The Second Palestinian Intifada in retrospect

The Second Palestinian Intifada in retrospect
Twenty-two years after the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada, Emad Moussa reflects on the grassroots resistance movement that emerged and the failure to harness the revolutionary potential of the moment.
6 min read
27 Sep, 2022
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to throw stones at Israeli army jeeps in the West Bank town of Ramallah on the one year anniversary of the start of the Second Intifada, on 28 September 2001. [Getty]

The word Intifada originates in the Arabic root “to shake,” and contextually means uprising. It entered the English dictionary in 1987 with the eruption of the First Intifada and became synonymous with the Palestinian unarmed rebellion against Israel’s occupation.

The Second Intifada emerged out of the revolutionary principles developed and internalised during the first. It broke out on 28 September 2000, a day after Israeli opposition leader - later prime minister - Ariel Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque under heavy security protection. The incident happened only weeks after the US-based Camp David negotiations between PM Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat had failed.

In the period leading to the Intifada, according to unconfirmed reports, Barak received intelligence that if the Camp David summit had failed, the Palestinians would set the territories on fire. The Americans, too, warned Israel that the Palestinians were reaching a boiling point and that Tel Aviv needed to ease its intransigence, a prospect that Arafat hinted at during talks.

"Very little had been said about the political fallacy of peace between occupier and occupied or the Intifada as a popular, spontaneous uprising against injustice"

The Palestinian leader, much like his people, was frustrated and enraged by Israel’s failure to meet its commitment under the Oslo agreement which stipulated that an independent Palestine would be established by May 1999.

Instead, between the beginning of the Oslo negotiations in 1993 and September 2000, Israel built three new settlements in the territories and expanded the existing ones by 52%. By the end of 2000, the settler population grew to nearly 200,000, a rise of 85,000 since 1993. 

The diminishing geography of a future Palestinian state was made worse by the deteriorating economic situation, in contrast to the prosperity promised in the Oslo Accords. Israeli economic and fiscal policies in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 have systematically undermined the Palestinian local economy’s ability to grow or generate domestic sources of income.

The Oslo Accords carried along the same mindset but under the guise of independent fiscal identity for the Palestinian Authority, which in reality made the PA’s finances highly contingent on and more fragile to the swings in its relationship with Israel. Oslo additionally locked the Palestinian economy and the PA’s financial capacity into a perpetual cycle of dependency on external donors, each with their political agendas.

On the ground, Israel’s control of the Palestinians' freedom of movement saw very little change, and in some cases became worse. Oslo ironically produced new limitations on movement within the Palestinian areas themselves, not only between them and Israel. The West Bank was divided into three administrative areas (A, B, and C), with Area C, compromising 61% of the West Bank, staying under full Israeli military control dubbed “Civil Administration.”

Israel’s internal security, Shin Bet, and other government bodies had predicted unrest, and prepared the Israeli public and security infrastructure for an imminent eruption of violence. 

But the severity and longevity of escalation - let alone the mass riots of Israeli-Palestinians in solidarity with their peers in the West Bank and Gaza - came as a strategic surprise. It took the Israeli state a relatively long time to adjust to the new reality.

In the process, the excessive reactivity and war-like deployments of the Israeli army - including the re-occupation of West Bank’s towns and cities; full reactivation of the assassination policy; and,  for the first time, usage of airstrikes and artillery against Palestinian residential areas - became the norm.

It is now estimated that the Israeli forces - and illegal settlers - killed at least 4,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in various attacks ranging from airstrikes, incursions, and summary executions, as well as through blocking access to medical care. While most Palestinians took the route of popular resistance, some factions deployed guerrilla war techniques against the Israeli military and settlers, later investing heavily (and controversially) in suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Over 1000 Israelis died. The wounded on both sides numbered in the tens of thousands, and the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure was extensive.

The final analysis for many Israeli Jews was that Palestinian ‘terror,’ especially suicide attacks, had killed the peace process. These attacks wreaked havoc with the collective and personal security of Israelis, feeding into the belief that there was no such a thing as a ‘Palestinian peace partner’ and that any Israeli ‘generous concessions,’ as Barak had allegedly offered Arafat at Camp David, would be a security risk.

The Intifada was largely blamed on ‘Arafat’s sinister plan to destroy Oslo’ and Palestinian ‘intrinsic anti-Semitism.’ Very little had been said about the political fallacy of peace between occupier and occupied or the Intifada as a popular, spontaneous uprising against injustice.

"Palestinian leadership and political factions failed to harness, focus, and strategise the popular momentum"

The Intifada for Palestinians was a complex spectrum of minor achievements, bad decisions, and dire consequences. It initially rekindled the collective’s confidence in its ability to mobilise and strike back, as well as shook up Oslo’s static bureaucracy and political constraints.

At the time, Arafat, as would Abbas later, spoke of “popular resistance” as a method to supplement the political process. But neither he nor the broad PA circle had the faintest idea what that actually entailed. Armed resistance was seen as an archaic notion that did not belong in the post-Oslo era, an assessment that would soon be proven inaccurate, especially after some of the Oslo-produced security forces had joined the armed struggle.

Palestinian leadership and political factions failed to harness, focus, and strategise the popular momentum. As the Intifada escalated, certainly after Israel had set out to destroy the Palestinian security forces, the spontaneity turned into unorganised pockets of resistance, and that slowly aggravated to lawlessness and chaos across the PA-administered regions.

The general agreement nowadays is that the Second Intifada was a mismanaged opportunity to rectify the trajectory of the Palestinian national liberation project. Mahmoud Abbas attributes that to the unwise adoption of armed resistance and has since 2006 - with mainly US training and funding - restructured and re-equipped the PA security forces to thwart any developments in that direction again.

While the majority of Palestinians think of Abbas’ approach as reductionist, they agree that the Intifada yielded very few political results, unequal in their scope to the level of sacrifices. Others believe that it was a catastrophic setback: it contributed to the rise of Israel's far-right, armed Israel with pretexts to deepen its occupation, and, more critically, transformed the occupation from authoritative dominance to a full-war model unmatched in the history of colonialism.

Neither camp questioned the core legitimacy of the popular uprising. The Intifada, after all, was a home-grown, grassroots model for a rebellion that has been repeatedly reproduced, albeit in shorter bursts, since 2005. The unresolved question, however, continues to be of strategies and methods of resistance.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

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.