15 May, 2022
by Sam Biden, Global Leadership Fellow
For nearly 80 years, the relationship between the Palestinians and Israelis has soured in a violent and indiscriminate manner.
In 1948, a regional conflict grew as Israel battled for independence. They achieved this independence the same year, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee the now Israeli-controlled territory.
19 years later, a ‘six-day war’ began between Israel and Egypt as Israeli forces bombed Egyptian airfields. The continued blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, a key trade route, exacerbated the violence, eventually leading to an Israeli victory as they captured the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank and Golan Heights. In 1973, a surprise attack by the Arab-led coalition of Egypt and Syria led to significant ground being recaptured. However, with aid from the US and other allies supplied to Israel, the coalition’s effort soon crumbled.
In 1987, a major Palestinian uprising occurred. Known as the first ‘intifada’ in Arabic or ‘waking up’ in English, over 1,000 Palestinians were killed during a six-year period. Often referred to as a revolution, the uprising spawned a new group called Hamas which subsequently emerged from the debris of their own destroyed surroundings. Hamas has continued to be a key player in the conflict with its terroristic attitude and effort to force new ideologies upon its conflicting rivals. At the end of the six-year battle in 1993, the Oslo accords were signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization as an attempt to bring about peace in the region. The Oslo accords led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, a body designed to oversee administrative affairs in Gaza and the West Bank. Despite this new authority, difficulties continued to develop surrounding Israeli settlements in the West Bank as well as the claimed status of Jerusalem as the ‘true capital’ by Palestinians. In 2000, the second intifada began after a visit from the controversial right-wing political figure, Ariel Sharon. Riots resulted in clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, leaving hundreds dead as of 2005. This clash would eventually result in a victory for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections, causing increased tensions between Hamas and Fatah, their Palestinian political rival. This ultimately led to violence and a split between Fatah, who were left governing the West Bank, and Hamas, who dominated Gaza.
A steep rise in violence would manifest from 2008-2021. In late 2008, Israel launched a flurry of attacks on Gaza, resulting in the deaths of 1,110 Palestinians as well as 13 Israelis. In 2012, Israel would successfully execute the second-in-command of Hamas and fierce rival, Ahmed Jabari. Jabari’s death came after a week-long effort to weaken Hamas, including a plethora of artillery and rocket fire. Two years later, one of the bloodiest events in the conflict occurred over 7 weeks. When Hamas killed three kidnapped Israeli militants, Israel was prompted into a violent and overbearing response. The seven-week conflict left over 2,200 Palestinians dead alongside 67 Israeli soldiers. Four years later, mass protests erupted in Gaza, inducing protestors to launch rocks and gasoline bombs at their Israeli enemy. Over the coming months, these protests would have 170 deaths associated with retaliation from Israel.
Fast forward to 2021, a precursor to the 2022 al-Aqsa attack would take place. Israeli police led a raid on the al-Aqsa mosque, a pinnacle representation of Islamic culture in the region. As a response, both Palestinians and Israelis launched thousands of rockets back and forth against each other. This resulted in the deaths of 200 Palestinians and 10 Israelis.
Following this horrific assault, the al-Aqsa mosque would once again be targeted.
al-Aqsa Mosque Attack – April 15 2022
Last month, 23 Palestinians were killed and another 541 were injured by Israeli Security Forces (ISF) during an assault on the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Mosque is located in Jerusalem’s Old City in an area known as the ‘Noble Sanctuary’ and is housed alongside the Dome of the Rock and other Islamic shrines.
In the early hours of 15 April, Israeli police entered the area shortly after morning prayers. It must be noted that Ramadan was then being celebrated, increasing the concentration of worshippers at the Mosque. Ramadan is also currently overlapping with Jewish Passover, causing an already tense relationship to be strained further. Alongside this, Israeli police have been restricting access to the Mosque, causing many Muslims to feel they cannot celebrate Ramadan in peace. Dozens of masked men who were allegedly carrying Hamas and Palestinian flags marched upon the Mosque. Video footage shows officers using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds which were allegedly throwing firecrackers and stones at police.
The al-Aqsa attack caused further tensions to rise as violence in the West Bank began to soar. Both a Palestinian man and an Israeli guard have been killed in separate incidents since the raid. Israeli forces killed another Palestinian man in the Northern region of the West Bank. Additionally, Palestinian activist Yahya Adwan was killed by the Israeli army during an operation in the West Bank. Another attack left an Israeli guard dead while on duty at the Ariel settlement. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a coalition of armed Palestinian groups claimed responsibility, saying:
“We claim responsibility for the heroic operation in the colony of Ariel in which a Zionist officer was killed, in response to violations committed by the occupation government in Jerusalem”
This ‘heroic’ effort was congratulated further by Hazem Qassem, the spokesman for Hamas. He cites the attack on the ‘Zionist’ officer as a response to the assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque a few days prior.
The attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque marks a turning point in the conflict. Given the nature of the ongoing religious celebrations, the attack came at what appears to be a targeted time. The cultural suppression of Ramadan at its height is reflective of the distasteful attitude both parties have towards each other. This raises one key concern; will we see another 11-day bloodbath?
An 11-Day Repeat?
On May 10 2021, the beginning of an 11-day war would erupt. Hamas began by launching long-range rockets toward Jerusalem in retaliation to protests between Palestinians and Israeli police at the al-Aqsa Mosque. In total, over 4000 rockets were fired into Israel over the period, resulting in 230 Palestinian deaths alongside 1,710 injuries. Twelve Israelis were killed during the 11 days, two of which were children. Hamas flags flew in celebration of the attack as hundreds of Palestinians gathered outside the house of Mohammed Dief, the Hamas commander who ordered the attacks.
There are clear similarities between the 11-day war and the 2022 attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque. Firstly, the attack was targeted in some part towards the Mosque in both instances as retaliation for prior unrest and attacks. The targeting of the Mosque is not merely of territorial or military significance, but of cultural significance. The bitter rivalry between the two religions in the region only lends credence to the targeting of the Mosque as persecutory. Therefore, there is no coincidence that the unrest caused in 2021 has been replicated in 2022 with the same methodology. As has been seen, violence in the West Bank escalated in the wake of the recent al-Aqsa attack, a mirror of the attack the year prior. It appears that both the Palestinians and Israelis are ignoring their obligations towards civilian life but are choosing to do so alongside the attempted destruction of cultural significance.
Conflating Civilians & Combatants
1. Article 48
This Article states that parties to a conflict must always distinguish between civilians and combatants. Civilians are those that do not fall under either the category of prisoners of war or members of the armed forces. However, they can lose this status if they take up arms, in this instance, they will be considered combatants.
Between 2008-2022 there were 6,030 civilian Palestinian deaths and 268 Israeli deaths respectively. Additionally, a total of 137,347 Palestinian injuries and 5,912 Israeli injuries have been recorded in the same time frame. It is clear one side of the conflict is failing to enforce the principle of distinction more than the other. Regardless of this, both sides have violated the principle of distinction. The use of weaponry with larger areas of effects, such as airstrikes, is prone to causing indirect civilian deaths. Therefore, their use must be restricted to situations where the risk of civilian death, injury or damage to protected objects is zero.
Regarding the above restriction, it is clear neither party to the conflict is taking due precautions with their attacks, specifically those involving the al-Aqsa Mosque. What appears to be occurring is a three-stage process. First, some form of unrest from one of the parties sparks a clash between the protestors and the State. Second, the State violently and disproportionately reacts to the unrest by deploying lethal force as well as force amounting to inhuman treatment, such as tasers. Third, in retaliation to this disproportionate force, the similar disproportionate use of heavy weaponry is used to assert dominance over the initial retaliating party. This process is then repeated over and over. This cycling conduct is not only putting civilians at risk but is directly and knowingly causing their deaths and injuries. All parties to the conflict must always protect the civilian population from these effects, yet both primary groups are failing to do so.
2. Article 51
This Article states that attacks shall be strictly limited to military objectives. These are defined as objectives that because of their nature, location, purpose or use would make an effective contribution to the war effort if they are captured, destroyed or neutralized. In such contested territories, such as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the establishment of concrete military objectives may appear difficult. This has resulted in Israel bombing a number of civilian objects such as apartments, offices, government buildings and civilian-owned businesses. These kinds of attacks, even if they would make an effective contribution to the war effort, are unlawful. The nature of these destroyed territories is civilian, not military.
Israel has a controversial history of interpreting military objectives through its own legal paradigm. This history is most clearly encompassed by three military operations: Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge.
Cast Lead involved the destruction of over 3,500 houses with another 2,870-sustaining serious damage, 20,000 people were left homeless, 1,400 people were killed and nearly 700 businesses were destroyed or damaged. This operation shows the true scale of Israel’s ignorance towards civilian objects, so much so that they justify their destruction on the grounds of military advantages. Pillar of Defense saw similar destruction. The operation targeted hidden Hamas sites buried in civilian territories and buildings. As a result of these indiscriminate attacks on civilian objects, 167 Palestinians were killed, of which 32 were children. Of the 167 killed, only 62 fell under combatants, meaning half of the targets were known to be civilian and residing within civilian objects. Protective Edge displayed perhaps the most distressing outcome of the three efforts. Over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, alongside 18,000 destroyed homes and 100,000 people were rendered homeless.
It is clear from the above statistics that Israel has failed on multiple occasions to distinguish between not only civilians and combatants, but civilian and military objectives. The wide destruction of homes and schools lends credence to the claim that the conflict is not operating within the approved IHL standard setting.
The al-Aqsa mosque attack is a sad repeat of the attack the year prior in which parties to the conflict chose to ignore their international obligations in pursuit of control over the notorious West Bank and Gaza Strip. Peace settlements between the parties appear to have fallen upon deaf ears. The cycling pattern of unrest, disproportionate violence by the state, retaliation by the opposing party and the lack of investigations has been repeating itself for at least the last 10 years.
If the conflict is to continue in a legal manner, all parties to the conflict must understand the indiscriminate use of rocket/artillery to clear large areas will only result in more innocent lives being lost. Precautious measures have supposedly been employed before attacks, yet many have failed to flee out of fear or confusion. As a result of this, both parties have launched attacks regardless of whether the evacuation has been completed or not. Precautious measures must ensure not only that due warning is given, but due warning is taken, in this case, this has simply not occurred.