On 28 September 2000, the then opposition leader, heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers and policemen, walked in to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
It was a move certain to provoke an angry reaction from the Muslim population, who hold the mosque to be the third holiest site in Islam.
Fighting broke out between the Palestinians defending al-Aqsa and security forces guarding Sharon. Seven Palestinians were killed in the fighting and thus the second Intifada – Intifadat al-Aqsa – was started.
But the unarmed struggle came amid a backdrop of discontent. Palestinians in the self-rule territories had become increasingly resentful over their lack of economic development as promised by the Oslo peace accords. They found that the superpowers, which hosted the peace process, did little to back them.
The Intifada was – and still is – an expression of a deep disappointment and frustration over the ongoing disrespect and denial of basic rights for Palestinians caused by the occupation – including the right to free access to Jerusalem, security and development, and the refugees’ right to return.
The Palestinian people fiercely
In two days, the Intifada spread across Palestine and into Israel. The Israeli army faced off against unarmed civilians.
On the fourth day, 20 Palestinians were killed by Israeli bullets, missiles, tanks, and helicopters, including the 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammad al-Dura, who was killed in front of TV cameras by the Israelis as he was hiding behind his father.
The situation in the Middle East took a dire turn when Israel reoccupied the Palestinian territories, in violation of the peace accord of 1993 signed with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
The Palestinian people fiercely resisted the occupation and Palestinian factions chose armed resistance, while the Palestinian authority saw negotiations as the appropriate way to solve the conflict.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) declared 6 October 2000 “a day of rage,” urging Palestinians to attack Israeli army outposts in the occupied territories. Israeli troops, who had been securing the ancient Jewish site of Joseph’s tomb in Palestinian-controlled Nablus, withdrew.
Palestinians moved in quickly, dismantling and burning parts of the tomb. The event triggered angry protests by Jewish settlers who reportedly blocked roads in the area and prevented Palestinians from passing. The next day, 8 October, a mosque was burned down in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias.
In the wake of continuing violence, hopes of a final peace agreement were abandoned. Most Palestinians, however, saw the outbreak of the confrontations as an inevitable result of repressive occupation and a “peace process” leading to nowhere.
Inside Israel, the government had been most affected by what it saw as a rebellion of Arab Palestinian Israelis who participated in pro-Intifada actions in northern Israel, blocking major streets in Haifa and Jaffa. Thirteen of the protesters were killed by Israeli police.
Palestinians in Israel, who number one million and make up approximately 20 per cent of Israel’s population, have long been treated as second-class citizens. Their action was to show solidarity with their fellow citizens in the occupied territories, and to show their dissatisfaction with the unjust treatment by the Israeli authorities. Their action gave Israel two options: to become a secular state without Jewish domination or to become an apartheid state – like South Africa from the 1960s until 1994.
As the Israeli occupation continued throughout 2001, Palestinian factions retaliated by launching counter attacks inside Israel, in an attempt to force Israel to stop its attacks against civilians and withdraw from the Palestinian territories.
Several Palestinian resistance organisations, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades started to send self-sacrificing fighters, whose duty it was to blow themselves up inside Israel, taking as many people with them as possible.
Israel retaliated with disproportionate attacks against Palestinian villages, towns and cities, and started a programme of assassinations, using intelligence information to kill field operatives and political leaders of the Intifada, including Palestinian Authority members.
This intelligence effort needed informers from inside the Palestinian territories to be recruited. Israeli intelligence tried to initiate a dispute among Palestinians by manipulating vulnerable Palestinians to turn informer.
|Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
On 7 March 2001, Sharon, on the right-wing Likud party, became prime minister of Israel. He started his term with a military campaign in the Palestinian self-rule territories. He wanted to eliminate “terrorism”, a term used to describe Palestinian factions that insist on armed resistance to drive Israel out of Palestinian territories. The action sparked resistance. Israel held the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat responsible for “terrorism”, and gave itself the green light to crack down on Palestinian “terrorist” groups.
The Israeli military actions escalated and often gave scant regard for the civilian population. In one of the attacks on Gaza, an Israeli F-16 warplane fired a missile into a Gaza City neighbourhood and killed at least 11 people, including many children, and a Hamas leader Salah Shahada, the target of the strike.
More than 100 people were reported injured. Bodies were buried under the rubble of five destroyed houses, and body parts lay scattered across the debris.
The targeting of a Hamas leader in the middle of a densely populated centre was widely criticised. It also initiated a Hamas retaliation.
As the confrontation got tougher, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were seriously undermined.
The US began to express discontent with Arafat as the head of the Palestinians – even though he is a democratically elected leader. The US made bids to create a substitute leadership “able to achieve peace with Israel”. Both Israel and the US promoted the idea that Arafat was deeply involved in terror and an obstacle to the peace process.
US president George Bush said in January 2002 that he was disappointed with Arafat, and suspended the US mediation mission headed by General Anthony Zinni.
Bush’s attitude came after a CIA report on 13 January 2002 said that the agency had become convinced of Arafat’s direct involvement in the controversial shipment of the Karine A, a ship owned by the Palestinians and filled with arms acquired in Iran. The Israelis seized the ship near Gaza on January 3, 2003.
The US and Israel called for “reforms”. Bush wanted a Palestinian leader “not compromised by terror”. Meanwhile, Palestinian factions’ commitment to armed resistance sparked debate among Palestinian politicians and intellectuals on whether armed resistance was serving the cause.
Bush reaffirmed the US’s commitment to Palestinian statehood. The international community made clear its willingness to support Palestinian claims to statehood if the violence stopped, but did not support Israel and the US’s demand for the removal of Arafat.
On 12 March 2002 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1397, “affirming a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders”. The “quartet”— made up of the US, the European Union, Russia, and the UN — endorsed Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state within three years of a ceasefire and meaningful Palestinian reform.
In late February 2003, Israeli sources revealed a paper submitted by the Palestinian authority to Israel. It offered a Palestinian pledge to stop armed operations against Israel in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Israeli army to its pre 28- September 2000 locations.
In late February, Saudi Arabia announced a peace plan by which Israel would withdraw from all occupied Arab land in return for normal ties with all the Arab states and a formal end to the state of war between the Arab nations and Israeli.
The Saudi plan was unanimously endorsed at an Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon, on March 28. Hours after the Arab initiative, Israel launched a widespread offensive against Palestinian territories killing and injuring scores of Palestinians.
Israeli forces swept into Ram Allah, and tanks besieged Arafat’s headquarters, destroying large parts of it. Israel has continued to confine Arafat to the building for the past two years.
The Intifada had serious results for both Palestinians and Israelis. Economic activity among the Palestinians essentially ceased and food supplies suffered after Israel imposed curfews, and banned thousands of Palestinians from working inside Israel.
On the Israeli side, the Palestinian self-sacrifice operations forced the population to live with tighter security and the economy has consequently suffered.
Investments have declined; the gross domestic product per capita decreased to 6% compared with figures for 2000–01; fewer than 400,000 tourists visited Israel in the first half of 2002; and the percentage of unemployed Israelis topped 10%, breaking previous records.
Yet, Israel will continue to receive more than $3 billion from American taxpayers each year, with $2.22 billion of it in military aid alone.