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Peace and Conflict

Summary of the May 2023 Israel-Gaza escalation

See a timeline of events during the most recent Israel-Gaza flareup

This article was compiled by David Legmann, UJS’s Israel Engagement sabb

Renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups began earlier this month. Following a lull in the violence, the flareup has recently re-escalated, with prospects for a more durable ceasefire increasingly uncertain.

Below is a timeline of the events.

2 May

Khader Adnan, a senior figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror organisation, dies while in Israeli custody following an 86-day-long hunger strike protesting his administrative detention; the first such fatality in over three decades.

2-3 May

Blaming Israel for Adnan's death, PIJ 'responds' with multiple rounds of short-range rocket fire indiscriminately targeting Israeli communities near Gaza. Over 100 rockets are launched: the vast majority are either intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, fall short or land in unpopulated Israeli territory.

However, Israeli police reports dealing with at least five rocket impact sites in urban areas. One rocket causes serious damage to a construction site in the small southern city of Sderot, injuring three foreign nationals.

In response, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) conducts multiple airstrikes targeting terror infrastructure across Gaza. According to Palestinian health officials, one 58-year-old Palestinian civilian is killed and five others are injured.

A truce mediated by Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials is announced in the early hours of 3 May for 4 am (Israel time). However, PIJ continues its rocket fire until 5.36 am, effectively getting the final word.

3-8 May

Domestic political pressure increases within Israel for a harsher military response to PIJ's earlier rocket fire. The leadership is criticised by many, including by factions in the governing coalition itself and otherwise supportive right-wing voters, for its allegedly insufficient response.

A widely-covered protest in the affected city of Sderot (which voted heavily for government parties) further compounds this criticism, with the far-right coalition party Otzma Yehudit's boycott of Knesset sessions heaping further pressure on the leadership to take tougher action.

Some political analysts argue that the above pressures would play a decisive role in determining subsequent Israeli measures (see below). Others dispute this view however, citing government sources suggesting those actions were planned in advance, apolitically and via a wholly professional security lens.

8-9 May

In conjunction with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Israel's government launches an air-based military operation on Gaza, codenamed "Shield and Arrow", on 8 May. Targeted assassinations feature heavily at the start of this operation, with three senior PIJ commanders taken out by precision strikes on their homes. However, both Israeli and Palestinian officials also confirm the deaths of about ten civilians including children amidst the airstrikes, most of them immediate relatives of the PIJ commanders at home with them while they were targeted.

Subsequent strikes ensue, targeting PIJ infrastructure across the Gaza Strip. Unusually, Palestinian factions fail to quickly respond to these, opting instead to try installing an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among Israelis while an 'abnormally severe' response is supposedly prepared to avenge the eliminated PIJ leaders. Pre-empting an increased terror threat, Israel closes all its border crossings with Gaza.

10-11 May

An uptick in Israeli airstrikes during the morning of 10 May, coupled with growing domestic pressure within Gaza for immediate action, ultimately triggers massive barrages of rocket fire spearheaded by PIJ with broad support from the other armed factions. The rocket fire is significantly more extensive than during 2-3 May, featuring mid-range rockets aimed as far north as Tel Aviv and over 800 projectiles in total as of 9.30 pm (Israel time), 11 May.

While missile defence systems intercept most inbound rockets, some homes and other civilian infrastructure suffer damages, with one apartment block in Rehovot seriously impacted in an incident which saw one 80-year-old woman killed and five others wounded. A couple of other injuries are also reported across more southern parts of the country. Moreover, millions of Israelis are forced to scramble to air raid shelters and at least 45 suffer indirect panic-related injuries according to Magen David Adom, with ordinary life heavily disrupted in many areas.

Meanwhile the IAF continues to strike PIJ positions in Gaza, partly in response to the latest rounds of rocket fire starting 10 May. Further targeted assassinations are conducted on 11 May, with both head and deputy head commanders of PIJ's rocket array eliminated. Amid the ongoing operation, many buildings are damaged and the death toll in Gaza grows to about 25, with dozens more injured.*

12 May

Following a brief lull in PIJ rocket fire starting 10 pm (Israel time) the previous day during which hopes of a ceasefire had grown, a large barrage is launched the morning of 12 May. Among other affected areas, mid-range rockets target the Jerusalem area for the first time. While most oncoming fire is successfully intercepted, some homes and a greenhouse suffer light damages in a couple of southern border locations. In this latest barrage and ensuing bouts of rocket fire throughout the day, no Israeli casualties are reported.

This new barrage was preceded by sporadic Israeli airstrikes which had continued overnight from the previous day, though these were casualty-free and mainly targeted PIJ observation posts.

Amid continuing rocket fire, the IAF responds with a fresh round of intensive airstrikes. PIJ command centres are once again targeted, with another top PIJ commander (the "head of operations") eliminated and other casualties are also reported. As the tightened security blockade of Gaza starting 8 May continues, Palestinian officials begin reporting severe pressures on fuel supplies and several food products within the enclave.

13 May

Very similar events to the previous day, with sporadic overnight casualty-free IAF airstrikes followed by further PIJ rocket fire in the morning. Throughout the day, rockets primarily target short-range locations with a couple of mid-range bouts aimed towards Israel's centre, as the IDF continues its operation in Gaza. In one rocket attack, a 35-year-old Gazan labourer working in a bordering Israeli farm is killed, with his brother and an Israeli bedouin man also injured.

A ceasefire brokered by Egypt is finally announced in the evening, set to start 10 pm (Israel time). Shortly before this time, PIJ launches one final barrage towards parts of southern and central Israel, which is followed up by further Israeli airstrikes.

Minutes after the ceasefire comes into force, PIJ violates it with further rocket launches, sparking a new round of retaliatory IAF strikes. The infractions are not deemed substantial enough to invalidate the truce however, with this brief exchange of fire followed by calm, bringing five days of fighting to a close.

14 May

Life returns to pre-8 May norms for people on both sides of the border.

Israel's border crossings with Gaza are reopened, reducing serious pressures on Gaza's economy and critical infrastructure. As the ceasefire holds, Israeli communities near Gaza are gradually eased out of various security restrictions.

Cumulative stats / casualty debates

By the end of the 8-13 May fighting, 1,468 rockets had been fired from Gaza in total, with the IDF reporting a 95% aggregate interception rate of projectiles headed for populated areas of Israel. The rocket fire led to two civilian deaths (including a Palestinian) in Israel, as well as seven shrapnel injuries and 68 indirect panic-related injuries as per Magen David Adom. Israel argues these figures would be much worse were it not for their sophisticated missile defence and air raid sheltering systems.

Meanwhile the death toll in Gaza following the IDF's operation totalled 33 (this includes six of PIJ's most senior commanders killed in targeted assassinations), with at least 147 injuries recorded since the start of the fighting. *According to both Israeli and Palestinian officials, combatants account for most of the deaths (21 according to the IDF, 18 according to Gaza's Ministry of Health), with disputes mainly limited to the circumstances in which civilians (including women and children) were either killed or injured.

Israel underscores the fact nearly all civilian casualties occurred in the immediate vicinity of a targeted combatant (excluding those likely caused by Palestinian rocket misfire), at times accusing terror groups in Gaza of using human shields. Palestinians dispute the validity of such arguments and their ostensible justification of Israeli military actions.

Further info

Hamas, the main terror group governing the Gaza Strip, did not directly involve itself in firing rockets in this latest flareup, but did endorse PIJ's actions. Direct involvement of Hamas would have proved a major escalation.

Prior to the 13 May truce, talk of ceasefire negotiations first emerged on the afternoon of 10 May, but were repeatedly dampened by public denials, public pullouts, continued fighting and threats of further action.

While a ceasefire is now in force, the situation remains highly volatile, particularly in view of Israel's Jerusalem Day celebrations coming up on 18-19 May. As such, fighting could restart at any moment, and further updates may be provided on a separate page should this happen.

[Last updated 11 pm (UK time), 14 May]