The Second Intifada Continues

What happened and why?

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This article, the second in a two-part series, examines the roots of the second Intifada and the implications for Palestinians and Israelis as of 2003 when the article was written. Click here for the first part of the series.

As the second Intifada progressed, it resembled the first Intifada less and less, taking on the characteristics of armed guerilla fighting, similar in some ways to the tactics adopted by Hezbollah in Lebanon during its fighting against Israeli forces. Some analysts believe that this was not a coincidence. 

The Lebanon Precedent

The Israel Defense Forces unilaterally withdrew from its positions in Lebanon in May 2000 after suffering years of bloody guerilla blows from Hezbollah. Some scholars have suggested that this was interpreted in most of the Arab world as a new precedent, the first time that the Israeli army was forced to concede defeat in the face of Arab military tenacity, and as proof that Israeli society was weakening in its resolve to accept casualties. Hezbollah fighters were considered heroes in Arab homes, and Palestinian militias invited Hezbollah experts to provide them with training in proven tactics against the Israel Defense Forces.

palestinian uprisingIn numerous interviews with journalists, Palestinian leaders have indicated that the Lebanon precedent sparked a hope among them that similar armed pressure on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would lead to a demoralized Israeli withdrawal and dismantling of settlements, enabling the Palestinians to achieve more than they might in negotiations. For example, Marwan Barghouti--a high-ranking Fatah (Palestine Liberation Organization) official in the West Bank prior to his arrest by Israeli armed forces in April 2002--frequently told reporters that the Palestinians ought to continue the Intifada even if Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were to resume, stating that the only way to end the Intifada is for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, just as it had from Lebanon.

Islamic Fundamentalism and September 11th

The names by which the conflict that has raged since September 2000 has been called are instructive. In Israel there were attempts early on by some commentators to label it "the Oslo war" or "the war against peace," but the general public mostly avoided those names because they smacked of political connotations, blaming the supporters of the Oslo agreements for the terror attacks within Israel.

Most Israelis simply called it 'the Intifada' or increasingly--as time went on and a grim atmosphere settled on them-- 'the matzav,' which literally means 'the situation,' as if it was all just a temporary condition they had the bad luck to be experiencing and which might soon be over.

For the Palestinian side it has consistently been the 'Al-Aksa Intifada,' after the name of the famous mosque, since the first day of clashes on the Temple Mount. This has had the effect of giving the struggle a religious dimension; had it been called the Independence Intifada or even the Jerusalem Intifada the implication would be more political than religious. The religious aspect has special significance in the context of Palestinian political history, because the PLO in its early years was dominated by secular and leftist-oriented organizations, with religious militias such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad appearing later on the scene. Initially the Islamic militias served as an opposition to the PLO, with their stress upon Islam over and above the need for a Palestinian state.

The second Intifada brought about a unity of Palestinian factions, with Fatah, a secular branch of Arafat loyalists, and even the Marxist People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine joining forces with the most rigid of Islamic fundamentalists in attacking Israeli targets.

Religious Aspects of the Second Intifada

In fact, the religious aspects came to dominate the second Intifada, from its Arabic name to the emphasis on suicide bombing attacks, which were initially conducted solely by fervent Islamic believers willing to be religious 'shuhada' (martyrs) but were adopted by all the Palestinian factions when becoming a shahid (martyr) for Palestine became an ideal to strive for throughout Palestinian society.

However, some of these violent tactics may have resulted in increased sympathy for Israel and Israelis. The images of Israeli civilians--including many children--blown apart by Palestinian suicide bombers brought Israel some sympathy in the American press. When a muscular form of Islamic fundamentalism brought about the suicide airplane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, the Palestinian militias found themselves frequently identified by an enraged U.S. administration as being part of the Islamic terrorist international movement.

There has been no evidence of direct connections between Al Qaeda and Palestinian movements, despite some limited Al Qaeda attempts to set up cells in the Gaza Strip. Israel's Likud-led government, however, pointed to Iraqi, Iranian, and Saudi support for various Palestinian factions and the general atmosphere of Islamic terrorism cultivated in Palestinian society to draw parallels between Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism and the international fight against Al Qaeda. After an extremely bloody series of suicide bomb attacks in the spring of 2002 culminated in a massacre of Passover celebrators in the coastal city Netanya--among them many elderly Holocaust survivors--the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) proceeded to enter all the Palestinian territories in an attempt to crush the Intifada.

A year earlier, a 24-hour incursion of the IDF into the Gaza Strip led to such international condemnation that Israel quickly withdrew out of fear that an aggressive move on its part could lead to international intervention. In contrast, the IDF's Operation 'Defensive Shield' in 2002 was subject to minor criticism given the new international atmosphere regarding the war on terrorism.

The Violence Continues

Even the Palestinian attempt to tar Israel with accusations that it massacred civilians in the West Bank town of Jenin at the height of that operation failed. International researchers eventually concluded that the Israeli version, according to which only about 50 armed Palestinians had been killed in fierce fighting that also cost the lives of 23 Israelis, was true--as opposed to the Palestinian claim that up to 500 civilians had been slaughtered by Israeli forces. While there are varying accounts on the exact number of Palestinians killed in the fighting there, they are all in the range of about 50 to 56. All observers agree most of them were armed combatants.

In the early spring of 2003, the second Intifada, while far from ending, appeared to have entered a period of relative remission, with Israelis enjoying two months without a single suicide bombing. Many Israelis credited the relentless IDF actions for this period of quiet in Israel. Yet a bus bombing in Haifa in the afternoon of March 5, 2003, took the lives of 15 Israeli civilians, wounding 30 more. This came on the heels of intensive IDF operations in the Gaza Strip in which a chief Hamas operative was nabbed, but also more than 20 Palestinian civilians--among them a pregnant woman 10 days away from her due date--were killed. The region seems to be as mired in violence as ever.

As of 2003, the second Intifada appeared to have achieved little of substance for the Palestinians. Israel was certainly hurt on numerous levels, with its economy suffering, its tourism industry brought to a halt, its image in Europe tarnished, and hundreds of civilian casualties suffered. But at the same time the Palestinian economy was shattered close to the point of non-existence and Palestinian casualties numbered in the thousands. Not one Israeli settlement had been removed or relocated after two and a half years of armed conflict, but what had been an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank had all but disappeared in the face of a renewed Israeli occupation, with Israeli troops patrolling Palestinian towns at will. Palestinian leaders were no longer welcome in Washington, D.C., and were instead mentioned by American officials as potentially subject to 'regime change.'

As the violence continued with the dream of an independent Palestinian state becoming all the more distant, there was some questioning by some Palestinian leaders--most notably Abu Mazan--of the wisdom of armed conflict. And Palestinian leaders Sari Nussibeh and Hanan Ashwari published a petition with 500 signatories denouncing the suicide bombing on practical rather than moral grounds. However, an honest and widespread public reckoning of where the second Intifada was headed and what goals were in Palestinian society did not appear to have occurred.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.