The al-Aqsa Intifada and Sharon’s ascent to power

The al-Aqsa Intifada and Sharon’s ascent to power (2000–2002)

The failure of the Camp David summit marked the formal end of the Oslo process, the hope that the Arab-Israeli conflict might end, and the hope of Israel’s acceptance by its neighbors as a legitimate Jewish state in the Middle East.

For Israel, it also ushered in a period of violence, without security for Israel and Israelis. Ultimately, the intifada and the accompanying violence paved the way for Ariel Sharon to be elected prime minister of Israel and to institute a series of new policies designed to ensure the security of Israel.

Sharon’s Visit to the Temple Mount

On September 28, 2000, opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest area. The mount is the site of the biblical First and Second Temples and a touchstone of the faith. But in practice, few Israeli Jews set foot on the 36-acre area, which since 691, has been dominated by two mosques, al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. The elevated platform, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is revered as Islam’s third holiest site.

The visit, on which Sharon was accompanied by more than 1,000 police officers, infuriated Palestinians, other Arabs, and some Israelis, who saw the visit as a provocation. Barak regarded it as a domestic political act and a security issue but did not anticipate the levels of violence and the lethality that followed. Others did, but Barak refused to prohibit the visit.

The visit spurred serious clashes that day that continued into Friday, September 29, when a large number of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and a large Israeli police contingent confronted each other. Palestinians threw stones at police and Jewish worshippers in the vicinity of the western wall where Jews had gathered to pray. By day’s end, four Palestinian demonstrators were killed on the Temple Mount, and more than 200 were injured. Others were killed and injured elsewhere.

Violence spread across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and within Israel for several days. At first, the violence was limited to Palestinian youngsters throwing rocks at Israeli civilians to which the IDF responded with gunfire. Soon, however, there was a growing use of gunfire by armed Palestinians against the IDF and Israeli settlers and settlements, leading to Israeli counterattacks that included the use of nonlethal weapons, heavy weaponry, and snipers targeting Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinian calls to continue and expand the uprising became general and constant, and the term intifada came back into general use within two or three days. Calls for Palestinian resistance came from individual figures and movements as well as from the media controlled by the PA. The school was suspended on the third day, releasing students for participation in demonstrations, and sporadic efforts by Palestinian security officers to control the crowds were gradually abandoned. Public support for continuing the intifada remained high.

Once the violence had begun, Israel’s countermeasures became an additional source of grievances among Palestinians. To the previous fragmentation of the West Bank and Gaza was added the policy of closure of the territories and the establishment of hundreds of roadblocks that made Palestinian movement between towns almost impossible. As a result, Palestinian life came to a virtual standstill and the loss in gross domestic product was estimated to be as high as 50 percent.