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Op-Ed

Twenty years since the Al-Aqsa Intifada, what do Palestinians hope for now

Optimism generated by the Oslo Accords has long since given way to grave pessimism regarding the possibility of ever resolving the conflict

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Israeli police officer at the scene of a public bus bombing in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Wednesday, March 5, 2003. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up aboard the crowded bus, killing at least 17 people and injuring dozens. (Ronen Lidor/ Flash90)
An Israeli police officer at the scene of a public bus bombing in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Wednesday, March 5, 2003. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up aboard the crowded bus, killing at least 17 people and injuring dozens. (Ronen Lidor/ Flash90)

On Thursday, September 28, 2000, the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted with then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount.

The Israeli government, headed at the time by Ehud Barak — who had recently returned from a failed bid to forge a peace deal with Yasser Arafat under president Bill Clinton’s aegis at Camp David — did not prevent Sharon’s visit to the complex. This despite countless warnings from the Palestinian side, given both through the media and covertly. One of these was at a face-to-face encounter between Barak and Arafat on Tuesday, September 26, at Barak’s home in Kochav Ya’ir.

Nava Barak cooked dinner for the esteemed guests who came to request that Barak prevent Sharon’s visit. After lengthy discussions between Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventative Security Force, and Yisrael Hasson, Deputy Chief of the Israeli Security Agency, it was agreed that Sharon would visit the plaza only and not the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sharon went up to the Mount in the early morning hours that Thursday. The police prevented Jewish journalists from entering the complex and I was forced to climb the Old City roofs, very near the Waqf Building and Religious Endowment offices. The spot I took up enabled me to observe everything that took place on the Mount during those hours and to report live on Kol Yisrael’s Reshet Bet, almost like a soccer reporter.

Then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon seen at the Mugrabi Gate en route to the Temple Mount, on 28 September 2000. (Flash90)

Sharon entered with a huge entourage of security personnel, met by thousands of Palestinians. After a brief tour and a violent altercation in which Arab Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi fell and broke his arm, Sharon left the Mount and the event ended with very little actually having occurred. A Mount made out of a molehill if you will. Yet this little molehill turned back into a mountain the very next morning.

The next day was Friday and also Rosh Hashanah Eve. Immediately after Friday prayers in the mosques, thousands of Muslim worshippers began throwing stones and other objects at the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below.

The Jewish worshippers were evacuated and after Yair Yitzhaki, the Jerusalem District police chief, suffered a head injury, the order was given for forces to enter the Mount using live ammunition. Within a short time four people were dead and 200 were injured.

Al-Jazeera television and Voice of Palestine radio reported the event live, well before the social media era. This was one of the first instances in which the presence of a satellite broadcasting station was able to mobilize an entire population.

A few hours later another three Palestinians were killed in riots that broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City and in East Jerusalem. The conflagration spread from there throughout the West Bank, with central figures in Fatah and Hamas making sure to fan the flames.

That same afternoon Palestinian strongman Marwan Barghouti published the first notice pronouncing a new uprising.

On Saturday, September 30, another dramatic event took place: young Muhammad al-Dura was killed in crossfire at Netzarim junction as his father Jamal tried to protect him, and was caught on film by the France 2 TV channel. That same day MK Tibi named the events the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a term that became firmly implanted within Israeli and Palestinian consciousness.

It is difficult to summarize the impact and importance of this event in a few hundred words, yet it seems to mark the point at which a few brief years of hope for peace with the Palestinians ended.

Aziz Salha waving his bloody hands after the lynch of 2 IDF reservists in Ramallah in 2000 (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
Aziz Salha waving his bloody hands after the lynch of 2 IDF reservists in Ramallah in 2000 (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

This was reinforced by the events which then unfolded: the Ramallah lynching, Fatah (and PLO) shooting attacks, targeted killings, brutal suicide attacks — an onslaught of Palestinian bombers in which over 1,000 Israelis were killed, Operation Defensive Shield, rocket fire from Gaza, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, the Hamas election victory and overtaking of Gaza, and the decline – some say death – of the left-wing parties in Israel.

The optimism generated by the 1993 Oslo Accords and the agreements reached in the subsequent two years was replaced by grave pessimism regarding the possibility of ever resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (GPO)

This pessimism persists despite the fact that the suicide attacks are long over and that since Arafat’s death in 2004 the PLO has joined Israel in fighting terror – mostly Hamas-generated, but some homegrown. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were disbanded and armed Palestinians no longer roam freely throughout the West Bank, but the hatred remains and violence still bubbles beneath the surface — and sometimes breaks through.

Palestinian nationalism has found itself fractured since June 2007, torn between nationalists and religious zealots. It is doubtful we will see what we used to call a “political horizon.” The Palestinian gunmen who fired at Israel and the suicide bombers who strapped on explosive vests have been replaced by a young generation that has in part lost faith in armed struggle — although some still support it.

They now hope to establish a single Palestinian-Israeli state in which Palestinians will receive full rights (and Israel will lose its foundational Jewish majority). Although the Second Intifada and the wealth of events it contained, mainly suicide bombings, have almost completely put paid to the two-state solution, all other options currently on the table sound to the Palestinians – at least at this stage – even worse.

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