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How the Al-Aqsa Mosque became a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Israel's military continues to battle the militant group Hamas today after a surprise attack took the country off guard Saturday. At least 900 civilians and soldiers, Israelis and Palestinians, children and adults have been killed according to counts from both sides. To understand more about how we got here, we turn to Yousef Munayyer. He's a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, which researches Arab-U.S. relations. Thank you for being with us.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Good morning. Good to be with you.

RASCOE: The top military commander for Hamas said his forces attacked Israel in part because of recent Israeli raids happening in the old city of Jerusalem around the Al-Aqsa mosque. How did this area become such a flashpoint?

MUNAYYER: You know, there's an immediate context in the months and years before but, of course, a decadeslong context, as well. You know, the Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of them - they've been refugees living inside of Gaza for 75 years. And this is, of course, compounded by decades of military occupation and, in the last decade and a half, a brutal siege of the Gaza Strip, which has held 2 million Palestinians there hostage. In recent years and months, the escalation of violence against Palestinians has been noted by the United Nations and governments throughout the region who've been warning that this escalation of Israeli violence against Palestinians is going to lead to an explosion in the region.

RASCOE: Hamas is a group backed by Iran. Does it look like Iran played a role in this operation? And if so, what is their motivation?

MUNAYYER: And, of course, Palestinian grievances with Israel long predate the existence of Hamas as an organization and long predate the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of course. There are all kinds of regional players that have roles and interests in regional conflicts. But the Palestinian issue with Israel goes back to the root and the core, which is the displacement of Palestinians from their towns and villages and the denial of freedom - Palestinians - by the Israeli government since then.

RASCOE: But just to be clear - not to belabor the point, but you don't disagree with the fact that Iran may be providing financial or other support to Hamas?

MUNAYYER: Yeah, I think that there is support for Hamas and other groups in Gaza that comes from Iran and also from other places, as well. And there's, of course, support for a lot of actors in the region that come from many different directions.

RASCOE: Do you feel like it is important to distinguish between Palestinians and Hamas because now you have the Israeli government saying that they are going to root out Hamas completely. So is there a way to distinguish Hamas and Palestinians?

MUNAYYER: Well, I think that when we're talking about the battlefield, there needs to be clearly distinguishing between those who aren't involved in hostilities and those who are. The vast majority of Palestinians in that space who are going to be affected by this are not participating in the hostilities at all, even if they may have very clear grievances with Israel and want to see the struggle for freedom succeed.

RASCOE: Is there a path to de-escalation, maybe one that involves nations like the U.S.?

MUNAYYER: You know, I think the path to de-escalation has always been clear. It involves the application of international law and the respect for human rights. But we seem to talk about these things in moments like this when there is, of course, an escalation in hostilities, particularly as Israelis are being targeted with violence. But once these moments end, that conversation seems to go by the wayside, and no progress or commitment to the application of international law and human rights for Palestinians is made. And then we find ourselves in this position a few years later wondering how we got here.

RASCOE: Yousef Munayyer is the head of the Palestine/Israel Program and senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. Thank you so much for joining us.

MUNAYYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.