Ceasefire in Israel-Gaza conflict: What's next?

Debris fly as smoke rises following an Israeli air strike, amid Israeli-Palestinian fighting, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - A ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, came into effect early on Friday (May 21) after 11 days of airstrikes and rocket fire.

Here we take a look at how the fighting erupted, the competing claims of victory and what might be achieved by a ceasefire that has halted the worst violence in years.

How did it start?

Tensions initially flared in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli police cracked down on people protesting the planned expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes so Jewish settlers could move in.

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan reached its final days, protesters also repeatedly clashed with Israeli forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site.

That prompted Hamas on May 10 to launch volleys of rockets from Gaza towards Israel, in "solidarity" with Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Israel responded with air and mortar strikes, triggering 11 days of heavy fire between the Jewish state and the Israeli-blockaded, densely populated coastal strip.

What's the human cost?

The Israeli army said more than 4,300 rockets were fired towards the Jewish state by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a faction also party to the ceasefire.

Twelve people were killed in Israel, including a child and a teenager, with one soldier struck by an anti-tank missile, Israeli medics say.

Israeli air strikes meanwhile killed 248 people including 66 children in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

Despite the ceasefire, Gazans, who have been under Israeli blockade for 15 years, "remain trapped on the edge of humanitarian collapse" said Mr Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Israeli security forces and medics at the entrance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, on May 16, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Who won?

Both sides have been quick to claim successes in the fourth war between Hamas and Israel.

"This is the euphoria of victory," senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya told a celebratory crowd of thousands in the hours after the Egypt-brokered truce.

Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the 11-day bombardment of Gaza was an "exceptional success".

Mr Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the right-wing Israeli Kohelet Policy Forum, argued that "just because Hamas are celebrating does not mean they won".

"It was a defensive war," he said on Twitter - so for Israel, "winning brings no gains, just a respite."

For Hamas, Mr Lovatt told AFP, victory "is being seen as defending Palestinian rights, especially in relation to Jerusalem, and facing down Israel".

Meanwhile, the Jewish state "can point to its degradation of Hamas military capabilities which it argues will give Israel a renewed period of calm".

Mr Netanyahu has said the strikes killed "more than 200 terrorists", including 25 senior commanders.

Mr Lovatt said the fighting's "biggest winner may be Netanyahu" himself.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu showing a slideshow during a briefing to ambassadors to Israel at the Hakirya military base, on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The long-serving premier was on the brink of being unseated due to his failure to cobble together a coalition after elections in March, Israel's fourth deadlocked national poll in two years.

"Now, Netanyahu's political fortunes have changed and he seems to back in the saddle," said Mr Lovatt, noting that events in both Gaza and Jerusalem have "fractured" an opposition bloc with deep divisions over the Palestinian issue.

What's next?

With a ceasefire in place, world actors are shifting their focus to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which had already been grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

Just ahead of the truce on Thursday, the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an urgent appeal for US$7 million (S$ 9.32 million) to fund a "comprehensive emergency response".

Then on Friday, WHO spokesman Margaret Harris flagged as a priority "facilitation of immediate or regular access for health supplies, health workers and patients in and out of Gaza and the establishment of humanitarian corridors".

While some of these funds are also destined for the West Bank, the focus is largely on Gaza, whose only Covid-19 testing facility was put out of action by an air strike and where the electricity is only on for around four hours a day.

The UN's Central Emergency Response Fund said its first aid convoys were to pass into Gaza as early as Friday evening, and that it had released US$18.5 million for humanitarian efforts.

Beyond the emergency response, attention will turn to long-term reconstruction in the blockaded enclave.

Palestinians looking at the rubble of the destroyed Al-Shorouq tower after the ceasefire, in Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Strip, on May 21, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this week pledged US$500 million to that end.

Mr Fabrizio Carboni, Near and Middle East regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that "on the blockade, I assume that this is going to be part of a larger political settlement and discussion".

But complications may arise from the fact many foreign governments refuse to engage with Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States who channel their efforts through the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, dominated by Hamas' rival Fatah.

US President Joe Biden "has vowed to work with the PA to rehabilitate Gaza while attempting to sideline and weaken Hamas", said Mr Lovatt.

But given Hamas' power on the ground, "such a policy is not only unrealistic... it promises continued crisis".

"Absent concerted international political engagement to... resolve the core drivers that led to this latest conflict, a fifth war with Israel is only a matter of time."

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