Twenty-Two Years after the Second Intifada, Violence is Still a Symptom of the Conflict

Twenty-two years ago, then-head of Israel’s opposition Ariel Sharon, escorted by a thousand Israeli police officers, provocatively visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, igniting the second popular Palestinian uprising (the second intifada). This protracted armed conflict, which included brutal Palestinian terrorist attacks and ruthless Israeli operations to re-conquer the West Bank, caused more than 1,000 Israeli fatalities and more than 2,700 Palestinian fatalities. Thousands more were injured and hundreds of thousands traumatized.      

The second intifada broke out at a time when Palestinians felt that their most important values – national pride, individual pride, respect for religious assets, hope for national independence – were under attack.

Of course, Palestinians have experienced similar conditions at several points during the 22 years that have passed since the last days of September 2000. But they never waged a full-fledged uprising. Maybe because the scars from the second intifada were still fresh. Maybe because their leadership discouraged an armed uprising. Maybe because Palestinians still saw a shred of hope for a diplomatic resolution.

All that is changing. The young generation in the West Bank does not remember the second intifada and does not bear its scars. 56% of West Bank Palestinians are 24 years old or younger. A recent poll showed that Palestinian hope for national independence is at an all-time low, disappointment with President Mahmoud Abbas and his policy of pursuing diplomacy with Israel is surging, general pessimism is on the rise, as is support for armed struggle against Israel.

Not surprisingly, violence is indeed surging in the West Bank, both armed attacks and unarmed protest, as are Israeli military operations. This week, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi approved for the first time the legally questionable use of drones for targeted killings of West Bank terrorism suspects.  

Further increasing tension and resentment are Israeli policies and practices toward the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which, in addition to sparking the second intifada, have also been the source of numerous violent incidents. In the past year, in violation of the agreed “Status Quo” at the compound, Israeli authorities have opened the floodgates, permitting tens of thousands of Jews to not only visit the third holiest site to Islam but to also pray there. In the year 2000, only 1,000 Jews were permitted to visit the compound. This year, on one day alone (Jerusalem Day on May 29th), more than twice that number of Jews visited the site. Some held collective prayers, protected by Israeli police officers. Overall, 48,000 Jews visited the compound in the past Jewish calendar year compared to 25,000 in the year that passed. Nationalist-religious Jewish zealots are offering financial awards to Jews who would slaughter sacrificial lambs on the Temple Mount on Passover, blow the shofar there on Rosh Hashanah, or go there to recite the blessing over the Sukkoth ceremonial palm frond (lulav).

The Biden administration on Wednesday expressed its “deep concern” about the sharp rise in violence. State Department Spokesman Ned Price also called on “all parties to do everything in their power to de-escalate the situation and return to a period of calm. This is in the interest of all Israelis and Palestinians. As we have said for some time, we call on the parties themselves to contain the violence.” He added, “The United States and other international partners stand ready to help but we cannot substitute for vital actions by the parties to mitigate conflict and to restore calm.”

Yes, the Biden administration says it is willing to help but counsels the “parties themselves” (Israelis and Palestinians) to “mitigate” the conflict, in other words, to manage it on their own.

Good luck with that.

While Price was briefing reporters in Washington, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland briefed the Security Council in New York and plainly said what we all know to be true: “The absence of a meaningful peace process to end the Israeli occupation and resolve the conflict is fueling a dangerous deterioration across the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in West Bank and driving the perception that conflict is unresolvable.”

If the Biden administration really wants to help, it should abandon the “conflict management” paradigm and take actions that support conflict resolution. An end to the conflict may not be imminent, but doubling down on conflict resolution as a goal and taking meaningful immediate measures to pave the way toward resolving the conflict is not only possible, it is imperative. Otherwise – whether the violence further deteriorates toward an all-out third intifada or continues to slowly-but-surely spiral – the conflict will fester, intensify and draw more blood on both sides.