because it was the location of biblical temples. Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D., with only the Western Wall remaining. The mosques were built centuries later.

Neighboring Jordan serves as the custodian of the site, which is operated by an Islamic endowment known as the Waqf. The site is open to tourists during certain times but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is the holiest site where Jews can pray.

In recent years, groups of religious and nationalist Jews escorted by police have been visiting the compound in greater numbers and holding prayers in defiance of rules established after 1967 by Israel, Jordan and Muslim religious authorities. The Palestinians view the frequent visits and attempted prayers by Jews as a provocation, and it often ignites scuffles or more serious violence.

Some Israelis say the site should be open to all worshippers. The Palestinians refuse, fearing that Israel will eventually take over the site or partition it. Israeli officials say they have no intention of changing the status quo.

ARE PALESTINIANS IN EAST JERUSALEM ISRAELI CITIZENS?

Jews born in east Jerusalem are Israeli citizens, while Palestinians from east Jerusalem are granted a form of permanent residency that can be revoked if they live outside the city for an extended period. They can apply for citizenship, but it's a long and uncertain process and most choose not to because they don't recognize Israeli control.

Israel has built Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem that are home to some 220,000 people. It has severely limited the growth of Palestinian neighborhoods, leading to overcrowding and the unauthorized construction of thousands of homes that are at risk of demolition.

The Israeli rights group B'Tselem and the New York-based Human Rights Watch cited the discriminatory policies in east Jerusalem in recent reports arguing that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. Israel rejects those allegations, saying Jerusalem residents are treated equally.

WHAT CAUSED TENSIONS TO ESCALATED IN 2021?

The recent nightly clashes began at the start of Ramadan, when Israeli police placed barriers outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, a popular gathering place after the evening prayers during the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. They later removed the barriers, but then protests escalated over the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The families have been embroiled in a long legal battle with ideological Jewish settlers who seek to acquire property in crowded Palestinian neighborhoods just outside the Old City. Israel portrays it as a private real-estate dispute, but the families' plight has attracted global attention.

Clashes in Jerusalem, and particularly in Al-Aqsa, often reverberate across the region.

Protests have been held in the occupied West Bank and in Arab communities inside Israel. A series of deadly shootings in the West Bank last week has also heightened tensions.

Jordan and other Arab nations that have friendly ties with Israel have condemned its crackdown on the protests, while Israel's archenemy Iran has encouraged Palestinian attacks. The U.S. and the EU have condemned the violence and expressed concern about the evictions.

WHY DO ISRAEL AND HAMAS FIGHT?

Founded in Gaza Strip in 1987, the Palestinian militant group aimed to be a resistance to what they see as Israel's occupation of three territories that Palestinians want to form their future state: Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. 

Hamas gained control of Gaza by first winning elections in 2006 and then through clashes with the Palestine Authority. After its takeover of the coastal strip, Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade. Israel says it's needed to keep Hamas and other militant groups from importing arms. Rights groups say the blockade is a form of collective punishment.

After Hamas launched two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, Israel withdrew its troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2015.

Hamas, which still rules Gaza, is now calling for a new intifada. Gaza militants have fired rockets and balloons with incendiary devices attached to them in support of the protesters as an informal cease-fire with Israel has started to fray. Israel retaliated with hundreds of Israeli strikes from sea, land and air.

It's the fourth round of major conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2008, with the tiny enclave's more than 2 million Palestinian residents bearing the brunt of the deaths and the destruction.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars and several smaller battles. The worst so far was the 2014 war, which lasted for 50 days and killed some 2,200 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side.

Israel's airstrikes and incursions into Gaza have left vast swaths of destruction, with entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and thousands forced to shelter in U.N. schools and other facilities. Israel says it makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using Gazans as human shields.



WHAT IS ISRAEL'S IRON DOME SYSTEM?

The Iron Dome is part of Israel’s multilayered aerial defense system, ranging from systems capable of intercepting rockets fired from short range up to striking long-range missiles outside of the atmosphere.

Iron Dome uses radar, advanced tracking technology and anti-missile batteries to follow the trajectory of an incoming rocket or mortar and determine if it is headed for a major population center. If an urban area is threatened, interceptors are fired to detonate in the air in close proximity to the missile. Projectiles not posing a threat are allowed to fall in empty fields. The system targets short-range rockets with a range between 2 miles and 45 miles; interceptors cost as much $100,000 a piece. It was recently upgraded to cope with an additional array of aerial threats.

Created by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome has shot down thousands of incoming projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip since it was deployed a decade ago.

As of November 2020, the U.S. has provided more than $1.6 billion to help Israel cover costs for batteries, interceptors, production costs and maintenance, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

WHERE DOES HAMAS GET ITS ROCKETS FROM?

Palestinian militants have managed to amass the bulk of their arsenals through a creative and relatively sophisticated manufacturing capability inside the Gaza Strip itself. According to the New York Times, Hamas, aided by Iranian know-how, "repurpose plumbing pipes scavenged from abandoned Israeli settlements and components culled from dud Israeli bombs" to make their own. Some missiles are also believed to have been smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

Experts say estimating the stockpile of Hamas' missiles would be impossible. However, the Times reports that Israeli intelligence estimates Hamas and other military groups have "about 30,000 rockets and mortar projectiles" stashed in Gaza.

The Associated Press/NBC
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