Analysis: Weekend of violence and rockets amid election uncertainty

Iron Dome intercepts rockets from Gaza. Credit: IDF, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Following several nights of rocket fire from Gaza, Israel has warned Hamas that it will face major retaliation should the attacks continue. Gaza-based armed factions launched more than 40 rockets into Israel over the weekend, against a background of continued unrest in Jerusalem and electoral uncertainty in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

What happened

  • Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted two of five projectiles fired on Sunday night. Four people, including a pregnant woman, were wounded while running to bomb shelters.
  • Meanwhile, access to the Gaza fishing zone has been restricted by Israel in response to attacks from the enclave – a common tool by Israel to put pressure on Hamas, which governs Gaza.
  • The Israeli military notably did not conduct retaliatory strikes in Gaza, in an apparent effort to ease tensions. This represented a break with previous outbreaks of rocket attacks.
  • The launches came hours after Hamas issued a statement calling on “our noble resistance in Gaza to keep their fingers on the trigger, to keep their rockets on standby to target the enemy’s fortresses and military and vital structures”.
  • Two Gaza factions, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, claimed responsibility for the weekend rocket fire. Israel holds Hamas – which governs Gaza and without whose approval rocket attacks would be very difficult to launch – ultimately responsible.

End of a (brief) era

With more than 40 rockets fired into Israel over the weekend, the recent attacks represented the most significant rocket activity launched into Israel since February 2020. The weekend’s outbreak follows a year of relative calm, in part due to the effects of the pandemic and an informal ceasefire with Israel. Indeed, marking Yom HaZikaron earlier this month, Israel saw the second-lowest number of fatalities among its soldiers ever in 2020.

From Gaza to Jerusalem

Palestinian terror groups said that the rocket attacks were in direct retaliation for ongoing unrest in Jerusalem, where Palestinians have been demonstrating for a number of days against restrictions on congregating at the Damascus Gate during Ramadan – a popular gathering place for Palestinians to gather at the end of the daytime fast. Low-level unrest in Jerusalem has taken place nightly since 13 April, when Ramadan began and the restrictions around the Damascus Gate first imposed. The restrictions were in fact lifted an hour before the first rocket was fired, leading to some speculation that the firing was “celebratory” in nature.

Clashes in Jerusalem

Rocket attacks from Gaza were seemingly prompted by events unfolding in Jerusalem in the past week. Jerusalem saw a wave of attacks on Jews over the weekend, including beatings, stone throwing and street harassment. Of particular notoriety were videos posted on the TikTok app, including one clip of an Arab teenager slapping an ultra-orthodox Jewish man on a train, and another in which a Jewish teenager was beaten by Palestinian youths in the street.

Amid the attacks, on Thursday a march was organised by Lehava, a far-right Jewish extremist group opposed to miscegenation, which was intended, in their words, to protect “Jewish honour”. Chanting “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge”, the extremists marched on the Damascus Gate – where Palestinians were already gathered to protest Ramadan restrictions.

More than 100 people and some 20 Israeli police officers were wounded in the ensuing clash, including an officer sustaining head injuries from a rock thrown at him. Israeli police deployed stun grenades and water cannons as they tried to separate the two groups, while stones and bottles were thrown and a car set alight.

The world reacts

Israel’s uncharacteristically muted response to rocket attacks from Gaza reflects its preoccupation elsewhere: with the formation of a government, its ongoing fight against Iranian expansion in Syria, and with the Biden administration’s attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. However, the violence prompted reactions from around the region:

  • Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for “calm on all sides” on Saturday – much to the ire of potential coalition partners on the far right.
  • IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi cancelled a major trip to the United States planned for this week over concerns that the violence could escalate further.
  • The US embassy in Jerusalem called on “responsible voices to end incitement” and expressed its concern over rising ethnic violence in the city, in a statement in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
  • The UAE, which normalised relations with Israel for the first time in August 2020, made a rare intervention condemning the Lehava march and calling on the Israeli authorities “to assume responsibility toward de-escalation”.

Delayed elections

Unrest in both Jerusalem and Gaza this week came against a backdrop of internal political uncertainty for the Palestinians. Elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council and presidency are scheduled for 22 May and 31 July, respectively – the first elections, should they go ahead, within the Palestinian Territories since 2006. Whether the elections will proceed is by no means guaranteed, though. Elections were scheduled for April 2014 and February 2021 before being delayed indefinitely by President Mahmoud Abbas. Conflict between the two main Palestinian parties – Fatah and Hamas – has caused repeated delays, as have demands for East Jerusalem to be included within the elections. Despite claims as late as last week that Abbas was “committed to conducting Palestinian elections in accordance with the presidential decrees and the specified dates”, diplomatic sources have told the Times of Israel that the elections will now likely be postponed. While publicly blaming the East Jerusalem issue, Abbas’s widespread unpopularity is also thought to be a factor.

Clear as mud

Political instability among Palestinians was mirrored in Israeli politics, more than five weeks after Israel’s inconclusive fourth election in two years.

  • Netanyahu is slowly exhausting his options to form a coalition government; his mandate for which is due to expire next week.
  • Most recently, the two opposing extremes of Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners – the Religious Zionists and Islamist Ra’am – traded insults, with Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich calling on Netanyahu to “remove this stupidity [the attempt to form a government with both extremes] from the agenda”.
  • Meanwhile, Netanyahu has reached for increasingly desperate means of staying in power, proposing a one-off direct election to the premiership, and also attempting to revive the former rotation agreement with rival Benny Gantz
  • Netanyahu’s rivals in the ‘change bloc’, headed by Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, remain in communication over a potential anti-Netanyahu coalition, though significant gaps remain between them.

What next?

Monday night saw relative calm both in Gaza, although small clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police took place across Jerusalem, leading to one arrest. On Monday, Israel warned that the IDF would respond powerfully should rocket fire continue, following a long security cabinet meeting. However, Israel’s generally muted response thus far indicates that it hopes to contain future unrest and deescalate tensions.