Israel-Palestine: What would turn current conflict into all-out war?

Fears violence could escalate further as Israel stations combat troops along Gaza border and prepares ground operations, while Hamas calls for full-scale uprising

Chiara Giordano
Thursday 13 May 2021 15:27
Series of explosions seen on Gaza skyline

As Gaza and Israel continue to trade rockets and airstrikes, fears are growing that the violence could escalate into an all-out war.

The violence has reached deeper into Israel than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Arab and Jewish mobs are rampaging through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars, and flights have been cancelled or diverted away from the country's main airport.

The escalating fighting between the Israeli military and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has echoed - and perhaps even exceeded - their devastating 2014 war.

That conflict and two others were largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier.

But this round – which, like the intifada, began in Jerusalem - seems to be rippling far and wide.

Israel launched a major military offensive in the Gaza Strip on Monday night after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for hostilities, the tensions go further back than that with Israel regarding the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.

Rockets have streamed out of Gaza in response to Israel pounding the territory with airstrikes in the most severe outbreak of violence in the Middle East since the 50-day war in 2014.

Gaza's Health Ministry said the death toll had climbed to 83 Palestinians, including 17 children and seven women, on Thursday, with more than 480 people wounded.

Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, acknowledged a top commander and several other members were killed. Israel claimed the number of militants killed was much higher than Hamas had acknowledged.

Hamas said it was ready for a ceasefire on Wednesday, on the condition Israel stopped its attacks and the international community pressured the Jewish state to stop using force at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque.

A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunish following an Israeli airstrike on targets in the southern Gaza strip

But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the peace offering and pressed ahead with preparations for a potential ground invasion.

The two sides appear to be at an impasse, stoking fears the conflict could turn into an all-out war.

A military spokesman said Israel had prepared combat troops along the Gaza border and was in “various stages of preparing ground operations” – a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2008-2009.

Mr Netanyahu has vowed to expand the offensive, threatening to inflict blows on Hamas “that they couldn’t even dream of” and warning that he is prepared to use an “iron fist if necessary” to calm the violence.

Hamas, meanwhile, has called for a full-scale uprising.

Benny Gantz, the Israeli defence minister, said his country was not preparing for a ceasefire and would stop military action only when it had achieved “complete quiet”.

Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, meanwhile, has warned of a “senseless civil war” between the country’s Arabs and Jews.

US president Joe Biden said he expected the cycle of violence would end soon following a phone call with Mr Netanyahu – adding that Israel “has a right to defend itself”.

Israeli soldiers take cover at their position near Sderot in southern Israel on the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip during shelling

But there has been no sign that either side is willing to back down, and the escalating conflict has led to an alarmed United Nations (UN) warning of the possibility of “all-out war”.

Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, cautioned the violence was “escalating towards a full-scale war” and called for both sides to “stop the fire immediately”.

International leaders have also rushed to call for a de-escalation of violence.

British prime minister Boris Johnson has appealed for an “urgent de-escalation” and urged both sides to “step back from the brink”, while the US is so concerned it has dispatched secretary of state Antony Blinken to meet with Israelis and Palestinians in the hope of convincing both sides to calm the flare-up.

While world leaders and key players will be keen to avoid declaring the conflict a war, there is no denying the current fighting is the most widespread since 2014 – and Hamas has targeted further inside Israel than it has dared to before.

This, coupled with the fact neither side is showing any indication of giving up, will make the situation concerning for many Middle East observers.

But all they can do for now is hope the situation deescalates and the loss of innocent civilian lives a war would inevitably induce is prevented.

Additional reporting by agencies

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