The general sense of optimism experienced by Palestinians with the signing of the Israeli–Palestinian Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993 was relatively short-lived. Although some public intellectuals had picked the document apart—Edward Said famously referred to the declaration and the agreements that followed as “the Palestinian Versailles”—a majority of Palestinians were hopeful that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership had signed an agreement that would lead to freedom and independence. Within a few years, however, it became apparent that Israel had no intention of relinquishing control of the territories it had occupied in 1967: by the end of the 1990s the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank had more than doubled, to more than 205,000 (excluding East Jerusalem). Israel stalled on implementing signed agreements and demanded the right to renegotiate the terms of Oslo II. When President Bill Clinton met with representatives of the two parties at Camp David (11–25 July 2000), Israel made clear that it would not discuss meaningful changes to the status of Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees, and the United States blamed Palestinian Authority (PA) head Yasir Arafat for the breakdown in negotiations.
By the late 1990s, public confidence in the ability of the PA to promote the national interest had waned, and Palestinians noted with dismay the unmistakable signs of authoritarianism and corruption. Some groups, led by Hamas and including the Islamic Jihad and portions of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as disgruntled independents and even some Fatah members, had never accepted the premises of the interim period of autonomy (intended to last five years). The lack of progress (and even regression) in negotiations seemed to support their misgivings.
Palestinian society as a whole was experiencing rapid and profoundly destabilizing social changes, the inevitable result of an influx of Palestinians from the diaspora, associated in some way with the PLO, who were sometimes given well-paying positions in newly created ministries. This too undoubtedly contributed to the sense that the PA might settle for a status quo that fell far short of Palestinian aspirations.
Military developments in the second half of the 1990s contributed significantly to the outbreak of the new uprising. The first was the so–called tunnel intifada of late September 1996, triggered by Israel’s opening of a tunnel under the Haram al-Sharif, a symbolic assertion of Israeli sovereignty over the mosque compound. Palestinians demonstrated angrily and Israel responded with live ammunition, killing five and injuring numerous protestors, including Faisal al-Husseini, the PLO’s representative on Jerusalem affairs. Demonstrations spread throughout the occupied territories, and Palestinian security forces turned their weapons against Israeli military personnel. The violence lasted less than a week. Nearly 100 Palestinians and 25 Israeli soldiers died. The “kill ratio” was one to four. This led Palestinians to consider the clash a victory, and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, taken aback, agreed to a formal cease-fire with Arafat.
The second significant military development was the eviction of the Israeli army from Lebanon by Hizballah’s military resistance on 24 May 2000. The lesson drawn from the withdrawal was that armed resistance against Israel could deliver results.
Outbreak, 29 September 2000
This tinderbox required a match to ignite, and it came in the form of the provocative visit by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif, surrounded by 1,000 policemen, on 28 September 2000. The visit was designed to affirm Israeli sovereignty over a Palestinian holy site. The following day, hundreds of young people protested in various parts of Jerusalem. Seven were shot to death by police, marking the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada. Demonstrations spread quickly to all parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli response was massive: seventy Palestinians were killed the first week. The dramatic televised scene on 30 September of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durra’s killing by soldiers in Gaza was, among other examples of Israeli violence, instrumental in firming up the resolve of Palestinians to resist and, crucially, to fight back by all means available, including militarily. In Israel, crowds of Palestinians demonstrated in favor of their compatriots over the 1967 lines, occasionally blocking traffic on streets and highways. Israeli police retaliated with deadly gunfire. A dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed, but the uprising was developing networks of support inside Israel, even as support was mobilized throughout the Arab world.
PA President Yasir Arafat was positioned at the summit of various political, economic, and security sectors within the PA, but he did not entirely control them. Within Fatah, the Tanzim group, led by Marwan Barghouti, felt that Israel had betrayed its promises and was pressing forward with annexation under the pretext of negotiating; others, represented by Mahmoud Abbas, thought that military confrontation could only result in an Israeli victory. Arafat tried to use both currents against Israel. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP were firmly behind this uprising, having always considered the negotiations useless, the status quo as unacceptable. International actors such as the French president, Jacques Chirac, a proven friend of the Palestinians, urged Arafat to continue negotiating, something more and more difficult to envisage after the electoral victory of Ariel Sharon in February 2001.
Much of the Palestinian population rejected any return to the status quo. Militant groups pressed forward with novel forms of armed resistance, upgrading weaponry found in the arsenals of the security services. Israel progressively threw up hundreds of roadblocks, imposing permanent closures on and between villages, camps, and cities. Hundreds of thousands of people were confined for months on end to their hometowns. Numerous women went into labor at blocked checkpoints, unable to reach the hospital; sometimes the newborns did not survive.
Israel hoped to break the Palestinian will to resist through economic pressure based on frequent curfews and the permanent closure system. Palestinian per capita income fell by some 50 percent by early 2003; yet local traditions of village, camp, and neighborhood-based self-reliance helped the people to continue in their resistance. Foreign volunteers began arriving, many of whom were affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement; more than 1,000 over a four-year span moved in with Palestinian families living in at-risk neighborhoods and reported to the world what they witnessed. Nonetheless, Palestinians felt abandoned by the international community, notably the Arab world. Their most famous song of the era was entitled “Where are the millions [of Arab supporters]?”
Years of Escalation, 2001–2003
On the military front, Palestinian fighters sometimes managed, temporarily, to overrun certain roadblocks. In one celebrated instance, a 22-year-old Palestinian fighter, Tha’ir Kayed Hamad, killed ten Israelis with an old rifle at a military checkpoint in Wadi al-Haramiyya, north of Ramallah. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad initiated a regular series of suicide bombings (a method previously used sparingly) in answer to Israeli violence. Now the Islamist groups, but also Fatah and the PFLP, increasingly resorted to the tactic. In a few instances, the fighters were women. For the first two years of the intifada, dozens of such attacks were carried out; they tapered off when domestic opposition grew.
The central military confrontations of the intifada occurred in Palestinian cities and refugee camps, after Israel decided to reoccupy Area A in late March 2002. That campaign, which lasted until early May, resulted in 500 Palestinian deaths. Arafat was confined by military force to his headquarters in Ramallah, where he remained almost until the end of his life. In retrospect, this month-long campaign to retake Area A was, with one exception, relatively easy, and shows that the Israeli army had absorbed the lessons of the tunnel intifada: they employed numerous snipers, attack helicopters, as well as armored bulldozers (occasionally tanks), overwhelming the Palestinian fighters, who clung to their hit-and-run urban guerrilla tactics.
Subduing Jenin refugee camp proved to be a difficult undertaking. The resistance of the camp fighters reverberated through the West Bank and Gaza. The ten-day assault was costly: 22 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinian fighters and noncombatants were killed. Resistance in the camp was grouped under a single (nonparty) leadership, even as the area was divided into multiple autonomous fighting units. Although the invaders finally won by reducing the camp to rubble, the battle became the model for continued armed clashes, mainly in the Gaza Strip.
Ending the Intifada
On the political front, Arafat came under intense international pressure to create a prime minister position and work toward de-escalation. In March 2003 he reluctantly appointed his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, as “executive” prime minister. Because of their personal rivalry and political differences (Abu Mazen wanted to wind down militant operations rapidly), the arrangement was doomed from the start, and Mahmoud Abbas resigned after six months. In the meantime, the newly minted “Quartet” (the European Union, United Nations, Russia, and the United States) suggested ways out of the impasse and drew up a presumed blueprint for peace and a Palestinian state, which most thought utopian.
Israel’s Expulsion from Gaza
By 2003, the main battlefield had shifted to Gaza, with skillful camp-based resistance, an extended territorialized version of the Jenin strategy. Israeli settlements were regularly blockaded by Palestinian fighters and presumed to be surrounded by treacherous deadly explosive devices hidden in the sands: Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were blown up. Israel assassinated Palestinian leaders, particularly those of Hamas, which resulted in deadly revenge attacks, in turn occasioning Israeli airborne reprisals, causing heavy civilian deaths and injuries. In 2003 Sharon announced his intention of removing settlements (and, by implication, soldiers) from Gaza. The process lasted two years.
A New–Old Palestinian Bureaucracy
In October 2004, the critically ill Yasir Arafat was airlifted from his besieged headquarters to Paris, where he died on 11 November. Mahmoud Abbas became Chairman of the PLO and, in early 2005, he was elected president of the PA, a position which he still retains nearly two decades later, without any further presidential elections. His political entourage consisted of equally aging leaders, who for the most part clung to their positions for the rest of their lives. Relations with Israel were stabilized through the cease-fire of Sharm al-Sheikh signed by Abbas and Sharon in February 2005, which can be considered the end of the al-Aqsa intifada. In addition to the Gaza Strip, Israel evacuated four settlements in the northern West Bank (near Jenin and its refugee camp) and released a few hundred prisoners. Palestinians had suffered around four thousand deaths and tens of thousands of injured.
Sporadic revolts continued over the decades, notably in Jerusalem, supported by people in all of historic Palestine. Palestinian society found itself ever more deeply divided politically, socially, and economically. And the settler occupation regime continued its inexorable drive for control, extending through every corner of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, where all borders and crossings, on land and in the sea, remained in Israeli hands.
Chagnollaud, Jean-Paul. “Intifada ou lutte de libération?” Confluences-Méditerranée 37 (2002): 11–18.
Heacock, Roger. “Seizing the Initiative, Regaining a Voice: The Palestinian al-Aqsa Intifada as a Struggle of the Marginalized.” In Stephanie Cronin, ed., Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa. London: Routledge, 2008.
Hweel, Jamal. Ma‘rakat mukhayyam Jenin al-kubra 2002: al-tarikh al-hay. [The Great Battle of Jenin Camp 2002: A Living History] (Preface by Marwan Barghouti). Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2022.
Pressman, Jeremy. “The Second Intifada: Background and Causes of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.” Journal of Conflict Studies 23, no.2 (Winter 2003): 114–141.
World Bank. Twenty-seven Months–Intifada, Closures and Palestinian Economic Crisis: An Assessment. Jerusalem: Author, May 2003.