Twenty Years Later: From on the Ground, a Reflection on How the Second Intifada Changed Israel

Haaretz was there: Senior defense correspondent Amos Harel explains why the second intifada was the most dramatic historical event in recent history and how it's still shaping Israeli society

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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FILE PHOTO: The scene of an attack during the second Intifada, Jerusalem, Israel, 2001.
FILE PHOTO: The scene of an attack during the second Intifada, Jerusalem, Israel, 2001. Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Twenty years on, the memories aren’t in sequence any more. They’re a jumble of fragmented images. Division Commander Benny Gantz running across Bethlehem’s main street, his tall body stooped over while the Tanzim on the other side of the street spray gunfire, reminding us that the situation has changed; Gantz, with two Golani battalion commanders who served under him in Lebanon, preparing the forces for protracted combat; Israeli Apache helicopters flying the Ramallah skies, seeking suitable targets for a punitive attack after two reservists were lynched; Paratroopers Brigade Commander Aviv Kochavi, 18 long months later, leading his forces occupy the Casbah in Nablus; journalists conferring with each other on the most effective way to remove glass fragments that stick to their soles at sites where suicide terror attacks have taken place; the colleague who trained himself not to look at the children’s seats in the rear when Palestinians shot at Israeli cars in the West Bank.

Above all a ceaseless anxiety, both personal and collective, continues to hover over us – somewhat akin to what Israeli society is feeling now in the pandemic. Every time we left the home, certainly every time we took the bus, we felt an amorphous sense of impending doom.

There isn’t a Jerusalemite who doesn’t remember the practically incessant wail of ambulance sirens on Begin Road. Every Tel Avivian who drove during that period remembers the fear when stopping behind a bus at a traffic light, lest precisely then, it will blow up.

And unlike in other wars, these anxieties were not limited to the residents of a single area, in Israel or the territories. The terror struck with great frequency at a large number of communities inside the Green Line. The Palestinians, who were waging a desperate and violent war of liberation against us, suffered even more casualties – and the harm to everyday life in the territories was immeasurably worse.

With hindsight, I believe that the Second Intifada was the most dramatic historical event Israel experienced in recent decades. The exploding buses left a profound impression on most Israelis. Public opinion moved to the center, and from there to the right. The skepticism about the Palestinians’ intentions mounted after every suicide attack.

20 years to the outbreak of the Second Intifada - full coverage on Haaretz: This peace activist became one of the first victims ■ The one place where it still rages ■ No terror attacks, no peace accords ■ Thousands died in a struggle that failed ■ Israeli victory is nearly complete

The path of the Oslo Accords, which were drawn up in 1993, was effectively blocked. Every additional diplomatic step was measured through a single prism: What is the degree of risk it poses for me and for my family? That in practice also guaranteed the domination of the right in most of the governments that arose after the intifada waned in 2005.

In 2004, my colleague Avi Issacharoff and I took a time-out from journalism to write a book about the period, “The Seventh War” (Hebrew). The subtitle, which was provided by editor Shahar Alterman, elaborated: “How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians.”

With hindsight, we may have been wrong. As Haaretz journalist Amira Hass explains, ultimately Israel gained the upper hand in the struggle. The Palestinians moderated the violence and desisted from suicide attacks, and Israel continued with the work of policing and with building the settlements, all but unmolested (that is what happened in the West Bank; in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided on disengagement and to evacuate all the settlements).

But the Israeli victory, if any, was partial and bitter. First, a huge price was paid here, in suffering and in human life. Second, the occupation machine continued to operate, requiring great effort and causing multiple moral damages, which persist to this day. And third, the Palestinian struggle isn’t over. It will return, in some form or another, in the years to come, even if Israel is boasting of its success in circumventing the conflict and signing normalization agreements with two Arab countries from the Gulf.

The debate over the necessary solution with the Palestinians will continue to intermittently preoccupy Israeli society, and to widen the rifts in society. And now and again, as is presently being proved by the government’s moves to curtail Israelis’ civil liberties during the coronavirus crisis, it will also become clear that what happens in the territories doesn’t stay in the territories. It influences what goes on, on this side of the Green Line.

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