The visit by the then hardline Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, to the site of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem on 28 September, 2002 is widely seen as the spark that ignited the uprising.

But the visit came against a background of failed peace talks, simmering violence, as well as claims by both sides of provocation and incitement by the other. These and other factors have also been blamed for causing the Intifada.

Camp David II

A controversial topic in itself, peace negotiations relating to the creation of a Palestinian state broke down in July 2000.

Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an offer to the Palestinians that the Israeli press reported as the most substantial ever made by an Israeli leader.

Bill Clinton (L), Yasir Arafat (C)
and Ehud Barak failed to agree

Barak’s plan reportedly offered a Palestinian state on about 95% of the West Bank and all of Gaza, the removal of isolated settlements, and a form of religious sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem.

Described thus, the offer was seen in Israel as generous. Rejection of it, and the subsequent uprising, was thus blamed by Israel on an intransigent Palestinian leadership.

But critics of the plan point out that with no territorial contiguity for the Palestinian state, no control of its external borders, limited control of its own water resources, and continued Israeli military rights over much of the West Bank, the state on offer was not worthy of the name. Moreover, the plan ignored the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees.

Consequently, they blame the Israelis for the breakdown in negotiations, which dashed the hopes of ordinary Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and inflamed tensions that boiled over two months later.

Sharon’s visit

Many Palestinians and Israelis had warned Sharon’s visit would lead to riots. But the Likud Party leader insisted he would go to the site with what he claimed was a message of peace. Once on the site, however, he declared it eternal Israeli territory.

Many Israelis, however, deny Sharon’s visit caused the new Intifada. Sharon’s supporters point out violent incidents had taken place in the days before his visit, such as the shooting of an Israeli policeman on 27 September.

Ariel Sharon's visit to al-Aqsa 
provided the trigger for Intifada

The inquiry headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, which was set up to study the conflict and suggest a way back to peace negotiations concluded that Sharon’s visit alone did not cause the Intifada. 

But it described it as “poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen”.

Some critics of the Israeli government say then Prime Minister Ehud Barak allowed Sharon’s visit to provoke the Palestinians into violence.

In October 2000, the president of the International Jewish Peace Union, Maxim Ghilan, called the visit an act of “political karate” designed “by Sharon and Barak to create a situation (in) which the Palestinians … would put themselves in the wrong”.

Barak felt this was necessary, said Ghilan, because of the collapse of the Camp David II talks.

Aftermath

Most observers agree Sharon’s visit was highly inflammatory. But could more have been done to prevent the bloody aftermath?

“More significant (than the visit),” said the Mitchell Report, “were the events that followed: the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators; the subsequent failure ... of either party to exercise restraint.

"More significant (than the visit) were the events that followed: the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators; the subsequent failure ... of either party to exercise restraint"

The Mitchell Report

Following Sharon's visit, clashes between angry Palestinian youths and Israeli police broke out near al-Aqsa almost immediately. Several Palestinians were injured.

The following day, large riots erupted around the Arab-populated Old City. As had been widely predicted, angry Palestinian youths took to the streets and stoned Israeli security personnel and Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. Several Israelis were injured.

In response, Israeli security forces shot dead several Palestinians and wounded hundreds more. This prompted further clashes.

Two days after the visit, a 12-year-old boy, Muhammad al-Durra was captured on camera cowering in fear next to his father as they tried to hide behind a barrel from a barrage of Israeli bullets.

The film of the boy being hit by bullets and dying in his fathers arms was widely seen and became a symbol of the intensifying uprising.

Days later, the new scale of violence was confirmed when two Israeli reservist soldiers were lynched in Ram Allah by angry Palestinians.

The rising violence hastened the downfall of Barak and the election of the even more hardline Sharon as prime minister in February 2001.

Arafat’s role

Many Israelis claim Palestinian President Yasir Arafat planned the uprising, using Sharon’s visit as an excuse to unleash a campaign of "terror".

The Israeli agency Palestinian Media Watch says official Palestinian television broadcasts became increasingly militant during the summer of 2000. And Arafat was accused of not doing enough to condemn Palestinian rioting and attacks.
 
However, the Mitchell Report said there was no evidence to indicate the Intifada had been planned, although some Palestinian officials were quoted as saying an uprising was likely if peace talks failed.

Some observers point out that Arafat had previously been rather zealous in detaining Palestinian radicals opposed to peace negotiations.

But his ability to act was increasingly undermined by popular Palestinian anger at rapidly increasing illegal Jewish settlements and land seizures by the Israelis.

Once the peace talks collapsed, and especially after rioting Palestinians were shot by Israeli soldiers, Arafat’s control over events was greatly weakened.