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The Israel-Hamas ceasefire stopped the fighting — but changed nothing

What the Israel-Hamas ceasefire means (and doesn’t) for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian women sit in the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 21, 2021.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The ceasefire announced Thursday between Israel and Hamas will hopefully end the worst of the violence that in the course of 11 days killed well over 200 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In the narrowest sense, Hamas and Israel have both accomplished their immediate goals. Hamas got to portray itself as the defender of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, where much of the unrest began in recent weeks, and prove its capacity to hit most of Israel with its rockets. Israel, meanwhile, can say it has degraded Hamas’s military capabilities, in particular the underground network of tunnels from which it operates.

Yet the ceasefire does nothing to address the underlying conditions that have fueled the decade-and-a-half standoff between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, nor the issues that sparked this latest round of fighting.

Living conditions in Gaza, long grim, will continue to deteriorate absent a dramatic change to the blockade that restricts most freedom of movement and goods; it has been in place in its current form, imposed by Israel and Egypt, since 2006.

Beyond Gaza, Palestinians continue to face a deeply fragmented, restricted political situation. Those in the West Bank live under a patchwork of authorities — the Palestinian Authority in urban enclaves, a mixed regime in other populated areas, and direct Israeli military control in about 60 percent of the territory where Israeli settlers also live.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are legal residents of the city — which Israel considers united under its sovereignty — but generally lack full citizenship. Inside Israel, Palestinian citizens, who make up about 21 percent of the country’s population, face structural inequalities and political marginalization.

And Israel, whose civilians remain under the threat of Hamas rockets and fearful of the group’s advances in weaponry, is no less likely to respond harshly in the future to rocket fire than it was at the beginning of May. The vast majority of Israelis view Hamas as an unrepentant enemy with no intention of pursuing peace with Israel, and believe it would use any easing of the blockade to further arm itself and threaten Israeli civilians.

With these conditions still in place, the series of events that led to this latest flare-up, though extreme, could easily repeat itself in some variation in the future.

It’s therefore worth taking a closer look at those specific events, and the conditions that produced them, in order to understand where the conflict might go after the ceasefire, and what the prospects are for some kind of resolution to the seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Three Jerusalem flashpoints converge

The city of Jerusalem has for decades been a major focal point of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital.

But three specific sites in and around the old city of Jerusalem emerged as flashpoints in the weeks leading up to the recent outbreak of hostilities: Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem; the Damascus Gate, a northern entrance in the wall of the old city; and al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, located on what is known as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims and to Jews as the Temple Mount (Har HaBayit), the site of the biblical Jewish temples.

Sheikh Jarrah

Sheikh Jarrah is an East Jerusalem neighborhood located just outside the old city that for weeks has been the site of mass demonstrations by Palestinians protesting the imminent evictions of six Arab families from their homes by Israeli courts, to make way for Jewish activists who claim ownership of the land.

The homes in question were built by the Jordanian government in the 1950s for Palestinian refugees from Israel, after Jewish residents fled the neighborhood during the 1948 war and found refuge in Israel.

Israeli law provides Jewish Israelis the chance to reclaim property lost during that conflict — including in Sheikh Jarrah. But it offers no reciprocal right to Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, who lost their homes. In general, Israeli authorities and right-wing NGOs have been working for years to change the demographic balance of the city in favor of Jewish Israelis.

Israeli settlers sit on the rooftop of a house decorated with the Star of David in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on May 15, 2021.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Aryeh King, a far-right activist who is currently deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told the New York Times last week that installing “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem is specifically aimed at making its division impossible. “If we will not be in big numbers and if we will not be at the right places in strategic areas in East Jerusalem,” he said, then future peace negotiators “will try to divide Jerusalem and to give part of Jerusalem to our enemy.”

Naturally, the Palestinians who have lived there since the 1950s strongly oppose these attempts to evict them. The Sheikh Jarrah case has gone all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which was originally scheduled to announce its ruling on May 10.

Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem hold banners as they stage a demonstration to mark the 45th anniversary of Palestinian Land Day on March 30, 2021.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

That these looming evictions could spark wider unrest was entirely foreseeable. On May 4, Daniel Seidemann observed on Twitter that the two “radioactive” issues of Jerusalem and displacement, which are combined in Sheikh Jarrah, “go to the core of Palestinians and Israelis identity,” and warned they could prove explosive.

And sure enough, they did.

To avoid further inflaming the situation, the Supreme Court delayed its ruling the day before it was scheduled, but by that point it was too late. Demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah already included violent clashes with police and extreme right-wing Israeli activists had come to provoke the clashes further.

Damascus Gate

Meanwhile, Damascus Gate, at the northern end of the old city, also became the site of recurrent protests and police crackdowns in recent weeks. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims in Jerusalem often gather on the steps surrounding the Damascus Gate plaza in the evenings as they break their fast.

Palestinians pray at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s old city during Israel’s “Jerusalem Day” on May 10, 2021.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Israeli police officers clash with Palestinians at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s old city during Israel’s “Jerusalem Day” on May 10, 2021.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

But Israeli police limited such gatherings this year for fear of unrest, erecting barriers on the steps to prevent large gatherings. Many came anyway, and on successive nights throughout Ramadan, Israeli police drove them away using stun grenades and other heavy-handed tactics. The police then made an about-face, removing the barriers, but the images of ongoing clashes had already fueled tensions.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

The tension reached its apex in and around al-Aqsa Mosque. Starting in particular during Laylat al-Qadr, one of the holiest nights of Ramadan, and increasing in the following two days, Palestinian demonstrations there had joined those in Sheikh Jarrah and Damascus Gate, and amassed rocks and other simple projectiles in the mosque, in part in preparation for expected confrontations with right-wing Jewish activists who were scheduled to visit Temple Mount.

Israeli police, in a remarkable move — seen by many Israelis as an astounding error and by many Palestinians as a deliberate provocation — entered the mosque itself, during Ramadan, throwing stun grenades and making arrests. More than 200 Palestinians were reportedly injured along with 17 Israeli police officers, in images that reverberated across the Muslim world.

Israeli police use stun grenades and plastic bullets in clashes with Muslim worshippers in the Haram al-Sharif area of al-Aqsa Mosque on May 7, 2021, in East Jerusalem.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On their own, the Sheikh Jarrah evictions touched on fundamental Palestinian fears, evoking the legacy of the Nakba, the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the 1948 war.

Combined with the simmering tensions fueled by the Damascus Gate crackdowns and then images of a violent police raid on al-Aqsa, a central religious and national symbol, Palestinians across the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, and Gaza shared a sense of national and religious outrage.

And then Hamas got involved.

Unrest in Jerusalem turns into a war in Gaza

On the evening of May 10, Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw, by 6 pm, all police from Haram al-Sharif. This was a brazen move, meant as a show of force toward its far stronger enemy. And just after 6 pm, Hamas followed through on its threat, launching six rockets toward Jerusalem.

Hamas rockets fired from Gaza fly toward Israel on May 11, 2021.
Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Up to that point, the younger, grassroots demonstrators in Jerusalem had dominated events, with the main Palestinian political factions — Fatah, the secular party that, through the Palestinian Authority, governs enclaves in the West Bank (though Israel remains in control of most of the territory) and Hamas — noticeably absent.

By launching these rockets, Hamas placed itself back at the center of events, attempting to co-opt Palestinians’ anger and portray itself as the defender of al-Aqsa, a Muslim symbol that Hamas, an Islamist movement, is keen to highlight.

Hamas’s rivalry with Fatah may have also played a role here. In January, the Palestinian Authority announced it would hold elections this summer for the first time since 2006. These would have included both Fatah, led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, as well as other smaller Palestinian factions.

A man uses his phone to film a televised speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the Palestinian elections at a coffee shop in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on April 29, 2021.
Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images

But on April 26, Abbas, fearing he would lose, canceled the elections. That left Hamas no political process through which it could gain power in the West Bank, and may have pushed it to seek other means to capture attention on the Palestinian national stage, showing its relevance and the irrelevance of Fatah.

Israel then responded to those rockets with more than 100 airstrikes on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (another Islamist militant group active in Gaza) targets. Twenty-four Palestinians were killed, including nine children, though Israel claims that six of the children were killed by rockets fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad that fell short of their target.

The following night, Hamas surprised Israel with its ability to launch large numbers of rockets to far greater effective range than in the past, putting most of the Israeli population under fire. A few rockets got through Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and hit Israeli cities.

The Israeli response was been massive and overwhelming, killing more than 200 Palestinians, including many civilians and more than two dozen children, in Gaza, where residents have little refuge; 13 Israelis were killed by rockets and missiles fired from Gaza.

Smoke billows from a building targeted during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on May 20, 2021.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This violence all takes place against the backdrop of a longer conflict that has seethed between Israel and Hamas.

In 2005, Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, as part of its “Disengagement” from Gaza and the Northern West Bank. Hamas subsequently won the Palestinian elections in 2006 and took sole control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, expelling forces of the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority. Israel placed intense restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, and Egypt, which borders Gaza from the south, followed suit.

Since then, three devastating wars between Israel and Hamas and the crushing blockade have left Gaza in a state of deep humanitarian crisis (for more on the situation in Gaza, see this report we co-authored with Hady Amr and Ilan Goldenberg in 2018). The crisis was deepened further this year by the coronavirus pandemic.

The past year has seen efforts to improve the economic situation, especially in the energy sector, with support from the Palestinian Authority and Qatar, and with Israel’s and Hamas’s tacit cooperation, but the humanitarian situation and the prospects for about 2 million Gazans remained very grim even before the latest fighting began.

None of this will be solved by the ceasefire.

What happens now?

Recent weeks have blurred the lines used for decades to delineate this conflict.

Some aspects of the violence are horrifyingly familiar, of course: This is the fourth major conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2006, with Israeli strikes causing mass devastation in Gaza each time.

But in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel itself, Palestinians who have long been divided by their physical geography and by the specific circumstances experienced in those different places are mobilizing in ways not seen in decades, including in a general strike on Tuesday that took place across all these territories.

A Palestinian woman sits in front of shuttered stores in the northern Israeli city of Acre during a general strike on May 18, 2021.
Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

The international perception of Israel’s role in this violence has also shifted, as solidarity with Palestinians grows among Democratic leaders and constituencies in the United States.

These changes mark a departure from previous conflicts, but they do not, in and of themselves, alter the fundamental dynamics between the main players.

Hamas remains entrenched in the Gaza Strip, in full control of the area but with little prospect of extending its power to the West Bank. Israel remains adamant, and is even emboldened, in its desire to block Hamas’s ability to arm itself — meaning that its blockade of the Gaza Strip will likely continue. And Palestinians continue to face varied forms of political fragmentation and discrimination in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and within Israel, though in very different ways.

So while the fire may cease, the underlying conditions that sparked it remain unsolved.

There are no easy fixes in the short term, but a lot can still be done. The Israel-Hamas stalemate is deeply entrenched, but as we argued with colleagues in 2018, there is a chance to change it, modestly but meaningfully, through tacit understandings among Israel, the PA, and Hamas, with support from the US, Israel, Egypt, and the UN Special Representative in Jerusalem.

The broader context, detailed above, would require much more: a real shift of Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue writ large, and a Palestinian leadership able and willing to put its own affairs in order and to deal with Israel productively.

Kevin Huggard is a senior research assistant at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Natan Sachs is the director of the center.