"Intifada" is a misleading name for this period of confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians that began on September 29, 2000, a few weeks after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations and one day after the unprecedented visit of right-wing extremist opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s holiest Muslim shrine. The term "intifada" is misleading because it gives the impression that Palestinians initiated these confrontations. As well, the name "intifada" originally referred to the 1987 uprising of the Palestinian people against the occupation, a series of popular and non-violent acts of resistance that ranged from strikes to demonstrations, while this "intifada" has conversely marked the bloodiest period of confrontation in the history of the century-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Remembering the first days of the intifada is useful in understanding its nature, and how it has changed. The day after Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem happened to be a Friday, the day that Palestinian Muslims gather for prayers and, on this occasion, a day that was used to protest Sharon’s tour. The demonstrations were met by a massive Israeli crackdown, one that left seven dead bodies in and around the mosque area. Of course, the Palestinians killed were not armed, and not even Israel has accused them of using weapons against Israeli police.
That tragic day was followed by demonstrations and protests all over the West Bank and Gaza, most of which were unarmed public expressions of outrage. The Israeli military responded in a manner that resulted in an average of ten Palestinian dead a day, most of them civilians. And still, casualties on the Israeli side were few.
Indeed, the main characteristic of the first few weeks of what became known as the intifada was the continuous and unnecessary Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians. World leaders, including American officials and the United Nations secretary general, referred to Israel’s handling of the situation as disproportionate. Tragic incidents, such as the killing of child Muhammad Dura in the lap of his father, became icons for the Palestinian people and their supporters. The killing of 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Galilee, all civilians whom even Israel has not accused of wielding arms, was another decisive moment. These incidents heightened regional public and official support for Palestinians (and conversely, animosity towards Israelis) and almost reversed in entirety the inroads that Israel had made as an accepted player within the Arab world and beyond as a result of the peace process.
Simultaneously, the United States, which did little to stop the Israeli killing, was also the target of Arab criticism. As a result, the US lost credibility that it had garnered in the region via its leadership of the peace process. Attempts were made to stop the descent into violence, including steps taken by President Bill Clinton himself, but to little avail. While these efforts proposed a way out, they offered little tangible reason to believe that the way out would actually take hold.
In the middle of the first year of the confrontations, a great deal of radicalization became apparent in the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Palestinians increasingly demanded an armed response to the continuous Israeli killing and it was during this period that the unfortunate phenomenon of suicide bombings began to take hold. Some of these attacks were against civilians and others were against military targets, but all kinds of armed attacks were carried out by Islamist groups and then even by the secular Palestinian political mainstream.
This radicalization was mirrored in the Israeli public, which elected one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history and marginalized Israel’s peace camp, the Labor and Meretz parties. Sharon’s "coup" gave this man, who had always stood adamantly opposed to the peace process, the opportunity to gleefully undo nearly every outcome of the peace process, developments that Sharon had failed to prevent as leader of the opposition. The two major peace process developments that displeased his right-wing coalition were the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, seen as an expression of Palestinian political sovereignty, and the granting of limited Palestinian control over some areas of the occupied territories. Gradually, not less than 90 percent of the land that had been previously freed from occupation was brought back under Israeli control, and the Palestinian Authority was left holding the bag for administrative responsibilities. The result was a functional division between Israel, which controlled security, and the Palestinian Authority, which did its best to continue administration of the areas that had been under its control during peace times. That outcome fit snugly with the Israeli right-wing’s historical argument that the proper solution for the Palestinian problem is one where Israel controls the land, while the Palestinians control the people, rather than the prospect of territorial division that had been the goal of the peace process.
These events took their economic toll. In three years of confrontation, Israel managed to reduce by half the struggling Palestinian economy. Israel’s collective punishment measures, most of which have no security justification, and which prevent the movement of people and goods from town to town, were responsible for an unemployment rate that skyrocketed from 37 to 50 percent. The number of Palestinians living below the poverty line rose in turn to 60 percent.
Still, Israel has failed to achieve its strategic objective of forcing the Palestinian people and leadership to change their negotiating positions. In the long view of things, the use of an unusual level of force has certainly not helped Israel to achieve its legitimate objectives of peace and security. At the same time, the continued use of violence by Palestinians, especially against Israeli civilians, has been responsible for a new isolation of the Palestinian cause and its leadership and growing criticism in some US circles that associate the Palestinian struggle with terrorism, the major American policy issue after the events of September 11.
The only conclusion to be reached in an objective analysis is that the use of force or violence has not helped Israelis to achieve their legitimate objectives of peace and security, nor has it enabled Palestinians to achieve their legitimate objectives of ending the occupation and achieving freedom, statehood and self-determination. That leaves us both with no other option save peaceful negotiations based on international legality, which calls for a complete end to the Israeli occupation in return for terminating the conflict, a just solution for the Palestinian refugee problem based on international law and to be agreed on by both sides, and finally, the attainment of a peaceful settlement that allows everyone on this land to enjoy peace, security and economic prosperity.