On 28 September 2000 then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque with heavily armed Israeli policemen and soldiers provoking a Palestinian uprising that lasted five years and left over 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead. Some 17 years later the occupation continues, the Palestinian people remain vulnerable, and Hamas and Fatah remain at odds.
What: The Second Intifada
Where: Israel and Palestine
When: 28 September 2000 – 8 February 2005
The Second Intifada rose against the backdrop of the failed Camp David talks; a month before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat had failed to come to a peace agreement. They disagreed over Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Consequently, the promised declaration of a Palestinian state was postponed.
It was on the last Thursday of September when Sharon chose to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque accompanied by heavily armed Israeli police and soliders. The move, according to Sharon, was to assert the right of all Israelis to visit the mosque and according to a Likud party spokesman, to "show that under a Likud government [Al-Aqsa Mosque] will remain under Israeli sovereignty".
The decision was met with widespread outrage from Palestinians who had recently marked the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Sharon was found responsible for failing to stem the bloodshed. Their reaction was also an expression of their deep-seated frustration at the ongoing Israeli occupation, which once again peace talks had failed to resolve. A defiant, public violation of the Muslim holy site proved a step too far.
The next day after Friday prayers protests erupted across the Old City of Jerusalem; seven Palestinians were killed and some 300 more injured. In the following days mass demonstrations took place in the West Bank and Gaza, prompting a violent response from Israeli occupying forces. Amos Malka, then director of military intelligence, estimated that in the first few days of the demonstrations the Israeli army fired approximately 1.3 million bullets. A report by Amnesty International found that the majority of Palestinian casualties during this time were civilian bystanders and that 80 per cent of those killed in the first month were not endangering the lives of Israeli officials.
On Saturday 30 September the murder of 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Durrah by Israeli forces as he took shelter with his father was captured on camera and sent shockwaves across the world. The video showed father and son crouching behind a concrete pillar as they try to escape Israeli forces who had opened fire. Al-Durrah's father could be seen signalling to try and get the soldiers to stop firing, only for a burst of Israeli gunfire to put a premature end to Muhammad's life. The footage became iconic, representing the oppression endured by the Palestinians, and the indifference of Israel.
The months that followed witnessed more violent crackdowns, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured. Amnesty International's report on the first year also found that the "overwhelming majority of cases of unlawful killings and injuries in Israel and the Occupied Territories have been committed by the IDF using excessive force. In particular, the IDF have used US-supplied helicopters in punitive rocket attacks where there was no imminent danger to life".
Upon Sharon's election to the position of Prime Minister in early 2001 he refused to meet with Arafat and all bids at diplomacy came to a standstill. In 2002, Palestinian leaders repeated their efforts to stem the violence and arrive at a peace deal by endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative outlined by Saudi Arabia. Israel largely ignored the proposal. In 2003, following the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as PA Prime Minister, negotiations were again attempted following a peace plan prescribed by the UN, EU, Russia and the US, but the efforts fell through.
The next year witnessed more violence, including the targeted assassination of senior Hamas officials by Israel and a nine-day incursion into Rafah refugee camp, which left over 40 Palestinians dead. As Israeli officials were forced to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip they also started the construction of a barrier encircling the West Bank, a move the International Court of Justice ruled was illegal.
Arafat's death at the end of 2004 marked the beginning of the end of the conflict. As Abbas, now also chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), called for peace, Israel responded by sealing off the Gaza Strip, prompting resistance from groups within the coastal enclave. However by February the attacks had largely been suspended. Israeli forces withdrew armed combat units from some West Bank towns and released dozens of Palestinian prisoners.
What happened next?
The ending of the intifada is disputed, but is marked as the day when Sharon and Abbas declared a ceasefire at a summit in Sharm El-Sheikh on 8 February 2005. However, two days later, Hamas contested the ceasefire and fired rockets at an illegal settlement near the Gaza Strip. The move prompted Abbas to sack senior security officials within the group, causing tension within Palestinian factions.
The rift grew the following year when Hamas triumphed over Fatah in elections. Ongoing disputes between the groups often led to violent confrontations and in 2007 Hamas eventually asserted control over the Gaza Strip, leaving Fatah to retreat to the West Bank. The divide has endured for over 10 years despite attempts to reconcile, leaving Palestinians frustrated at their state of political limbo.
Whilst Palestinians made some material gains as a result of the intifada, after the ceasefire Israeli aggression intensified and human rights violations increased. The peace process was stalled for many years as Israel vehemently opposed a two-state solution, perceiving the intifada as a reaction to the generous deal they had allegedly offered the Palestinians at Camp David. This was a view shared by the Israeli public as much as politicians, who have elected the right wing Likud party consistently since 2002. The settler community have also been emboldened, with greater construction and government support for illegal settlement activity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.