Between 2000 and 2006, the Oslo process virtually collapsed. Palestinian-Israeli final status talks stalled, the second intifada erupted, and violent confrontations ensued, including the reinvasion by Israel of the territories under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The new US administration under President George W. Bush conditioned its efforts toward a peace settlement on the cessation of violence, for which it held the Palestinians responsible, and at the same time it supported Israel’s positions on final status issues. Other significant events during this period include the death of long-time leader Yasir Arafat in November 2004, the election of Mahmud Abbas as his successor in January 2005, and the parliamentary electoral victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, one year later. This signaled the end of an era in Palestinian politics that had lasted 35 years and the redrawing of the Oslo process in favor of increased Israeli unilateralism in the occupied territories.
Two months after the collapse of the US-Israeli-Palestinian peace summit at Camp David, Israeli politician Ariel Sharon made a high-profile visit to Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem on 28 September 2000. This visit by a Likud Party leader was widely viewed as provocative, made even worse because Sharon was reviled for his role in the 1982 Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatila massacre and was accompanied by hundreds of Israeli security forces. The visit triggered Palestinian popular demonstrations and clashes with Israeli security forces all over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Palestinian towns in Israel. Israeli forces responded heavy-handedly and within a week, 70 Palestinians and 4 Israelis were killed.
The Palestinian uprising (known as Al-Aqsa intifada), though triggered by Sharon’s provocation, appeared driven by several factors: the failure of final status negotiations; nonfulfillment by Israel of the Oslo interim requirements, such as the redeployment from most of the West Bank; expansion of the settlements; and, conversely, the success of Hizballah’s resistance in South Lebanon, which led to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.
During the last quarter of 2000, outgoing US president Bill Clinton tried to cool the situation down, mainly through setting a fact-finding committee on the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation (the “Mitchell Committee”). At the same time, he made a last attempt to continue the peace talks, presenting to both sides a bridging proposal (the “Clinton Parameters”) in late December. On 21 January 2001, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators started an intensive negotiation round in Taba, Egypt, and came the closest they had come to bridging the gaps between them, but ended their talks on 27 January, 10 days before the prime ministerial elections in Israel. A victorious Sharon replaced Ehud Barak as Israel’s prime minister and immediately he and President Bush put an effective end to the peace talks and set the stage for Israeli military escalation and diplomatic campaign against Arafat.
The intifada had already shifted in late November 2000 from mass demonstrations to shooting attacks by Palestinian activists (mainly by Fatah in the first stage) as a response to Israel’s harsh repression, and levels of violence varied during the following months. Israeli actions took the form of shelling PA administrative offices and security compounds, conducting incursions in areas under PA’s jurisdiction, closing off these areas, imposing curfews, carrying out targeted assassinations of militants, leveling houses, uprooting agricultural lands, and erecting hundreds of checkpoints to hinder Palestinians’ movement. Palestinian militants resorted to detonating road-side bombs, firing at Israeli soldiers and settlers, launching mortar attacks (mainly against Israeli military positions and settlements in and around the Gaza Strip), and, starting late May 2001, carrying out suicide bombings (principally by Hamas, followed by Fatah and Islamic Jihad).
The most serious (albeit short-lived) US attempt to distance itself from Israeli positions occurred immediately after the 9-11 attacks in the US. Seeking Islamic-Arab support against al-Qa‘ida in Afghanistan, President Bush appealed to Sharon several times between mid-September and mid-October 2001 for Israeli de-escalation and endorsed on 2 October, for the first time since taking office, the creation of a Palestinian state. However, on 17 October, Israeli minister of tourism Rehavam Ze’evi was assassinated by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in retaliation for the assassination (on 27 August) of Abu Ali Mustafa, the movement’s secretary-general, and the act gave Sharon the opportunity to reverse the trend toward re-legitimizing Arafat and to conduct destructive campaigns any time he would choose in the following years under the motto of fighting “Palestinian terrorism.”
Two days after a 27 March 2002 Hamas suicide bombing at a hotel in Netanya that killed dozens of Israeli civilians, Israel launched a massive invasion of most West Bank towns, villages, and refugee camps. Ground forces besieged Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, inflicted heavy damage on the Old City of Nablus, destroyed much of the Jenin refugee camp after a fierce battle in early April 2002, and ransacked PA offices. It withdrew from the Palestinian towns in early May but continued to maintain a presence around them and to carry out incursions. At the same time, the Israeli cabinet approved the building of a permanent barrier to separate Israel and a number of settlements from Palestinian communities. Depending on the location of the settlements and the nature of the terrain, the barrier was planned to run on certain sections along the 1949 Armistice Line, and on others to veer deep into the West Bank, effectively annexing large areas into Israel. (In July 2004, an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice determined that the barrier violated international law.)
At the same time, the US administration, urged by its international partners and responding to the Arab Peace Initiative (proclaimed in Beirut in March 2002) acquiesced to the formation of what will be known as the Middle East Quartet (the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN) and to revive the prospect of a diplomatic resolution. But it did this on its own terms. On 24 June 2002, Bush stated that the prerequisite for establishing an independent Palestinian state was “a new and different Palestinian leadership” with new institutions and new security arrangements. His speech, which was delivered after the United States stopped dealing with Arafat, constituted the basis of a Quartet plan called the “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” that was officially presented to the two sides at the end of April 2003 after much delay and foot-dragging. Sharon ambiguously accepted the road map and listed fourteen “reservations” that rendered it effectively meaningless.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership, under pressure from the Quartet and also from the Fatah cadres, started the process of reform. In particular, Arafat was forced in February 2003 to agree to the creation of the position of PA prime minister, after Quartet representatives threatened that if the PA failed to do so before the expected US invasion of Iraq, the United States would give Israel a green light to oust the Palestinian leader. The Palestinian Legislative Council, with the PLO Central Council approval, amended the Basic Law in March, opening the way for the formation of a new cabinet under Mahmud Abbas as Prime Minister in April 2003. Frustrated with his inability to govern and, in particular, to control the PA security forces, Abbas resigned in September 2003. The following month, he was replaced as prime minister by Ahmad Qurai‘.
Unwilling to implement the road map, Sharon started toward the end of 2003 to work on an alternative plan (disengagement from Gaza) that could appeal to the international community as an indication of progress while advancing Israeli strategic interests. In April 2004, in exchange for an Israeli unilateral disengagement from Gaza (withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from inside the Strip) and evacuation of four settlements north of the West Bank, President Bush officially assured Israel that he would foster a new Palestinian leadership; commit to Israel as a Jewish state; rule out the return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to their original homes in Israel (while holding out the possibility of settling them in a future Palestinian state); and reject any call for a return to the armistice lines of 1949 in light of “existing major Israeli population centers” in the West Bank. The disengagement (carried out in August–September 2005), combined with the construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank, marked an important step in Israel’s strategy to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and to consolidate its control over the West Bank.
As for the situation on the ground between 2003 and 2005, Palestinian resistance continued in the West Bank, though weakened, and increased in the Gaza Strip. Responding to Egyptian mediation efforts, Palestinian organizations affirmed on several occasions their readiness for conditional cease-fires with Israel. However, Israel strengthened its hold on the West Bank through its sustained military operations and progressively shifted its escalatory steps to the Gaza Strip. It assassinated Hamas’s spiritual leader, Ahmad Yasin, in March 2004, and the group’s political leader, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Rantisi, four weeks later. Arafat, who had been confined in his reduced compound for more than two years, fell victim to a mysterious illness in October 2004: he was evacuated from Ramallah and died in Paris on 11 November. Abbas thereupon became the fourth head of the PLO and was elected PA president on 9 January 2005.
With the passing of the charismatic leader of the Palestinian national movement, Palestinian society was exhausted from the violence of the second intifada, its brutal suppression by Israel, and the absence of any hope for a negotiated settlement. Under rules of the game now unilaterally defined by Israel (in the West Bank, at least), Abbas attempted, with some success, to obtain the organizations’ agreement to a truce with Israel and to reconstruct the PA institutions through appealing to international donors’ assistance and resorting to popular polls. Four rounds of municipal elections that were held between December 2004 and December 2005 showed a steady rise of support for Hamas among Palestinian constituents. The decision of Hamas to participate in legislative elections scheduled for January 2006, its conducting a coherent campaign in contrast with Fatah disarray, and finally its victory signaled the opening of a new page in Palestinian politics.
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