A cease-fire went into effect between Hamas and Israel early Friday in Israel, bringing to end, for now, 11 days of intense fighting. A series of deadly flash points galvanized both sides in a region where the human cost of war has been all too familiar.
Israeli warplanes started bombarding Gaza City on May 10, compounding the civilian suffering in the coastal enclave. At the same time, the rocket barrage by Hamas — the militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007 and does not recognize Israel — took a toll on Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, the commercial center of the country.
As the civilian casualties grew, the conflict polarized Israeli society, and the world, like seldom before, and it has spurred unrest within Israel and the occupied territories that has been more intense than any in years.
Here is what drove the conflict, and the arc it took.
Who was killed?
Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages on Gaza, an impoverished and densely packed area of two million people, killed at least 230 people, including 65 children, and wounded 1,620 as of Thursday, producing stark images of destruction that reverberated around the world.
In the other direction, Hamas missiles rained over Israeli towns and cities, sowing fear and killing at least 12 Israeli residents, including two children — a greater civilian toll within Israel than during the last war, in 2014, which lasted more than seven weeks.
Israeli strategists and representatives described the campaign’s aim to be the destruction of as much of Hamas’s infrastructure as possible, including the group’s network of rocket factories and underground tunnels — a subterranean transit system that the Israel military refers to as “the metro.”
But Israel came under increasing international criticism for the growing number of children that were killed in airstrikes on Gaza. Images of children’s bodies circulated on social media, along with a video of a bereft Gaza father comforting his wailing infant — the only one of his five children to survive an Israeli airstrike. Among the deaths were eight children killed in a single airstrike at a refugee camp.
The conflict has fueled a humanitarian catastrophe that touches nearly every civilian living in Gaza.
On the Israeli side, one of the children killed was a 5-year-old Israeli boy who died after a rocket fired from Gaza made a direct hit on the building next door to his aunt’s apartment, where he was visiting with his mother and older sister.
Some people were also hurt or killed in a burst of unrest in mixed-population cities in Israel, including in Lod, where two people died. And in the occupied West Bank, at least 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces.
How did the current conflict start?
The conflict erupted on May 10, when weeks of simmering tensions in Jerusalem among Palestinian protesters, the police and right-wing Israelis escalated, against the backdrop of a longstanding battle for control of a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The root of the latest violence is an intense dispute over East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Palestinian. Protests had gone on for days ahead of a Supreme Court ruling, originally expected on May 10 but then postponed, on the eviction of several Palestinian families from East Jerusalem. Israeli officials described it as a dispute over real estate. Many Arabs called it part of a wider Israeli campaign to force Palestinians out of the city, describing it as ethnic cleansing.
The protests sharply intensified after Israeli police prevented Palestinians from gathering near one of the Old City’s ancient gates, as they have customarily done during the holy month of Ramadan. The police responded on May 10 by raiding the Aqsa Mosque compound, one of Islam’s holiest sites, to keep Palestinian protesters from throwing stones, they said. Hundreds of Palestinians and a score of police officers were wounded in the skirmish.
Militants in Gaza then began firing rockets in Jerusalem’s direction, to which Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza. Barrages by both sides intensified through the week, as did casualties — though Gazans have suffered a disproportionate number of deaths.
What is the humanitarian situation in Gaza?
Gaza was already suffering under the weight of an indefinite blockade by Israel and Egypt even before the latest conflict. But the battle between Hamas militants and the Israeli military has spurred a devastating humanitarian crisis.
The fighting has damaged 17 hospitals and clinics in Gaza, wrecked its only coronavirus test laboratory, sent fetid wastewater into its streets and broken water pipes serving at least 800,000 people.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Sewage systems inside Gaza have been destroyed. A desalination plant that helped provide fresh water to 250,000 people in the territory is offline. Dozens of schools have been damaged or closed, forcing some 600,000 students to miss classes. Some 72,000 Gazans fled their homes.
What kind of arsenal does Hamas have?
Despite Israel’s surveillance capability and overwhelming military firepower next door, Palestinian militants in Gaza have managed to amass a large arsenal of rockets with enhanced range in the 16 years since Israel vacated the coastal enclave, which it had occupied after the 1967 war.
Hamas, with help from allies outside Gaza — including Iran, according to Israeli and Hamas officials — has parlayed that arsenal into an increasingly lethal threat. Since the conflict erupted last week, Hamas has launched more than 3,000 rockets toward Israeli cities and towns. The intensity of the barrages has put the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, among others, under greater threat than in previous conflicts.
Beyond tunnels and rockets, Israeli military experts and officials say there is another lesser-discussed and murky threat: clandestine naval commandoes entering or hitting Israel by sea, and waging potential attacks at energy facilities or populated settlements. On Monday, Israel’s military released a video showing Israeli defense forces destroying a vessel that it said was suspected of being on its way to carry out an attack on Israeli waters.
What is the Iron Dome?
As the worst violence in years rages, each night the sky is lit up by rockets fired from Gaza, and by the guided projectiles of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system shooting up to counter them. The images of the tense call-and-response barrages have been among the most widely shared online, even as the toll wrought by the violence becomes clear only in the light of the next day’s dawn.
The Iron Dome missile defense system became operational in 2011 and got its biggest first test over eight days in November 2014, when Gaza militants fired some 1,500 rockets aimed at Israel.
While Israeli officials claimed a success rate of up to 90 percent during that conflict, outside experts were skeptical. The system’s interceptors — just 6 inches wide and 10 feet long — rely on miniature sensors and onboard computer processors to zero in on short-range rockets.
Israel has suffered casualties and the psychological terror of incoming rockets, but the system is clearly winnowing out much of the daily rocket fire.
How did the international community respond to the conflict?
A growing chorus of international parties had called on Israel, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza to lay down their weapons.
The cease-fire was mediated by Egypt as neither the United States nor Israel talk directly with Hamas. Egypt has been the interlocutor in concluding rounds of warfare between Israel and Hamas, including the last two big confrontations, in 2008 and 2014.
Anger with Israel spread across the Arab world, with King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday blaming the escalating violence on what he described as Israeli provocations.
France had led efforts to call for a cease-fire at the United Nations Security Council. The United States, Israel’s strongest ally in the United Nations and a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, had opposed even a statement condemning the violence, which many other U.N. members blame on Israel.
On Tuesday, European Union foreign ministers had overwhelmingly called for an immediate cease-fire in an emergency meeting.
How did the last conflict, in 2014, unfold?
In 2014, Israel invaded Gaza after 10 days of aerial bombardment failed to stop Palestinian militants from showering Israeli cities with rockets. The bloody conflict, which lasted for 50 days in July and August, ended in a truce. By then, 2,251 Palestinians, of whom 1,462 were civilians, had died. Israel had lost 67 soldiers and six civilians, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Israeli leaders agreed to to halt hostilities under intense diplomatic pressure and with increasing casualties on both sides. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to calculate that a succession of short truces could be cobbled together to begin unwinding the conflict.
Accepting a truce offered Israel an opportunity to thwart the threat of tunnels being used to attack or kidnap its citizens, without risking more of the civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip that were turning world opinion against it.
Hamas, too, faced pressure to accept the truce, not only from international negotiators but from many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who were suffering under continuous Israeli bombardment and grappling with the devastation and destruction around them.