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The Israel-Palestine Conflict, May 2021: A Timeline of Events

By Katie Dominy

The International is no stranger to covering events between Israel and Palestine. 12 months ago, we reported on the Israeli Government’s plans to annex large swathes of the West Bank, which has been under military occupation since 1967. Fast forward to 2021, and we embarked upon a series of articles detailing the history, trajectory, and modern-day contours of this infamous conflict. Our aim was to break down a topic that – although frequently injected with inflammatory rhetoric, zero-sum hatred, and hyperbole – can and should be discussed calmy and constructively. 

Nevertheless, we have (temporarily) halted this article series. After the events of May 2021, it is essential to take stock of this significant new chapter in the Israel-Palestine conflict, document what happened, and explore why the conflict escalated. 

A Timeline of Events

April 2021

Throughout April the spotlight was on Jerusalem, which maintains a unique status under international law. The city holds national and spiritual store for both Israelis and Palestinians, and its legal status is one of Corpus separatum (or ‘separated body’)  – with West Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction, and East Jerusalem desired by Palestinians as the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state. To this day, East Jerusalem is considered ‘occupied’ by the international diplomatic consensus, due to its capture by Israeli forces from Jordanian control during the 1967 Six-Day War. 

In April, tensions heightened over the status of Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighbourhood approximately a mile north of the Old City. Frictions reignited because of the planned evictions of Palestinian families from the neighbourhood. In 1956, the United Nations and Jordan agreed that 28 Palestinian refugee families from Jaffa and Haifa (cities in modern-day Israel) who were displaced in 1948-49 should be granted homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Under Israeli law, Palestinian refugees do not have the right to reclaim their homes/land lost as a result of the Arab-Israeli War and Israel’s Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, Israeli families are permitted to reclaim property in Jerusalem, so long as they can provide proof of Jewish ownership before 1948. 

Starting in 1972, a number of Israeli settler organisations launched legal challenges against Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, citing the buying of the land by a Jewish trust in the 1870s when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, rounds of Palestinian evictions have occurred in 2000, 2002, and 2017. 

The current eviction efforts (which were approved by the Jerusalem District Court) were escalated to the Israeli Supreme Court by Palestinian activists, with a verdict anticipated on 10th May 2021. 

Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelled Sheikh Jarrah as a “real estate dispute”, with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, asserting in a statement:

“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and just as every nation builds in its capital and builds up its capital, we also have the right to build in Jerusalem and to build up Jerusalem.”

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Conversely, Daniel Seidemann, and Israeli human rights lawyer, described the legal proceedings as “a concerted effort to displace the Palestinians who live [in Sheikh Jarrah], and to replace them with biblically motivated settlers.” 

2nd May 2021

Yehuda Guetta, a 19-year-old Israeli student from Jerusalem, was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting at an Israeli bus stop outside the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Guetta later died from his injuries in hospital. Two other Israelis were injured in the attack. Israeli security forces later detained a Palestinian suspect. 

5th May 2021

As Israelis and Palestinians awaited the Supreme Court decision, conflict continues to mount in the West Bank between Palestinians and Israeli forces and settlers. Outside Nablus, Saeed Yusuf Muhammad Oudeh, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, was shot in the back and killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). IDF sources reported Palestinian youth throwing Molotov cocktails at soldiers in the run up to the shooting, but Palestinian rights organisations disputed the allegation that Oudeh was involved. 

7th May 2021

Tensions simmer to boiling point in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Earlier in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli forces had blocked Palestinians from gathering at a popular site in East Jerusalem after prayers. On 7th May, large numbers of Israeli police officers were deployed to Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and the place where 70 000 Palestinians were attending the last Friday Ramadan prayers of the year.  Video footage surfaced of Palestinians throwing rocks, chairs, and shoes at the police; officers fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the worshippers. According to the Palestine Red Crescent, 136 people were injured and 83 required hospitalisation. Later reports stated that 18 Israeli officials were injured. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a briefing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, stating that legal protections were being “applied in an inherently discriminatory manner.” Furthermore, the briefing stressed that Israeli authorities were violating their obligations under international law, and that the forced evictions “may amount to a war crime.” 

8th May 2021

Video footage published in the Times of Israel shows a large group of Palestinian protestors at the Al-Aqsa compound reportedly shouting “Strike Tel Aviv” and “In spirit and in blood, we will redeem Al-Aqsa”. Israeli riot police used water cannons and stun grenades to dispel Palestinian protestors, who threw stones, breached police barriers, and lit fires. According to the Palestine Red Crescent, 80 protestors were injured (including a toddler); Israeli police sources reported at least one injured officer.

9th May 2021

The Israeli Supreme Court delayed the expected verdict on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions for 30 days. 

10th May 2021

Jerusalem Day celebrations were due to take place across Israel, celebrating the anniversary of Israeli forces taking total control of the city in 1967. A group of nationalist settlers planned to march to the Al-Aqsa compound in a “provocative” March of Flags celebration, but were barred by police. At 8am, Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa compound as Palestinians prayed. During the raid, 305 Palestinians were reportedly injured, with around 230 individuals requiring hospitalisation. 21 Israeli officials were injured. Unrest erupts in Sheikh Jarrah, as Israeli police, settlers and Palestinian protestors clash. In the late afternoon, the March of Flags is cancelled amid safety concerns. 

Meanwhile, the Hamas militant group in Gaza issued an ultimatum to the Israeli Government, ordering them to withdraw their forces from the Al-Aqsa compound and Sheikh Jarrah before 6pm local time. Israeli forces did not retreat, and Hamas began to fire rockets into Israeli territory. The Israeli military responded with drone strikes targeting the Gaza Strip, very often in highly built-up areas. 

11th-20th May 2021

The worst violence ensued since the 2014 Gaza War. By 20th May, the IDF disclosed that its airstrikes had hit 1500 Gazan targets. Reports stated that militant groups in Gaza had fired over 4000 rockets into southern and central Israel. In total, an estimated 12 Israelis and 248 Gazans were killed (of whom 1 and 66 were children, respectively). 

Hamas rockets targeted civilian areas in Israel, and flights were diverted from Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. Rocket warning sirens sounded in towns across southern and central Israel, as the Iron Dome system intercepted militant rockets. On 15th May, an Israeli airstrike targeted the Al-Jalaa building in Gaza, home to Associated Press and Al-Jazeera offices. The road to Gaza’s largest hospital and the only COVID-19 testing facility in the Strip were also struck.  

On 20th May, a ceasefire was agreed between Israel and Hamas, with diplomatic support from the United Nations, the United States, Egypt, and Qatar. 

21st May 2021

The ceasefire comes into effect at 2am, and both the Israeli military and Hamas claim victory. President Biden promises an aid package to rebuild Gazan infrastructure. 

23rd May 2021

A Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Mahameed Kiwan, who was reportedly killed in a police shooting donated organs to six people – 5 of whom are Israeli. His father commented, “It is true that my son died, but I want to let people live… Every person deserves respect, and I respect everyone, whether Jews or Arabs.”

Katie Dominy is The International’s Middle East correspondent.