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Explainer: How did the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis emerge?

Tensions in the region had been simmering for over a month but they boiled over this week.
Tension over possible eviction of several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood
A Palestinian man prays as Israeli police gather during clashes at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on May 7.Ammar Awad / Reuters

Tensions have been simmering for over a month, but this week they boiled over as violence exploded between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza and while Israel initially responded with airstrikes, on Thursday its artillery began targeting positions in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

But what prompted the latest escalation of violence?

Roots of the current crisis

Tensions started to brew at the start of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan in mid-April when Israeli police put up barriers at the Damascus Gate on the north side of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where Muslim worshippers gather after their evening prayers at the Al-Asqa Mosque.

Thousands of Palestinians descended on the area to protest the policy, with dozens hurt in clashes with police and nationalist Israelis that saw crowds hurl firecrackers, stones and other objects while police responded with stun grenades and water cannons.

Elsewhere, in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, tensions were high over a long-running legal case that left four Palestinian families facing eviction from their homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers. The case was set to be heard by Israel’s Supreme Court, although the hearing was postponed as protests grew.

Clashes then took place in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, which sits in a compound sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and led the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, to threaten that Israel would pay a heavy price.

On Monday, it began firing rockets toward Jerusalem. Israel initially responded with bombardments of the tiny, impoverished Gaza, home to 2 million Palestinians, but on Thursday tanks within Israel’s borders began joining the attacks on positions in the enclave as Hamas rockets continued to strike.

Flashpoint Jerusalem

After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, east Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan, while the west of the city was controlled by Israelis.

This changed after Israel captured the eastern part of the city during the Six-Day War in 1967, when it also took the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula, although this was later returned to Egypt.

East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Gaza are still considered occupied territory under United Nations Security Council resolutions. Israeli settlements in occupied territory are also considered illegal by most nations.

Image: Israeli soldiers celebrate the capture of Old Jerusalem from the Jordanians. They cheer in front of the Dome of the Rock, a mosque sacred to all Muslims.
Israeli soldiers celebrate the capture of Old Jerusalem from the Jordanians by cheering in front of the Dome of the Rock in 1967.Bettmann / Getty file

Within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City is a sprawling plateau, which Jews call the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and historically known as the site of the two biblical temples. The walled plateau, which Muslims refer to as the Noble Sanctuary, is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine and is also venerated in Christianity.

Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern section as a capital of a future state.

So former President Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018 enraged Palestinians, some of their Western allies and Muslims across the world, and left many Arabs afraid they will eventually be forced out of the city.

Evictions in east Jerusalem

Anger over the long-running legal case involving the homes of the four Palestinian families on land claimed by Jewish settlers has added to tensions in the city.

Israeli settlers dance in front of a house decorated with the Star of David in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on May 9, 2021.
Israeli settlers dance in front of a house decorated with the Star of David in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on May 9. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

Palestinian families have lived in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood for decades, but the settler groups claim the land the houses were built on was originally owned by Jewish organizations before 1948.

Israel has tried to portray the case as a real estate dispute between private parties, but the treatment of the homeowners has drawn international criticism.

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Activists say the legal battle in Sheikh Jarrah is one part of a systematic effort by settler groups to change the demography of east Jerusalem by displacing Palestinians and moving Jewish people to the area.

Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem 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.

Israel’s Supreme Court was set to hear appeals against the planned evictions Monday, but delayed the hearing because of the escalation of fighting.

Politics plays a role

The increased tensions have come amid a power vacuum in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

After the country’s fourth election in two years failed to produce a governing majority, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption — missed the deadline to form a new government earlier this month, granting the opposition a chance to do so.

But this week’s violence has sidelined those efforts, with negotiations to form a new coalition suspended due to the deteriorating situation and Netanyahu looking set to hold on to power in the short term at least.

On the other side, Palestinians were due to hold their first elections in more than 15 years this month, but they were postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party controls much of the West Bank. He blamed Israel for refusing to allow voting in east Jerusalem, but many Palestinian voters decried it as an excuse to avoid the elections, which Abbas looked set to lose.

Image: Israeli PM Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian President Abbas during funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, in September 2016.Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office / Reuters file

Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, has ruled Gaza since 2006. Since then, it has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt, leaving the economy in tatters.

Human rights groups say residents are forced to live with scarce food, medicine and electricity. But Hamas was nonetheless expected to do well in elections.

Peace process?

The U.S., along with many other nations, has long supported a so-called two-state solution, which has been accepted in diplomatic circles since the mid-1990s as the only way to ensure peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.

But decades of peace talks, sometimes mediated by the U.S., have failed to achieve a solution.

Trump made the conflict a centerpiece of his foreign policy, proposing a peace plan early last year that he said would create a conditional path to statehood for Palestinians while recognizing Israeli sovereignty over a significant portion of the West Bank.

It was rejected by the Palestinians and criticized by many analysts.

With a new administration in office, President Joe Biden has so far signaled little interest in reviving the peace process. But the most recent escalation, and pressure from within his own party, could force it higher on his agenda.