by Alan Heil
It’s over, the latest spasm of severe strife in the heart of the Middle East. An 11-day conflict between Israel and Gaza has ended in what appeared May 21 to be a durable ceasefire, for now at least.
Once again, there was a horrific Arab-Israeli death toll in the May fighting: 232 in Gaza, and 12 in Israel. As Charles Lipson of Real Clear Politics cautioned: “The ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, doesn’t come with a long-term warranty. Ceasefires (between Israel and its Arab neighbors) are fragile. It is far short of a peace deal and even farther from resolving the Palestinian conflict.”
The current breakthrough occurred when President Biden made a direct appeal to Israel on May 19 to cease its rocket attacks. European Union nations had also urged a ceasefire. Israelis and Gazans had been exchanging fatal rocket attacks with each other since May 10, and there were even occasional volleys from neighboring Lebanon.
The wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged with intermittent wars for nearly three-quarters of a century since modern Israel was founded in 1948. Gaza is a tiny Palestinian-controlled territory adjacent to Israel on the Mediterranean coast. The latest Mideast crisis had erupted on May 10 as Israel responded to then escalating rocket attacks from Gaza.
What lies ahead in 2021?
Several scenarios are possible:
*A pause, then the resumption of hostilities. The cost in lives, especially on Gaza’s side, would seem likely to stem any immediate return to war but we’ve seen this countless times in the past eight decades.
*International pressures on all sides to prevent fresh outbreaks between Middle East foes. EU countries, particularly, and parties in Asia and Africa concerned about yet another eastern Mediterranean conflict would be likely to join Washington in opposing any actions from either side that might trigger yet another round of Arab-Israeli strife.
Think of the Mideast wars in 1948, when Israel won its independence, in 1956 when control of the Suez Canal was at stake, or successive wars in 1967, 1973, 1982, and 1991. No reliable authoritative death toll has been compiled, but historical texts say that millions, perhaps even tens of millions of military and civilian lives were lost.
As for this year’s conflict, President Biden welcomed the end of the latest flareup. “These hostilities,” the President said, “have resulted in the tragic deaths of so many civilians, including children, and I send my sincere condolences to all families — Israeli and Palestinian — who have lost their loved ones. I believe both sides equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.”
Photos on the front page of the Washington Post May 21 displayed two giant photos of the destruction caused by the latest flareup. One showed a photo of a woman boiling water in her kitchen in Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip. The floor, wall to wall, was littered with debris from aerial bombing during the recent hostilities.
Another photo showed a conversation between another woman and her friend in a residential kitchen in Ashkelon, Israel, its ceiling shattered by those same hostilities, and a huge patch of ceiling with twisted iron bars in an opening to the sunlit sky above.
Events to watch for in the last week of a deadly May 2021As May drew to a close, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken hastened to the Middle East in an effort to defuse the latest crisis. Mr. Blinken on May 23 warned on ABC’s This Week of a “grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. It was quiet diplomacy that got us where we needed to be. The goal,” he added, “is to stop more suffering and to at least put ourselves in a position to build something more positive. That has to start now as we deal with the Gaza crisis.”
On May 24, a modest positive signal was a decision by Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency to extend a recently expired monitoring agreement on Iran’s nuclear capabilities by one month until late June.
We can only hope that Israelis, Palestinians on both sides of a seemingly never-ending dispute will re-double efforts, with the active help of the U.S. European and even some Persian Gulf powers to promote a significant turn toward peace in this costly multi-generational conflict.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More