The Second Intifada marked a new era of Israeli violence that never ended

The Second Intifada marked a new era of Israeli violence that never ended
7 min read
27 Sep, 2023
Twenty-three years on, Emad Moussa argues that the Second Palestinian Intifada transformed the nature of the Israeli occupation, escalating violence and war-like tactics, entrenching a regime of control, and co-opting Palestinian leadership.
Israeli soldiers shoot at stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers in Khan Yunes in the Gaza Strip one month after the start of the Second Intifada, on 24 October 2000. [Getty]

In July 2000, the negotiations between Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak at the famous Camp David broke down for reasons that remain a subject of heated debate today.

The negotiation collapse was followed two months later by the provocative visit of then Likud leader, later PM, Ariel Sharon to the compounds of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. These developments are now deemed the watershed moment that triggered the second major Palestinian uprising, the Second Intifada.

For most Palestinians, the road to the Second Intifada was paved much earlier with the initially euphoric Oslo years quickly turning into a painful disillusionment.

The so-called peace process had no tangible effect on curtailing the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements nor meaningfully reducing Israel’s political oppression and economic control over Palestinians. Statehood also seemed farther away from realisation as the interim period came to a conclusion in 1999.

"Today, revisiting the outbreak of the Intifada 23 years later, it is clear that it marked the crossing of a threshold in Israel's occupation of Palestine"

Today, revisiting the outbreak of the Intifada 23 years later, it is clear that it marked the crossing of a threshold in Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

One of the most significant manifestations has been the transformation in the occupier-occupied dynamics from one of primarily subjugation and domination to today’s full blown war-like tactics used by the occupier against the still-subjugated and dominated occupied.

The Intifada started off with protests, demonstrations, and confrontations with the Israeli army and police in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent, Israel.

In my homeland of Gaza, the central point of confrontation with the occupation was the Nitzarim settlement, 5 kilometres southwest of Gaza City.

In those early days, men and boys in my neighbourhood as young as 10 would gather in groups and head for the settlement, often to the opposition or ignorance of their concerned families.

The dutiful endeavour to stand up to the occupation soon spiralled into outrage and calls for revenge after Israeli snipers barricaded in the settlement and targeted stone-throwers with fatal force.

The PA policemen who tried to stop the protestors from approaching the settlement were also targeted by the army. Many of them eventually turned their AK-47s at the Israeli shooters.

Since the First Intifada in 1987, nearly  300 Palestinians were killed in the area around Nitzarim. One of those killed was Muhammad al-Durra, a 12-year old Palestinian child who was repeatedly shot as his father tried to shield him with his own body while waving to the Israeli soldiers to cease fire, in November 2000.

The incident became a rallying cry for Palestinians and caused global outrage at Israeli violence. 

Even with the mounting Palestinian casualties, the protests were still perceived as within the ‘conventional’ asymmetrical rules of engagement with the occupation, somewhat paralleling those experienced through the First Intifada.

What a false perception it was!

Nitzarim was our first taste of the transformation to Israel’s war tactics, the new threshold in the occupier-occupied dynamics. With their 30mm heavy-calibre canons typically used on armed vehicles, Apache gunships fired at the protestors.

I remember the first salvo hit the road. The silence that followed was broken only by an agonised scream. A young man a few yards away was hit in the knee and his entire lower limb was severed from his body. A group of youngsters carried him to the ambulance while others bore his severed leg.

Indeed, Israel’s killing of Palestinians in the First Intifada was widespread and brutal, but in the second one, it took on a disturbingly graphic character. Footage of headless and mutilated bodies would become a daily occurrence on Palestinian TV, sometimes to the extent of desensitisation.

What happened at Nitzarim would set the scene for a new norm. For months, sometimes for consecutive days on end, helicopter gunships and F-16s bombed the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) police stations, civilian institutions, and of course, homes and cars with the intention to assassinate key resistance figures. The human casualties and destruction of infrastructure were extensive.

 "Statelessness was further entrenched, movement further restricted, freedoms harshly policed, and future prospects almost obliterated"

As a bonus, fighter jets repeatedly broke the sound barriers at low altitudes over Gaza causing sonic booms that rattled homes and shattered windows. It was not uncommon for people to stick duct tape on their windows to ‘jet-proof’ them.

PA security personnel assigned the street corners their new offices after their compounds had been bombed or evacuated in fear of bombing. They were incapacitated and lost control of internal security, incrementally leading to widespread lawlessness.

Government institutions serving civilian needs also operated out of tents or makeshift mobile rooms placed on the main streets. Those streets, at least in the first two years of the Intifada, also held daily funerals.

From an Israeli perspective, excessive force, especially air power, was meant to be deployed in areas deemed hazardous for tanks and ground troops, especially as light firearms were available in Palestinian cities. The operational scene was labelled as an asymmetrical ‘war on terror.’

Unfortunately for Palestinians, this coincided with the global “War on Terror” after 9/11. This allowed Israel to draw false parallels between Palestinian armed resistance and al-Qaeda to win international legitimacy for its brutal war on the very people it occupies.

Reacting to this ill-suited political atmosphere, Arafat ordered the PA security to cease fire even in self-defence; persuaded the Palestinian factions to tone down their armed resistance; and arrested some activists.

Of course, these measures led to no decrease in Israeli attacks and incursions, quite the opposite. And, importantly, it restricted our already-limited ability to react.

In all scenarios, Palestinians were nearly incapable of defending themselves, though they had delivered painful blows to Israel occasionally, mainly through controversial suicide attacks. But these revengeful and opportunistic attacks did not qualify as a means of self-defence capable of thwarting Israel’s far superior military power.

The Intifada officially ended in early 2005 with 4,400 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis dead, leaving Palestinians in immeasurable material and economic shambles. Statelessness was further entrenched, movement further restricted, freedoms harshly policed, and future prospects almost obliterated.


Yet, as I look back, it is this declared ‘end’ that I personally struggle to pinpoint. Unlike the six-year First Intifada, which concluded with the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Second Intifada had no official end.

Some attribute the end to gradual decay. That is, for reasons pertaining to Israel’s suppression, diminished Palestinian resources, and international interventionism, the Intifada slowly lost momentum and ultimately hit an impasse.

This still does not provide a satisfactory explanation, especially as the following years seem now like a low-level continuation of the Intifada with periods of intense escalation - certainly in Gaza - that exceeded the Intifada’s bleakest moments.

Rather than an end, the Second Intifada was only a starting point to a new threshold that dramatically raised the level of aggression employed in the Israeli occupation and, worse yet, further normalised the role of the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor of the occupation.  

"Rather than an end, the Second Intifada was only a starting point to a new threshold that dramatically raised the level of aggression employed in the Israeli occupation"

What is perilous about this for Palestinians  - beyond its aggressive nature and deep intractability - is that many of our demands have now been depoliticised and reduced to daily humanitarian and economic needs, omitting several aspects of the prima causa of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, as a result.

The refugees, the Nakba, and the viable statehood are nowadays a no-go zone in Israel and only a back-seat chatter within the PA’s inner circles. 

The suggested solutions, as a result, are now mostly confined to economic incentives similar to the period shortly after the Intifada and empty talks of 'peace', without meaningful discussions on land, autonomy, and freedoms.

As if Palestinian suffering only began with the Intifada 23 years ago.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.