Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (October 5, 2020) - The Second Intifada, 20 years later


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The Second Intifada began on Sept. 29, 2000 and petered out nearly five years later. What is its relevance today, after 20 years?

A. The question may seem bizarre these days. We’re preoccupied with the corona pandemic. “Peace” with the United Arab Emirates has seemingly reduced the Palestinian issue to a marginal sideshow. Why contemplate the exploding buses of the Second Intifada?

And yet, for a variety of reasons, the Second Intifada is very relevant indeed.

Q. For example . . .

A. When polled, a large Israeli majority regularly expresses a desire for a peace process but a lack of confidence in Israel’s Palestinian partner, the PLO. That trend began in the Second Intifada. Israelis, confronted with Palestinian suicide bombers, many of them young and some of them women who targeted them and their families, lost faith in the Oslo process that had commenced in September 1993. Our Palestinian neighbors were increasingly seen as martyrdom-seeking terrorist monsters rather than peace partners.

As Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel wrote recently, “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. . . . The skepticism about the Palestinians’ intentions mounted after every suicide attack.”

These days more and more Israelis, from corona czar Dr. Roni Gamzu on down, are comparing Israel’s failure to deal with the virus to a Second Intifada-style terrorist attack. Now, as then, the streets are empty and people walk in fear, eyeing strangers with suspicion. Then, extreme lack of confidence resulted in Ehud Barak’s exit from power and the election to the premiership of an oft-discredited tough guy, Ariel Sharon. Now, popular lack of confidence in PM Netanyahu’s leadership is causing growing numbers of Israelis to defy the government and demonstrate.

Now, as then, learned analysis of the crisis is often an exercise in “if only”. Back then, if only Sharon had not visited the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, thereby triggering Palestinian violence. If only the July 2000 Camp David summit that preceded the Second Intifada had not failed. If only Yasser Arafat had accepted outgoing President Clinton’s last-ditch late December 2000 formula for a final status agreement. Moving ahead, if only Hamas atrocities in Jerusalem had not derailed the Quartet’s Roadmap for peace in 2003.

It goes on and on, as it does today with corona. If only Netanyahu had blocked incoming flights from the US when he blocked them from China back in March. If only he had not reopened the economy so quickly after the first wave and first lockdown. If only a desperate prime minister anxious to evade trial on corruption charges had not mixed politics with anti-corona measures and inflicted a rebellious messianic ultra-Orthodox sector of super spreaders on the entire public. If only the rowdy and tribalized Israeli public could be as disciplined (and well-led) as Koreans, New Zealanders and Scandinavians . . .

Q. Hold on here. Who started the Second Intifada, why, and what was it exactly?

A. The Second Intifada was a violent Palestinian insurrection against Israel, then as now the occupier of territories conquered in 1967 and populated primarily by Palestinians. Then as now, the settler movement in the territories was a major irritant and catalyst of Palestinian anger. Unlike the first Intifada (late 1987-1992), which involved mainly low-level violence and was confined largely to the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Second Intifada targeted Israeli civilians inside Israel with vicious suicide bombing attacks.

Seen in retrospect, this began as a response and follow-on by Palestinian extremists, mainly from Islamist Hamas, to the failure of the Camp David summit a few months earlier. The trigger, but not the cause, was Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, which PM Ehud Barak had unwisely greenlighted. Israel’s heavy military response to initial widespread Palestinian violence ensured an escalatory spiral that culminated in late March 2002 with the infamous Seder Pesach attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a lone Hamas bomber killed 30 Israeli celebrants and wounded over 100.

Within a day, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, which constituted a turning point in the IDF response and the beginning of the end of the Second Intifada. The IDF reoccupied the entire West Bank, killing large numbers of Palestinian terrorists but also civilians caught in the crossfire.

Q. What was Yasser Arafat’s role?

A. Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, never “declared” an intifada and regularly paid lip service to the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict. To this day, security community veterans debate whether he knew in advance of Hamas’s intention to instigate violence against Israel, or gave the order to launch the Second Intifada. Did he release the tiger from its cage, or did he simply feel obliged to grab the tiger by its tail and lead lest he be swept away by his own extremists?

What is beyond debate, and is acknowledged by those who worked closely with him at the time, is Arafat’s belief that ultimately Israelis would only listen to violence. He cultivated and readied a violent Palestinian option, while all the while negotiating with Israel under the Oslo rules he had signed off on. His former colleagues also acknowledge that Arafat never fully took control of the Palestinian Authority and never managed it efficiently. In other words, the Second Intifada made clear that Arafat simply did not control Hamas or even some of the more extreme elements of Fateh.

Here contrast and comparison with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), are instructive. Today in the West Bank Abbas is in control of his security forces. He has always resolutely opposed violence. As for Hamas, Abbas lost effective influence when that movement took over the Gaza Strip. So he is currently directly accountable for what happens in the West Bank but not in Gaza.

Those are the contrasts. The comparisons begin with Abbas’s ongoing adherence to the same set of extreme demands for peace that, under Arafat, contributed to the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of the Second Intifada: the right of return, exclusive control over the Temple Mount, and a refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish Zionist state.

Q. The Second Intifada quickly became in some ways a confrontation between Arafat and Ariel Sharon. In retrospect, how do you assess their performance?

A. This is a fascinating dimension of the Second Intifada. Arafat, as we have seen, was unwilling or unable to stop Palestinian violence. In the end the difference mattered little. Skilled and well-intentioned mediators like US General Anthony Zinni concluded that Arafat was afraid of the very extremists he had nurtured.

Sharon, in contrast, was placed in power precisely because of his extremist reputation. The conflict elevated him from discredited villain of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians to the role of resolute leader of Israel’s response to Palestinian violence. He was elected in his seventies by projecting a firm but grandfatherly image: his campaign clips featured him cuddling a newborn lamb at his ranch. Sharon reasoned that at his age he had nothing to lose by adhering to his core belief that there was no point in negotiating with the Arabs--especially Arafat--and that only extreme force would stop the suicide bombings.

So Sharon and Arafat both believed in force. Not surprisingly, Sharon loathed Arafat. Yet, sobered and matured by his Lebanon failure, Sharon also projected extreme patience before launching a full-fledged invasion of the West Bank in late March 2002. When the Park Hotel atrocity gave him legitimacy and he did send the IDF into the West Bank in force, he instructed it to reoccupy the hard-core breeding ground of Palestinian terrorism, the refugee camps in Nablus and especially Jenin (proudly advertised by Hamas and Fateh as Palestine’s “suicide bombing capital”). The casualty count on both sides was frightening.

Sharon also placed Arafat under intermittent siege in his Ramallah headquarters, the Muqataa. US President Bush 43 and others repeatedly had to restrain Sharon from physically eliminating the Palestinian leader, who remained Israel’s official UN-sanctioned negotiating partner.

Total reoccupation and conquest of the refugee camp terrorist havens were steps none of Sharon’s predecessors since Oslo--Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak--had dared to take for fear of heavy losses and international condemnation. And indeed, there was condemnation, which Sharon shrugged off by citing his resolve to protect Israelis from suicide bombers. To compensate, Sharon readily cooperated with US and UN envoys dispatched to Jerusalem and Ramallah to negotiate a ceasefire. He cooperated guardedly with the Roadmap for peace the emissaries came up with in 2003.

To his credit, Sharon never flinched, never backed off from tough decisions, constantly projected leadership. His only precondition for a ceasefire and negotiations was a Palestinian cessation of violence. By 2004 that seemed achievable. Violence had worn out both sides, grinding awful images of death into the conscience of both Israelis and Palestinians. Remember the 12-year old boy in Gaza killed in the crossfire while his father tried to shelter him? Remember the IDF reservists brutally lynched in Ramallah, their executioner exulting in his blood-drenched hands?

Meanwhile, US Roadmap pressure to negotiate had collapsed after Spring 2003 when Bush became bogged down in Iraq--by far a greater American preoccupation. Sharon remained suspicious of genuine negotiations with any Arab partner: by 2004, Arafat had departed the scene, yet the far milder Abbas did not interest the Israeli leader, who once sardonically referred to him as a “plucked chicken”.

Yet by now Sharon had been mellowed by experience and public pressure to the point of advocating Israeli withdrawal and a two-state solution. His default to negotiating was to opt to unilaterally pull out of Gaza. But that is a separate narrative.

Q. Can we say that Israel won the Second Intifada and the Palestinians lost?

A. In the short term, and from a security standpoint, yes. For the past 15 years there has been no serious or prolonged terrorist violence in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has learned that its survival depends on security cooperation with Israel--even when Abbas, by way of protest against Netanyahu and Trump, cynically declares an end to cooperation.

And for the past 14 years there has been no unified Palestinian Authority thanks to Hamas’s Gaza takeover. Periodic rounds of violence with Gaza are not linked by anyone--Israel, Hamas, the PLO/PA--to the Second Intifada, except insofar as in both instances Israeli civilians were/are deliberately targeted. Palestinian citizens of Israel, shocked by the carnage of the Second Intifada among West Bank Palestinians, Israelis, and their own number--13 Israeli Arab demonstrators were killed by Israel Police fire in October 2000 in what remains a painful open wound--have ever since concentrated on developing an impressive Arab political potential in the Knesset.

By the by, the surrounding Arab world, tiring of extreme and unyielding PLO demands and far more worried about Iran and militant Sunni Islam, has discovered it needs Israel even without a Palestinian solution. Accordingly, it can even violate the letter of its own Arab Peace Initiative, approved by the Arab world without blinking the day after the Park Hotel atrocity. Israel’s impending negotiations with disaster-stricken Lebanon over the delineation of the two country’s maritime border, designed to enable Beirut to generate some desperately-needed energy income, will isolate the Palestinians even further. Their Lebanese booster Hezbollah will have to adopt a less hostile attitude toward Israel for these vital talks to succeed.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. Herein lies the rub. The long-term message of the Second Intifada is that, given the absence of viable leadership in both Israel and Palestine, given Palestinian intransigence and Israeli greed for ever more territory regardless of who lives on it, given Arab state indifference and altered priorities, the Palestinian problem is now Israel’s baby. As Pogo said in a comic-strip back in 1972, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

As matters stand, the most likely end-game on the horizon is a single, binational apartheid entity that replaces both democratic Zionism and the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian democracy is non-existent. Israeli democracy is under attack by a paranoid, indicted prime minister who dictates thuggish behavior to his party, his coalition, even the Israel Police. The Likud has become, in the words of soccer star-turned brash commentator Eyal Berkovich, a “crime syndicate”. Civilized people can only look aghast at what is happening to Israel and to the Israel-Palestine complex.

We can praise Sharon’s iron resolve and even, in this day and age, his often-entertaining disdain for his fellow politicians. We can condemn his violent history and cynical streaks. Yet the contrast between Sharon’s leadership during the Second Intifada and Netanyahu’s today is shocking. As Sharon remarked at one point to US emissary Dennis Ross, “My generation is the last one that is not afraid to make big decisions. I fear that the next generation will be led by politicians and they won’t decide.” Fast forward to Netanyahu today.

The Second Intifada that erupted 20 years ago is a crucial dimension of this narrative.

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