Years of Rage

The most murderous phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started 10 years ago this week and started a decade of wasted time, exacting a high price in human life.

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If anyone needed a reminder, it came 10 days ago, via images broadcast from the clashes in Silwan in East Jerusalem: The funeral of the Palestinian shot dead by an Israeli security guard; the police commanders' explanation that the guard was caught in a nighttime ambush and felt his life was in danger; the masked stone-throwers; the burned Israeli cars with shattered windows; a line of policemen advancing, tossing gas grenades on its way to dispersing the riot.

Israeli troops massing on the Gaza border in December 2008. Credit: Getty Images

Triggers have always existed and always will, but the Silwan killing took place on flammable ground, waiting to be ignited. Anger at the expansion of Israeli settlement sites in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the renewal of direct negotiations, the dispute surrounding the end of the West Bank settlement construction freeze - all combined to create conditions that could lead to a renewed outbreak of violence.

It didn't happen at the end of last week. The tension died down within two days, in spite of a historic combination of circumstances: The clashes took place in East Jerusalem, in almost the same place where the second intifada broke out 10 years ago this week.

For now, it does not seem to be returning. The second intifada quietly died out sometime in the second half of the last decade. But the potential for a renewed outbreak, a third intifada, does exist, because the basic Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved. The September 28 anniversary of the start of the second uprising provides a good opportunity to reassess the results of the longest and most murderous phase in relations between Israelis and Palestinians since the 1948 War of Independence.

1Let's begin at the end: Who actually won? The answer is brief: Israel. Although Palestinian violence erupted from below, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority - after the failure of the Camp David talks two months earlier - wanted to harness it to an attempt to use force to bring about an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. This attempt failed. Under pressure of the intifada, Ariel Sharon, when he became prime minister, was forced to shorten the defense lines and decided to evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements. But on the main front, the West Bank, the change was marginal. The appalling wave of terror directed against Israeli cities was checked.

After years of clashes, the Palestinians recently returned to the negotiating table, without gaining more than what was discussed in July 2000 in terms of preconditions or actual talks. (But it should be noted that the Israeli negotiating position was softened at least twice since then - in the Taba talks in December 2000 and the contacts conducted by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert with the Palestinians in 2007-08 ).

Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, one of the Fatah leaders in Gaza who was forced to flee to the West Bank after the Hamas takeover of the Strip three years ago, has no doubt: The Palestinians lost. "Show me one achievement of that intifada," he says in the offices of the new Palestinian research institute he opened in Ramallah. "We were afflicted by all the possible disasters - the separation fence, the checkpoints, the expansion of the settlements, the split in the Palestinian people. I'm trying to think of a benefit we received from this campaign and am unable to do so."

Abu Zaida's new office, in the old quarter of Ramallah, is located above a health food restaurant. Opposite, a sign advertises a beer festival to be held in the village of Taybeh, east of Ramallah, in early October. All this is a long way from the more traditional environment of the Jabalya refugee camp in the Strip, which he was forced to leave. That is also a byproduct of the intifada: the de facto division of the territories into two states, "Fatahland" in the West Bank, "Hamastan" in Gaza.

2 Was Israel's victory decisive? Far from it. There is a somewhat simplistic tendency to describe the entire conflict in terms of how much force the Israelis were willing to use: The moment Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister, replacing Ehud Barak, he "let the Israel Defense Forces win." Soldiers flooded the refugee camps and the casbahs and suicide terrorism came to an end.

The reality is more complex. The victory was only partial. What Israel gained in the West Bank, with an end to the attacks and the rise of a new Palestinian government, whose opposition to terror seems more credible than that of its predecessors, it lost in the Gaza Strip, where the withdrawal was followed by the rise of an Islamic republic, almost an Iranian bridgehead, a few meters from home.

Nor can we ignore the tremendous price we paid: More than 1,100 Israeli and more than 3,200 Palestinian dead by 2005, with most of the casualties on both sides civilians. And we haven't yet mentioned the tremendous economic and psychological (and, yes, ethical ) price for both societies.

It is very difficult to achieve total victory in a fight against terror. Experts tend to describe the British victory over terror in Malaya (today's Malaysia ) in the late 1950s as the greatest achievement of its kind. What the IDF and the Shin Bet security services did in the battle against the suicide terrorists from the West Bank is equal to that, at least. But the tremendous effort had another price. The absence of international legitimacy for Israeli conduct forced the disengagement from Gaza on Sharon - and that, just as the right had warned, expanded the threat of being hit by Hamas rockets from Sderot and Ashkelon to Ashdod and apparently to Tel Aviv as well.

As in the West Bank, Israel used brute force in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008 (which should be seen as a kind of continuation of the intifada ) and established temporary deterrence. Hamas' fear of suffering another blow is restraining it from launching a new attack, for the time being. But the extensive system of rockets that was built in Gaza, like the exposure of huge "sleeper" networks of the organization in the West Bank following the most recent shooting attacks there, seems to indicate that this is a temporary lull.

None of this detracts from the achievements of the Israeli military forces; the sense of personal security returned to civilians' lives. We no longer have to glance nervously beyond the security guard into the street when we're sitting inside the cafe, and the decision to ride a bus is no longer comparable to a game of Russian roulette.

3Back to the beginning: Why did the intifada break out? Far more than Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat planned the violence, he hitched a ride on it.

There were many reasons for the conflict. Senior officials in Hamas and Fatah say the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000, justified in itself, had a dramatic influence on public perception in the territories that only resistance (muqawama ) as preached by Hezbollah leads to results. The failure at Camp David, blamed on Yasser Arafat (by then-prime minister Ehud Barak with the active assistance of president Bill Clinton ) accelerated the conflagration. The prevailing thought at the time in the Palestinian leadership, even among those in favor of the peace process, was that a few days of blood and fire would strengthen the PA's hand in negotiations.

From the moment the conflict began, internal political competition in Fatah contributed significantly to the chaos in the leadership of the PA and the movement. There was open tension between the "insiders," who had experienced the first intifada in the territories, and the "outsiders," who returned with Arafat from Tunis after the Oslo Accords. In the insiders' camp, the personal battle for leadership in the West Bank between Marwan Barghouti and Hussein al-Sheikh spurred the violence. All the warring camps believed that demonstrating a patriotic policy, sometimes through direct incitement to acts of terror, would increase their popularity among the Palestinian public. Arafat himself fanned the flames of violence, while deliberately causing conflicts among the heads of his security apparatus and preventing any chance of the Palestinians themselves stopping the terror.

The final spark for the explosion was the visit by Ariel Sharon, head of the opposition at the time, to the Temple Mount on Thursday, September 28, 2000. The following day, seven Palestinians were killed by police fire on the mount, and from there to riots all over the territories was only a short path.

The death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura on September 30 at the Netzarim junction, in Gaza, provided the intifada with its first symbol, and in many senses, its strongest one. The many dead, during the first months, mainly on the Palestinian side, caused the sides to slide down the slippery slope. Arafat's backing for the acts of terror, along with many instances of irresponsible firing by the IDF, provided the necessary fuel for a continuation of the fighting. Brief opportunities for a cease-fire - first of all the relative lull that preceded the assassination of a Fatah leader from Tul Karm, Raed Karmi, in January 2002 - were not exploited. The intifada continued to rage full force.

4What was the conflict's turning point? In hindsight, it can be located in two decisions made within three months, both by Ariel Sharon: embarking on Operation Defensive Shield and the construction of the separation fence. Despite pressure by brigade and battalion commanders, Sharon hesitated before ordering the IDF to reoccupy the cities of the West Bank in March 2002. His generals warned him of a failure that would end in a bloodbath. But the Passover eve massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which a suicide bomber killed 30 Israelis who had gathered to celebrate the seder night, left him with no choice, and the army embarked on the operation, with sweeping public support. It was not immediate, but renewed control on the ground, operational freedom of action and the vast amount of intelligence produced by the arrests and interrogations gradually led to a dwindling of terror.

In June 2002, the government approved the construction of the separation fence. Within three years, there was a physical barrier (even if not a complete one ) between the West Bank and Israel proper, preventing the passage of terrorists. Sharon's insistence on trying to annex territories de facto by means of the fence got Israel into serious trouble in the global arena, but the fence also drew a psychological border, signaling to both sides the direction of a future agreement.

Another element, whose importance is often unjustifiably downplayed, contributed to the change on the ground: the fortitude of the Israeli public. Israeli society did not give in, and kept its cool under the attacks of the suicide bombers; it turned out to be very different from its description as a fragile "spider web," as suggested by the secretary general of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

5 Did the intifada have an end date? If Operation Defense Shield and the construction of the fence accelerated the end of the intifada, the end probably had two causes: the death of Arafat, in November 2004, or even more, the Gaza "disengagement," in August 2005. The death of the rais symbolized the (temporary ) distancing of the senior members of the PA and Fatah from the path of terror, in light of the price paid by the Palestinians in the years preceding it. Prior to the Gaza withdrawal, relative quiet was achieved for the first time on the West Bank, while the battle that took place around Gaza after the disengagement was conducted according to entirely different rules.

A year later, in 2006, came the last suicide attack in the greater Tel Aviv area. Early in 2008 the last (for now ) suicide attack took place within the Green Line, in Dimona. The number of Israelis killed in terror attacks declined to an average of fewer than 10 a year, compared to a peak of about 470 in 2002.

6 What were the long-term effects of the second intifada? On the Israeli side, journalist Nahum Barnea's diagnosis six years ago is still valid: The intifada reshaped the political map of the country. The right-wing bloc, for the most part, sobered up from the dream of Greater Israel, and the left from its trust in the Arabs. The right was correct in its doubts regarding the Palestinian leadership's desire for peace; the left was correct in claiming that the occupation was destined to fail, because the world will not tolerate it and it will erode the country from within.

But since the violence has waned, the urgency of the arguments of the left has weakened in the public conscious ness; and the left has lost a huge percentage of its parliamentary power. The IDF, the Shin Bet and the fence didn't just distance terror from Israelis in the center of the country; they pushed the territories out of Israeli awareness. For most Israelis, what happens there is taking place on the dark side of the moon, even if it's only a half hour's drive from their homes.

When you add to that the deep scars of mistrust and suspicion the intifada left on both sides, the conclusion of Time Magazine's cover story last month is understandable - Israelis are no longer interested in peace. Public opinion has a short memory. It may not be pleasant to admit, but without terror attacks, attention wanders to other realms, as far as possible from the conflict with the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, the strengthening of Hamas and the great rift between it and Fatah stands out. The disintegration of the PA under the Israeli counterattack, followed by the Gaza pullout, strengthened the status of Hamas, which in the eyes of most Palestinians managed to expel the settlers and the soldiers from the Strip by force. This achievement led to a Hamas victory in the elections for the Palestinian parliament in January 2006 and to the ousting of Fatah from the Strip by force in June 2007.

Today, it is hard to see how Fatah and Hamas could achieve a reconciliation. Even if a peace agreement is signed between Israel and the PA, Gaza will apparently remain outside the equation. In that sense, the solution of "three states for two peoples" has become a de facto reality. On the other hand, after the shock of its expulsion from Gaza, Fatah has recovered, and today in the West Bank is conducting a stronger and more organized government than at any time in the past 17 years. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have done what the strong Arafat never dared to do: They ended the intifada and declared war on Hamas in the West Bank.

7 What are the chances that the intifada will return? On the eve of Sukkot, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that without progress in the diplomatic negotiations, Palestinian violence is likely to worsen. Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin is afraid of deterioration within a year. In an article published last week in Haaretz Hebrew Edition, Israel Shrenzel, a former senior researcher in the Shin Bet, warned of a third intifada. As the three of them say, this possibility is closely related to the state of the negotiations (and there is of course the possibility of Hamas increasing its attacks to prevent progress in the same ). However, residents of the West Bank have in recent years been undergoing a process similar to that of the Israelis: focus on the individual at the expense of the collective. In daily conversations, West Bank Palestinians now seem more occupied with the economy far more extensively than with issues of war and peace.

From the Palestinian point of view, there is another worrisome scenario: An attack by Israel's extreme right, particularly an attack on places sacred to Islam, would ignite renewed and extensive violence. The potential for such violence exists, and the absence of a solution (many claim that the profound gaps between the sides on key issues in effect make the conflict unsolvable) increases the danger of a future outbreak, especially in light of the so-called demographic clock, which is working to Israel's detriment.

8 Has the intifada, in a circuitous way, brought us closer to peace? Definitely not. It would be more correct to say that the intifada and its consequences caused 10 years to be wasted, exacting a high price in human life. In Israel, it may be that the intifada indirectly contributed to the realization by several leaders of the limitations of the use of force and the futility of thinking we can continue as we are. These in turn have led to a certain moderation in the bargaining positions of prime ministers who grew up on the ideological right - Ehud Olmert and even Benjamin Netanyahu. The presumed end of the conflict was outlined a decade ago, in the Clinton parameters presented to the sides in December 2000. How much time will pass until we get there? It's anybody's guess.



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