The Middle East Channel

Al-Aqsa Intifada 10 years later

This year’s 10th anniversary of the start of the second Palestinian uprising passed with barely a mention in the Israeli, Palestinian and American media. This is not surprising, considering the uprising is widely seen as a disaster for most Palestinians and Israelis, putting the Middle East peace process into a deep and perhaps permanent freeze. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

This year’s 10th anniversary of the start of the second Palestinian uprising passed with barely a mention in the Israeli, Palestinian and American media. This is not surprising, considering the uprising is widely seen as a disaster for most Palestinians and Israelis, putting the Middle East peace process into a deep and perhaps permanent freeze.

The basic facts about the outbreak of the intifada are not in doubt. The July, 2000 Camp David summit failed. The summit had been touted as an opportunity to reach an historic settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its collapse turned the region into a political tinderbox. As tension mounted, on Sept. 28, Ariel Sharon took hundreds of Israeli police to the Dome of the Rock compound to declare that Israel would never relinquish its hold over all of "unified" Jerusalem. Fights between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police erupted; when they took a bloody turn the next day following Friday prayers, the second intifada was born. Some Fatah leaders, led by Marwan Barghouti, viewed the outbreak of violence as an opportunity to advance Palestinian interests, and called for the mobilization of fighters against Israel. Barghouti noted the lack of Palestinian statehood nearly 14 years after the start of the first uprising: "We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, then seven years of negotiations without intifada. Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously."

These facts about the second intifada are not disputed — but nearly everything else is. Ten years later, it’s important to reexamine what lessons we’ve learned. Learning the wrong lessons (or not learning anything at all) from the second intifada carries serious consequences, both from a policy perspective and with an eye toward historical accuracy.

The dominant Israeli narrative, shared by many in the United States, can be summarized as follows: Israel offered a generous deal at Camp David, which Yasir Arafat rejected — and then went home to make war against the Jewish state. In this narrative, the second intifada was a planned event, led and directed by Arafat himself, demonstrating that the Palestinians will never accept Israel.

The problem with this narrative is that it is factually wrong on all counts. Former peace negotiators Robert Malley and Hussein Agha have done more than anyone else to destroy the myths that were propagated about Camp David. Their work is now supported by a slew of memoirs and other accounts. As they noted recently, their "revisionism" of 2001 has now become orthodoxy that "barely elicits a raised eyebrow." Scholars such as Jeremy Pressman have come to similar conclusions inside the academic community.

But narratives are often more powerful than truth. Israel’s narrative has led to a decade of Israeli governments opposed to a meaningful two-state solution, and to a population largely disinterested in a peace process.

By contrast, a cohesive Palestinian narrative of the intifada does not exist, although some elements are widely shared. The dominant Palestinian story holds that Israel showed its lack of seriousness at Camp David by making an offer that no Palestinian leader could ever accept, and that the intifada started shortly thereafter in a reflection of popular rage, not orchestrated violence. Any number of Palestinian leaders, likely motivated by bravado, would like to take credit for leading the resistance to Israel’s occupation. Arafat, however, made no such claim for himself (contrary to Thomas Friedman, who termed the uprising "Arafat’s War"). Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that Arafat opposed the intifada but felt powerless to stop it. As in the 1991 Gulf War, Arafat chose to ride the tiger of public opinion, even to disaster.

The most glaring aspect of the fragmented Palestinian narrative about the al-Aqsa intifada is the lack of a normative judgment. Some Palestinian leaders, like Mahmoud Abbas, view the second intifada as a disaster for Palestinian interests; in fact, Abbas said so at the time. But most Palestinians cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the intifada as a strategic mistake, and stick to stories of individual Palestinian heroism or Israeli malice.

In fact, neither side’s narrative includes serious introspection. And while these narratives have little in common, there is a growing consensus among independent analysts on the meaning and lessons of this pivotal event.

The first is that the intifada was a strategic disaster for the Palestinians. As a stateless people, Palestinians lack many basic political and human rights and statehood presents the only viable path toward securing these rights. The uprising put off statehood by at least a decade (and perhaps permanently), and at high levels of human suffering and economic devastation.

Second, the intifada created a cult of martyrdom among Palestinians. Suicide bombings were unknown in the Middle East until Hezbollah in Lebanon learned of their effectiveness from Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers in the 1980s. After 400 Palestinian Islamists were exiled to southern Lebanon for a year in 1992, they brought the technique home with them. A smattering of suicide bombings in the 1990s gave way to an average of one every two weeks during the first four years of the uprising. The tactic of suicide bombing was accompanied by a cultural motif to support, justify and venerate the "martyrs."

Third, the intifada killed the Zionist and post-Zionist Left in Israel. Israel’s center-left staked its political future on a peace deal with the Palestinians, which itself was based on the presence of a Palestinian partner for peace. The dominant Israeli narrative of the intifada holds that there is no reliable Palestinian peace partner; this has led to the virtual extinction of the Zionist Left in Israel. Since the start of the intifada, Israelis have elected only prime ministers who cut their political teeth in the right wing Likud party: Ariel Sharon (three times), Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Fourth, the intifada empowered the forces of Greater Israel. The biggest political winner over the past decade has been the Israeli settler community. About 500,000 Israelis now live on the Palestinian side of the 1967 Green Line, and they and their political allies are now arguably the single most powerful political force inside Israel. Most settlers, and certainly their leaders, have no interest in a real two-state solution. Analysts who argue that the historical window for a two-state solution has now closed do so based on the strength of the settler movement. After spending much of the 1990s as the whipping boy for many Israeli politicians, the settler movement has had a remarkable political revival in the past decade.

And lastly, the information revolution has arrived in the Middle East. During the first intifada, uncensored events were only occasionally caught on video by private citizens and the videos were only disseminated if a friendly television station was willing to broadcast them. The second intifada was seen in real time, through videos and cell photos that were posted on the Internet within minutes of being taken. Moreover, Al Jazeera, which came into being during the interregnum between the uprisings, quickly became the most watched source of news in the Arab world. Previously obscure events were now viewed endlessly. The death of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura, caught in crossfire as his father tried to shield him, was seen by millions of viewers, as were myriad other scenes from the intifada. A new age in the battle over shaping public opinion was born.

The death of Israel’s pro-peace community, the empowerment of the forces of Greater Israel, and the staggering weakness and fragmentation of the Palestinians — all outcomes of the second uprising — have likely ended the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This invariably leads to the lesson unlearned by the Obama administration. Albert Einstein reputedly observed that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. The 1990s — with the end of the Cold war, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the defeat of Iraq — provided the historic moment to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there is plenty of blame to go around for that failure, the Clinton administration rightly deserves its share. Its efforts, led by Dennis Ross, were plagued by a failure of imagination, a focus on the tactical and blindness to the strategic. But the Obama administration seems not to have learned these lessons, for here we are today, with the same small-minded approach and the same tactician at the helm, expecting a different outcome. The first contributed to the tragedy of the al-Aqsa intifada, and now we await the farce.

Glenn E. Robinson is associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The views expressed here are his own.

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