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The 2021 Gaza war: An overview

Why did Hamas initiate a conflict with Israel on May 10 by launching rockets at Jerusalem?

Rockets fired at Israel by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2021. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Rockets fired at Israel by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2021. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Dore Gold
Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The 2021 Gaza war, which raged from May 10 through May 21, was the fourth (2008, 2012, 2014) military exchange between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian terror organizations, led by Hamas, since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. All these wars were accompanied by Palestinian rocket fire into Israel and attempted infiltration. This raises the question of what Hamas’s motivation to attack is given that Israel already withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip. Was the 2021 Israel-Hamas war a territorial conflict or was it also based on other motivations?

It must be recalled that it was Hamas that fired the opening shots of the war on May 10, when it launched seven missiles on Jerusalem.

The Hamas war against Israel has several historical and especially ideological roots. The 1988 Hamas Covenant plainly stated in its preamble that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam obliterates it just as it obliterated others before.” In Article 13, the Covenant states clearly, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”

According to Article 2 of its Covenant, Hamas is a “wing” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had its own reasons for maintaining armed conflict with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), an Egyptian schoolteacher who strongly believed that the Islamic world needed to recover territories that it lost to the European powers. He mentioned Andalus (Spain), Sicily, Greece and other territories in his writings.

Given this background, Hamas could not be expected to compromise, as it seeks to recover what it considers Islamic land on which Israel was created in 1948, which it still claims.

 The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood evictions

According to Hamas, the 2021 war was caused by Israeli actions in Jerusalem: first, the Palestinian protests around the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Hamas spokesmen argued that Israel was planning to evict residents from that area. But in truth, this was a legal dispute that had been under consideration by Israeli courts for many years.

The roots of the territorial dispute go back to 1876, when the Sephardi Community Council and the Ashkenazi General Council jointly purchased the tomb (as well as 17.5 dunams nearby) of Simon the Righteous (Shimon Hatzadik) from its Arab owners. Simon was a Jewish High Priest who lived in roughly 320 BCE and is described in the Talmud as a Jewish leader who even met with Alexander the Great. The 1876 Ottoman deed to the property gave legal title to land in Sheikh Jarrah to the two Jewish organizations.

Jews gather at the Tomb of Shimon Hatzadik in Sheikh Jarrah on Lag B’Omer circa 1927. Credit: Wikipedia.

The validity of those claims was supported by rulings in the Israeli court system. Palestinian Arab residents moved into Sheikh Jarrah after the First Arab-Israel War in 1948 when the area was conquered by the Arab Legion of Transjordan, and the Jews residing there were evicted. Jordan’s Commissioner for Enemy Property allowed Palestinian refugees to move in. Some of the new Arab residents paid rent, but their leases had expired. Others did not even pay rent and were effectively squatters.

This was not a dispute between indigenous Arab residents and new Israeli “settlers” as it is often portrayed today. The legal battle over Sheikh Jarrah went all the way up to the Israeli Supreme Court, which evaluated the orders issued by lower courts to evict the squatters and ordered Israeli police to enact the ruling.

The Israeli “threat” to the al-Aqsa Mosque

Hamas claims that a second cause of the Gaza attack was events on the Temple Mount, namely Israeli police stopping rioting and stone-throwing from inside the barricaded al-Aqsa Mosque.

Stones stockpiled inside the Al-Aqsa mosque. Source: Twitter, posted by Khaled Abu Toameh, May 10, 2021.

Since the early 20th century, the Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem sought to use the so-called threat to the Muslim religious shrines on the Temple Mount as an instrument to rally public opinion. There are two principal shrines, that Muslim leaders built in the seventh century: the Dome of the Rock (completed in 692 CE) with its impressive gold dome, and the Al-Aqsa mosque, built roughly at the same time, at the southern end of the Temple Mount compound.

The first Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, charged that the Jews wanted to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with the Third Temple. The libel became the fuel for massacres against the Jewish community in Hebron, Jerusalem and Tzfat in 1929. It became an accusation that would enflame Arab opinion more than any other assertion against the Jewish population. Husseini used it to mobilize the Muslim masses. Additionally, in the 1920s, Husseini took responsibility for renovating the shrines that had fallen into disrepair during the period of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1918). The threat to Al-Aqsa was a powerful motto for Husseini’s fundraising activities.

The Western Wall, circa 1920. According to Life Magazine’s John Phillips, the window above the Wall was in the Mufti’s house where he “used to pass his days watching the Jews to see if they committed any crimes” such as bringing chairs or dividers. Credit: Israel National Library via Wikipedia Commons.

In the 1990s, the charge that there was a threat to the al-Aqsa Mosque was amplified by Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. He held mass rallies in Arab towns such as Umm el-Fahm and across Israel. He was well coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. The so-called threat to al-Aqsa became a widespread mantra of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Sunni states despite the fact that it was completely false.

Historically, it is important to recall that Israel limited its own rights on the Temple Mount in an act of self-abnegation. When the area was captured in 1967, during the Six-Day War, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan allowed Jews to visit the Temple Mount but not to pray there. That self-restraint is not widely known.

Alleged Israeli war crimes

At the end of another Gaza conflict, 2014’s “Operation Protective Edge,” Hamas and its allies charged that Israel had committed war crimes against the Palestinian population. The U.N. Human Rights Council convened a Committee of Investigation and arranged that it be chaired by South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone. Probably the worst charge was that Israel had deliberately killed Palestinian civilians. That was utterly false. Months after the release of his report, Goldstone renounced its conclusions.

The international judgment that Israel did not commit war crimes in the 2014 conflict was reinforced by the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking on Nov. 6, 2014, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York City. Dempsey stated: “I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

However, in this latest conflict, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, affiliated with the Israeli Defense Ministry, examined the names of those who were reportedly killed on the Palestinian side during the first days of the war, and it was shown that the vast majority (two-thirds) of them were terrorist operatives. Hamas spokesmen had sought to create the impression that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians killed were civilians. Similarly, claims that Israel killed dozens of Gaza children, propagated by the New York Times with the assistance of a PFLP-affiliated NGO, ignored the 680 Hamas rockets that fell short of Israel and hit Gaza residential areas, killing many residents.

Yet, the UNHRC could not help itself. On May 27, 2021, it adopted Resolution S-30/1 to establish an ongoing international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of international humanitarian law by Israel.

Just as in past rounds of the Gaza conflict, there have been incidents that have drawn considerable attention. On May 15, 2021, the Israeli Air Force struck the al-Jalaa building in Gaza. The building received more attention than usual because it housed international media outlets like Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press. The press claimed that it did not know that Hamas was using the building for signals intelligence operations and electronic warfare designed to jam Israel’s Iron Dome radars, which provided life-saving defense against thousands of rockets. Moreover, just as in its other aerial operations, when it targeted the al-Jalaa building Israel employed an advanced warning system so that Gaza civilians would remain unharmed. In fact, no civilians were harmed when the building was destroyed.

Smoke rising from the Al-Jalaa tower in Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike, which according to the Israel Defense Forces housed Hamas intelligence and weaponry. Several media outlets also had offices in the building, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. May 15, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.

The Iran factor

After the 2017 appointment of Yahya Sinwar as the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Iran revealed an accommodation and both sides spoke openly about their relationship. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, praised Iran for providing money, weapons, and technical assistance to Hamas.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (right) embraces Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Source: Khamenei’s Twitter account, posted May 24, 2021.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a founder of Hamas, disclosed in December 2020 that Iran had donated $22 million in cash to Hamas. The money was given personally by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Sinwar declared at that time that Iran was the “largest backer, financially and militarily,” of Hamas. Hamas is not alone: Ramez al-Halabi, a senior leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, explained that “every weapon” his organization uses was purchased with Iranian funding.

Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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