Avi S. Olitzky
Avi S. Olitzky

What the Heck is Going on in Israel and Gaza?

For so many people here in the United States, the current conflict seemed to happen overnight. But this did not happen overnight—nor did the origin of the chaos happen this past week.

Moreover, some people receive their news from only one outlet (MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, etc), which leads to a univocal point of view. And far more troubling, there is a vast population who receives their news from social media, and often only by way of headlines or unmoderated comments.

When you combine these challenging news-consumption factors with biased reporting (supporting and criticizing Israel, and supporting and criticizing the Palestinians), we find ourselves in a void.

This void is exacerbated because we also find ourselves living in the era without nuance. I have been writing about this lack of nuance for several years and it has reared its ugly head again with regard to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In attempt to return nuance to the conversation, as well as provide information beyond time-limited segments, soundbites, and character space parameters, the following will inform the general public of “what’s going on” how we got here.

Sheikh Jarrah

Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, just over a mile north of the Old City. There is a 13th century tomb, located in the city, where one of Saladin’s physicians (Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi) is buried. For point of clarification, Saladin was a military leader whose army conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders. This was just one flashpoint in the many occupations of Jerusalem.

Toward the second half of the 19th century, the tomb’s surrounding area evolved into a neighborhood for the local Muslim elite. This neighborhood became the first Arab Muslim-majority neighborhood in Jerusalem built outside the walls of the Old City.

Under Ottoman rule, a census was taken in 1905, and the local subdistrict was comprised of several quarters—Muslim quarters known as Sheikh Jarrah, Hayy el-Husayni, Wadi el-Joz and Bab ez-Zahira, and Jewish quarters known as Shimon HaTzadik and Nachalat Shimon. The population counted during this census totaled 167 Muslim families, 97 Jewish families, and 6 Christian families.

Nearly forty years later, the area became a hotbed of rivalry and hostility. One poignant example occurred exactly one month before Israel declared its independence in 1948. 78 Jews were murdered (primarily doctors and nurses) on their way to Hadassah Hospital. Arab forces attacked their medical convoy (passing through Sheikh Jarrah). As a result of this attack, this area (including Mount Scopus) became separated from what we would eventually call West Jerusalem. In fact, for almost the next twenty years, a wall stretched from Sheikh Jarrah to Mandelbaum Gate, dividing the city, sitting on the periphery of a UN-patrolled no-man’s land.

Jordan took control of the area as Custodian of Enemy Property and in 1956 made a deal with UNRWA. This arrangement renounced the refugee status of the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah in exchange for titles of ownership for their homes after three years of residency. Such a title exchange never took place. And additional 28 Palestinian families were relocated to Sheikh Jarrah having left (and in some cases fled) their homes during the 1948 conflict.

Israel eventually reclaimed East Jerusalem (which included Sheikh Jarrah) during 1967’s Six-Day War. Shortly thereafter, it was openly declared in Knesset that “if the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property in East Jerusalem sold a house to someone and received money, this house will not be returned”—meaning that the arrangement with UNWRA would be honored. Decades later, this was not the case.

Over the past 20 years, there have been real estate disputes over the land, with Jews and Arabs both having equal claims (over centuries) to different properties. Indeed, there have been evictions over the past several years, but Israelis and Palestinians were most recently engaged in a court dispute to be heard before the Israeli Supreme Court (which has a sitting Arab Justice). The situation boiled over when radical right-wing Israeli politicians (namely, Itamar ben Gvir) got involved, using this as an opportunity to drum up nationalist support. The hearing (and ruling) on this case was interrupted by rioting and protests. During this unrest, a Palestinian murdered an Israeli teenager and shot two of his friends. Days later, Israeli soldiers in pursuit of the murder suspect shot and killed a Palestinian teenager.

Jerusalem Day

The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine proposed the establishment of two states in British Mandatory Palestine – a Jewish state and an Arab state – and Jerusalem was to be an international city. This meant that it was to be neither exclusively Arab nor Jewish for a period of ten years, at which point a referendum would be held by Jerusalem residents to determine which country to join. Jewish leadership accepted the plan, including the internationalization of Jerusalem— the Arab community rejected the proposal.

Jerusalem was left divided (as mentioned above) between Israel and Jordan following Israel’s War of Independence. Jewish residents were forced out of the Old City and East Jerusalem. Under Jordanian rule, half of the Old City’s fifty-eight synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered for its tombstones, which were then used as paving stones and building materials.

Fast forward to 1967 and the Six-Day War. Before the start of the war, Israel sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan saying that Israel would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank provided the Jordanian front remained quiet.

Jordan (succumbing to Egyptian pressure) nevertheless began shelling civilian locations in Israel. Israel responded on June 6th by opening the eastern front. The following day, June 7, 1967, Israel captured and reclaimed the Old City of Jerusalem.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared later that day: “This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”

This date is celebrated (on the Hebrew calendar) as Jerusalem Day and a parade often marches through the Damascus Gate and the Old City. This year Jerusalem Day coincided with the end of Ramadan.

At the beginning of Ramadan this year, Palestinian youths filmed themselves attacking Jews in Jerusalem and these videos went viral. Rioting led to the placement of security barriers at Damascus Gate. In theory (and according to the Police), these barriers were there to protect worshipers ascending to al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Following international criticism and Palestinian protests, the barriers were removed but the protests continued and grew.

Nakba Day

Nakba means disaster or catastrophe in Arabic. This day is observed on May 15th, the day after the End of the British Mandate for Palestine—and the creation of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat dedicated the day in 1998.

Prior to 1998, in the early 1950s, this day was observed as Palestine Day—a day of international solidarity with the Palestinian people. It was used as an opportunity to criticize and lament the vast Arab world and the Arab League for failing to “save Palestine.”

The last time Nakba Day demonstrations were as volatile as they are now was in 2011, coinciding with the Arab Spring.

Underlying the lament of the day is the notion that with the creation of the State of Israel, and the years leading up to it, there was a mass exodus of Palestinians from Israel. There are conflicting estimates on these numbers—some say 250,000-300,000. But in September 1949, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine went on record with the number 711,000 as the number of Palestinian refugees existing outside Israel. They also stated that 160,000 Palestinian Arabs remained in Israel, 40,000 of them categorized as “internal refugees.”

Palestinian refugee status is the only refugee status in the world that is passed down from generation to generation. Further, when a person is born in another country and is a full-fledged citizen of that country, the UN still considers them a refugee. For example, consider the following scenario: a now grandfather left his home in Tzfat in 1948 at the age of 18. He fled to Lebanon. Lebanon would not grant him (or any other Palestinian refugees) citizenship. He fathers a son in Lebanon in 1960. This son emigrates to the United States in 1985 and fathers a son in Pennsylvania in 1987. This son is now 24 years old, and his wife is pregnant—with a Palestinian refugee.

Palestinian Elections

President Mahmoud Abbas was elected on January 9, 2005 to a four-year term as President of the Palestinian National Authority. However, even though that term expired and subsequent elections were not held, President Abbas extended his term and the PLO Central Council confirmed him as president indefinitely in 2010. President Abbas is technically in the 16th year of a four-year term.

President Abbas had confirmed and coordinated elections to be held next week on May 22nd. However, several weeks ago, President Abbas declared that the participation of the Palestinian people would not be possible (based on what he claimed was Israelis’ impeding on the elections). The truth was that the polls were trending toward an almost-certain Hamas victory and President Abbas interceded to prevent the transition of power.


Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic nationalist political party. But more important is that it is also a fundamentalist terrorist organization. Such a designation is affirmed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan—and of course, Israel. However, these countries are alone is their designation. Brazil, China, Egypt, Iran, Norway, Qatar, Russia, Syria, and Turkey, for example, do not deem Hamas as terrorists.

Hamas was founded in 1987 and in the preamble to its charter, the goal was explicit: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” These words have been translated into action in the form of suicide bombings, stabbings and shootings, kidnappings, and more.

Hamas began as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the First Intifada began, but then won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament in 2006, defeating the PLO-connected Fatah party.

This led to the Battle of Gaza, with Hamas taking control of Gaza, ousting Fatah officials from government positions in the West Bank (literally throwing them off the roofs of some of these government buildings). Egypt, with Israel, imposed an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip predicated on the notion that Fatah security was no longer present.

Hamas has launched over 1500 missiles and rockets (including an explosive-laden drone) at Israel in the past week. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza have called for Muslims all the world over to buy knives and kill Jews wherever they are.

Iron Dome

Created and deployed ten years ago, Iron Dome is a missile defense system that intercepts (and destroys) short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from distances of anywhere between 2.5 miles and 43 miles. It specifically targets only those ballistics with a trajectory that would land in an Israeli populated area.

Iron Dome was funded primarily by United States foreign aid, authorized by a Memorandum of Understanding by Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Further, a large portion of this aid created and funded jobs in the United States—all over the country.

It is important to note that Iron Dome is not an offense system, but a defense system. This system is only deployed to stop attacks. Any suggestion of moral equivalency, that it is “not fair” that the Israelis have such defense systems and the Palestinians do not, fails to recognize that missiles and rockets launched at Israel would fall on populated areas killing hundreds if not thousands—indiscriminately murdering Jews and Muslims alike. Further, Israel would be forced to retaliate with staggering force, leading to the deaths of far greater numbers.

As of today, Israel has launched 700 retaliatory air strikes, with 89 casualties—nearly all of them confirmed as Hamas terrorists. Though every death is tragic and significant, such scale shows that Israel is intentional and surgical in her response.

The Change Block

Israeli political party Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett were working on finalizing coalition agreements to swear in a new Israeli government this past Tuesday. This government not only would have been far more progressive than the current Israeli government, but it would have been a true melting-pot reflective of Israeli society, including not only Islamist parties, but Arab cabinet ministers (for the first time in Israeli history).

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been grasping at straws trying to hold onto leadership and power in Israel. Israel is potentially well on its way to a fifth election in two years—currently operating with a dysfunctional interim government and leader.

But really, what does this all mean?

Not one of these factors has singularly led to riots or unrest. Not one of these factors has led to what is becoming a full-scale war.

It would lack nuance completely to suggest that the tumult we are witnessing in Israel and Gaza is a result of the “occupation.” This is not about “freeing Palestine.” This is not about lifting the oppressed.

We are witnessing horrific nationalism among roving hoards of right-wing Israelis grabbing Arabs off the street and beating them. We are watching what the Mayor of Lod referred to as today’s Kristallnacht, with Arabs burning synagogues and pommeling Israelis on sight.

This is the worst violence we’ve seen in Israel since 2001 and the biggest escalation of the conflict since 2014.

We can long and pray for a two-state solution, and we should—but the land of Israel is comprised of three “states”—the Jewish state, the state of Fatah, and the state of Hamas. The in-feuding between Fatah and Hamas has led to showboating in the form of terror. This is Hamas’ way of demonstrating their assertion of proletarian power over Israel to the Palestinian people. The irony is that Hamas got rich as Gaza got poor. Qatar has been providing $20 million to Gaza each month since 2018, for example, helping Hamas cover the salaries of its staff—and just pledged another $360 million this past January.

And Hamas, even under attack from Israel, has effectively maintained its command and coordination structure.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his attempt to stay in power, is also playing into Israeli nationalist tendencies. Of course, deploying the Israel Defense Forces makes sense—were Canada to launch 1500 rockets into Minnesota, the US would deploy our military without missing a beat.

However, the answer here is not more violence. And the answer here is not more diplomacy. The answer is new leadership—for the Israelis and for the Palestinians.

More importantly, the answer is definitely not for our elected officials and members of congress to tweet and post and issue statements that lack nuance and understanding of the history and depth of these millennia-old challenges. This is not really about claims to the land. This is not about open-air prisons. This is not about blockades.

This is about Jewish liberation and self-determination in the ancestral Jewish homeland. This is about the pursuit of pan-Arabism. This is not colonialism. This is not about borders or war perimeters or lines. Jews were expelled 2,000 years ago. It is not about who came first or last.  This is about navigating a way to exist with those who are there now.

And sadly, the dastardly undertone of all of this is an air of anti-Semitism. Jews all over the world are getting attacked and harassed all in the name of “taking the fight to Israel.”

Indeed, our charge should be to hear the other—to listen to one another. But it also must be to speak truth to power, especially when the world is getting fiercely polluted by 140- and 280- character false truths.

We must be the Iron Dome for misinformation. It is not about choosing sides. It’s about choosing facts.

And the fact is that this conflict did not start or happen overnight and did not start this week. And it won’t resolve overnight either. But we can be the ones to help end the conflict if we remain informed and do not fuel the fire of fabrication and misunderstanding.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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