The al-Aqsa Intifada
The outbreak of a new uprising, dubbed the al-Aqsa Intifada, came as a major shock to most Israelis. Although the Camp David summit had failed to achieve a major breakthrough, the ensuing violence was not widely anticipated or expected. It reminded many of the Intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was formally terminated with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Clearly the outbreak of another intifada suggested that the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians was greater than had been believed or anticipated.
Earlier violence, as in 1996, after the Israeli government allowed the opening of a tunnel alongside the western wall in Jerusalem despite protests by Palestinians, had been quelled quickly by an Arafat order to stop the violence. why not this time? In September 2000, Arafat clearly controlled the Palestinian populace, and in the view of many Israelis and others, this time he helped foment, escalate, supply, fund, and otherwise facilitate the acts of violence and terrorism.
Palestinians and some Israelis, especially on the liberal left, argued that Sharon’s highly publicized, heavily guarded visit to the Temple Mount had ignited the Palestinian violence. Sharon remained unapologetic and asserted his right and the right of every Jew to visit Jerusalem’s Jewish holy places. Sharon instead put the blame for the demonstrations and riots on Arafat. He claimed the riots were preplanned, timed, and orchestrated by Arafat.
Sharon said the purpose of his visit was to reaffirm the Jewish claim to the site and to demonstrate his unshakable conviction that Jerusalem’s Old City and Temple Mount, captured by Israel from Jordan’s illegal occupation in the Six-Day war, must remain under Israeli sovereignty in any peace with the Palestinians. The police had not anticipated major disturbances after the visit, and Israel had received assurances from the Palestinian security chief in the west Bank that as long as Sharon did not enter Muslim shrines, there was no cause for concern.
To the Palestinians, however, Sharon was not just any Jew or Israeli; he was a hated figure, the architect of Israel’s invasion of lebanon in 1982 when Christian militia allied with Israel massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To many, Sharon had defiled the al-Aqsa Mosque and provoked the negative feelings of the entire Muslim world. To thousands of Palestinian youths throughout the west Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem, it was Sharon who drove them into the streets by leading a delegation of hard-line Israeli lawmakers on a one-hour tour of Jerusalem’s most sacred Muslim place.
Nevertheless, to most Israelis, even those who saw Sharon’s visit as a mistake and some among those who saw it as provocative, the visit was not what precipitated the armed conflict and its subsequent escalation. For many, rather, the Sharon visit was seen as a pretext for a planned escalation of Palestinian violence to generate increased attention to the Israeli occupation and efforts for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict favorable to the Palestinian position.
The government of Israel viewed the new violence as a direct consequence of the failure or the refusal of the PlO and the PA to meet their responsibilities to take the necessary measures to prevent acts of violence and terror against Israel and Israelis. The al-Aqsa Intifada was thus seen as a calculated strategic approach of the Palestinians to its dealings with Israel. And, there was evidence indicating Palestinian leadership
preparations for the second intifada, including the releasing of militants from Palestinian custody and detention, the military training of Palestinian children in summer camps, an increase in hostile propaganda, the failure to confiscate illegal weapons, and the stockpiling of medical supplies and of food, among other factors. There were also indicators in various Palestinian media and other public statements that anticipated the violence. Once the intifada began, the Israelis noted the active involvement of Palestinian security personnel in the killing of Israelis.
The Palestinians in turn focused on what they considered the roots of the uprising rather than the specific events themselves. They argued that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and the failure of Barak to act in good faith at Camp David were triggering events. Instead, they considered their long-standing claims against Israel as the true cause for the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
Substantial violence developed. For Israelis, the intifada that began in September 2000 confirmed some of their worst concerns and created an environment of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that had rarely been that negative since the early days of independence. Despite the positive atmosphere in the years that followed Oslo, the second intifada marked a new period of concern. Many Israelis were convinced that there was no Palestinian partner for peace.
The Israelis, to varying degrees, believed that Arafat legitimized terror and had never reconciled himself to Israel’s existence. Many Palestinians among the political elite and leadership believed that these views were not very far from the truth and that Arafat had few new and conciliatory ideas. Rather, he repeated the old myths and policies, which had led the Palestinians to their current situation—hardly closer to their ultimate objective of a state than they had been in many years and with few prospects for an improved situation.
On the other hand, Palestinians questioned whether the Israeli government had any strategy for peace or was simply seeking ways of eliminating their aspirations and prospects for a Palestinian state. It was during this period that there was something of a convergence of perspective of the United States and Israel and among many Palestinians that there was little prospect of positive change as long as Arafat remained in control of the Palestinians and their policies.