The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
Al-Aqsa Intifada: Why?

Walid Mustafa
Department of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, Bethlehem University, Bethlehem
West Bank, Palestine

Al-Aqsa Mosque (including Haram al-Sharif and Kubat el-Sakhra) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre represent two of the holiest symbols for the Palestinian people. Both are located within and spiritually linked with Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa Mosque stands on the sacred spot where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises on the traditional site where Jesus Christ was buried after his crucifixion and resurrected. Both shrines are thus part of the sacred geography of Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Palestinians attach enormous  emotional and  spiritual significance to these unique holy places.

Since their construction in the middle of the first millennium CE,  the Palestinians have preserved and protected these supreme sacred sites along with other religious places and shrines. Thus Jerusalem, a sacred geographical centre for several of the  world's major faiths, has become the focus of religious and national identity for the Palestinian

Al-Aqsa Mosque has witnessed three massacres during the last decade. The first took place on 8 October 1990, when Israeli troops opened fire on protesters after worship; 17 persons were killed and many injured. This incensed the entire Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories and led to a wave of protest that resulted in the killing of 22 more and the injury of approximately 1 000 in the West Bank and Gaza. Another wave of violence erupted when Palestinians were again provoked by Israeli intransigence: the insistence on continuing with the digging of a tunnel for “archeological purposes” beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque. This wave erupted on 26 September 1996 and lasted until October 5. The result was 62 dead and 1 206 injured. Few Jewish Israelis understood the great emotional importance Muslims throughout the world attached to this mosque. Few had any comprehension of how such excavations offended the sensibilities of the Muslim masses. On Friday 29 September 2000, violent clashes erupted as a protest against Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the mosque the day before (timed to coincide with the very eve of the Jewish New Year). Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinian worshippers after Friday noon prayers, killing and injuring a large number. In the eyes of many Palestinians, this onslaught was the most serious and brutal violence ever perpetrated in the West Bank and Gaza. It also triggered a tidal wave of militant protest within the Palestinian population inside Israel.

These protests were responded to by Israeli troops and police with extraordinary brutality, unsurpassed in the annals of Israeli repression. Two weeks of demonstrations resulted in the killing of 95 persons and the injury of 3 104 others. Many injuries were serious and will leave victims with permanent disabilities. For example, 14 youngsters lost one or two eyes during the clashes and remain maimed for life. The revolt has escalated beyond anything experienced during the years of the Intifada: the number of Palestinian deaths is so high; the Israeli army has used helicopter gun ships and missiles; the Israeli army and the Palestinian police have exchanged live fire; and this time, the protests have spread beyond the Green Line over into Israel proper.

This wave of protest was a bloodbath for our young Palestinians, who  demonstrated their readiness in Palestine (and inside Israel) to sacrifice their very lives if necessary in a popular uprising against Israeli oppression—an unarmed population facing the Middle East's most sophisticated army, indeed a nuclear  power with a formidable striking force that still enjoys claiming the status of victim. Moreover, these clashes proved beyond a doubt the determination of the Israeli military to use the harshest methods to quell public unrest, to teach Palestinians a  lesson in brute force.

The solidarity of the Palestinian population in Israel with their brothers and sisters in Palestine was met by strong-arm tactics and even vicious brutality on the part of the Israeli police against Israel-Arabs, citizens of the state. The upshot was the killing of 14 Palestinians inside Israel proper and the injury of another 1 000. That outrage triggered the wrath of the population against Israel and a campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians throughout the Arab world and in many Islamic countries. Some demonstrations included as many as one million participants, such as the protest against Israeli aggression that took place in Morocco. This was also a message directed to the conservative Arab regimes that remain the closest allies of Washington. There have been solidarity campaigns in many countries, especially in the Arab and Islamic world and in states with large Arab communities. All have voiced support for the Palestinian right to self-determination. Yet the U.S. has stood staunchly by their closest client state, Israel, and Washington was careful not to condemn Israeli aggression, rather calling  "on both sides to halt the violence"—as though there were some sort of symmetry between basically unarmed Palestinian protest and excessive Israeli firepower.

Why has this uprising occurred? How is it related to the peace process? Does it mark the end of the Oslo process and the return to struggle or is it another bloody station on the difficult path toward a solution in the region? As mentioned earlier, this renewed Intifada  was a direct popular reaction to the provocative visit of the reactionary right wing leader Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Many Israelis and Palestinians warned of the possible repercussions of the visit, but to no avail. Thus Sharon must bear the full blame for serving as the provocative match that lit the powder keg of Palestinian discontent. History shows that while a number of leaders have led their people to progress and prosperity, others brought catastrophe and massacre, even to their own people. Ariel Sharon is notorious among Palestinians, a racist politician; they remember only too well his role as head of Unit 101, an Israeli military formation in the 1950s and 60s that attacked Palestinian border villages such as Nahalin, Qebya, and Samou, then under Jordanian rule. His role in aiding and abetting the establishment of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and his provocative ownership of a house in the old city of Jerusalem are well-known. Sharon is directly linked with the massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut on 17 September 1982. The casualties in that bloodbath were some  1 000 killed in the carnage, most buried in mass graves. Indeed, his visit  to Haram al-Sharif came but two weeks after the anniversary of the slaughterhouse at Shatilla engineered by Sharon.

Mr. Sharon's visit, staged under heavy security measures (i.e. a “protective guard” of some  1 000 Israeli soldiers) was not coincidental. It occurred after negotiations over Jerusalem at Camp David between Barak and Arafat had  reached a deadlock in June 2000. During the Camp David summit, the Palestinians demanded the implementation of the UN resolutions (such as 242) that consider East Jerusalem an occupied territory and deny the Israelis any sort of sovereignty over East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Yet the Israeli side was adamant in its demand for sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque and a large area of East Jerusalem, including the old city.

Mr. Sharon had his own strategy and partisan agenda in visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque. In addition to underscoring the Israeli position on the question of absolute sovereignty, he wanted to put Barak and his government in a delicate and embarrassing position and to strengthen his status as Likud leader over against his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, now on the point of a comeback. The latter was only recently acquitted of charges of abusing public money. It was not unexpected that the visit would prove an extreme provocation to the Palestinian public, which expressed its outrage the following day. In a massive show of wrath, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated in the Al-Aqsa courtyard immediately following the noon prayer. Instead of countering the anger of the Palestinians by non-violent measures to disperse the demonstrators, the military gave orders to open fire on them, a severe measure harking back to repression tactics adopted after the 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories and heightened during the Intifada that erupted in December 1987.

As a consequence of the harsh, disproportionately brutal, Israeli reaction to the protests in Al-Aqsa on that fateful Friday, the incensed masses all over the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets and moved towards the confrontation lines, where Israeli troops were still stationed at the entrances to the main Palestinian cities. Clashes occurred. Total casualties during the first day were six dead and 300 injured, some seriously. The violent clashes resulted in a massive interruption of the normal life of the Palestinians that exacerbated the situation. Hundreds of unarmed Palestinian youngsters became involved in “David  vs. Goliath” clashes with the fully armed Israeli forces and also fell victim to vigilante attacks by armed Jewish settlers, who attacked them and their property. Meanwhile, the Israeli government and  military claimed they were showing “restraint” and that there was a high level of “crossfire,” though remarkably few Israeli casualties were reported.

This uprising reached a high point when Palestinians inside Israel were mobilized; their leadership called for a general strike in protest against the Israeli measures in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters in Palestine and in defense of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians in Israel declared Saturday, 30 September 2000 as a day of public mourning and took to the streets in solidarity with their fellow Palestinians and in defense of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Instead of keeping a low  profile in the Arab communities as requested by the Israeli-Arab leadership, the Israeli police (and notorious Border Police) opened fire, seeking to kill demonstrators. Such acts aggravated the situation in the Arab streets in Israel and the clashes continued for three days until, after intensified contacts with Israeli officials, the Palestinian leadership in Israel was able to restore relative calm. In addition, a broad meeting was held between this leadership and Israeli ministers at Barak's office. Various decisions were taken during the meeting for restoring peace and quiet within the Arab-Palestinian community in Israel. Nonetheless, the incitement campaign against the Arabs (who comprise approximately 20% of the population in Israel) escalated; their loyalty to the state of Israel was questioned.

As a result of this incitement, and after four days of relative calm, approximately 1 500 Jewish citizens of the neighbourhood Upper Nazareth (Natsrat Elit) attacked the Palestinian citizens of the city of Nazareth (the “capital” of the Arabs in Israel) the night of 9 October 2000. The attackers were protected by the Israeli police and started vandalizing and ransacking Palestinian stores, restaurants, and properties. This caused major confrontations between the Jewish attackers and the Palestinians, leading to the death of two Palestinians and injuring scores of others. In Nazareth these unprecedented confrontations revealed the racism and social segregation smouldering just beneath the surface, where a Jewish population has been built up and concentrated by the authorities in the satellite of Upper Nazareth over the past three decades.

Why  did Israeli Arabs take to the streets in protest? What are the real motives behind this violence and the large sacrifices on their part? First of all, those Palestinians consider themselves as an integral part of the Palestinian people in its diaspora all over the world. During the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967, history witnessed Israeli Arabs standing up with and defending the rights of their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They all rejected the sad history of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Palestinians and the legacy of second-class citizenship they had experienced after 1948. In addition, they did their utmost to support the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the recent events at Al-Aqsa provoked the religious as well as the national feelings and identity of Israeli Arabs. And it was not easy for them to stand silently by as their own government provided Sharon with a massive military escort to “visit” Al-Aqsa Mosque. They perceive the struggle for establishing a Palestinian state and the defense of Al-Aqsa as their battle too.

There is an added factor behind the Arab demonstrations in Israel: the deep disappointment and frustration with the Barak government and its mendacious policies and eyewash rhetoric. Some 94% of the Arab electorate  in Israel voted for Barak in the last election, hoping that the Barak government would bring the Oslo peace process forward and take serious steps towards narrowing the wide gap between the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Israel. This could then be perceived and welcomed as the first step towards abolishing the discrimination against them and establishing equality among all citizens. Large numbers of Arab families have suffered seven years of declining economic and social conditions within Israel and today live in extreme poverty. The 12 towns at the top of the unemployment list in Israel are all Palestinian, with official unemployment figures of over 20% in some localities (the real figures are closer to 40%). Unfortunately, the peace process is now deadlocked, due largely to the Barak government's hypocritical negotiating stance, and promises of equality have remained nothing but empty promises.

For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the stalemate in the peace process, the  ongoing extension of Jewish settlements and confiscation of Palestinian land, along with other harsh measures of the Occupation—and the  open vigilante violence against them by right wing Jewish settlers—were also factors behind the recent uprising.

Palestinians everywhere, particularly since the 1991 Madrid conference, have held out hope for a genuine solution. They have voiced their readiness to live side by side with Israel in a genuinely independent Palestinian state. The majority of Palestinians understood the reality of the situation as well as the local and international balance of power and thus decided to compromise, granting great concessions for the sake of establishing statehood on only 22% of the original area of British Mandate Palestine. The Palestinians demanded that the state be established in the West Bank and Gaza within the June 1967 borders. They also want a just and lasting solution to the problem of several million refugees, in accordance with UN resolutions.

For these reasons, the majority of the Palestinians supported the Oslo accord along with the interim agreements—in the fervent hope that such agreements would eventually lead to a comprehensive and just settlement. Yet, when time came for negotiations for a final agreement, the Palestinians came to realize that both the Labor and Likud governments had sought a historical compromise based not on Mandatory Palestine, but rather only within a small fragmented space in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians understood that the Israeli intention to share this 22% of the original area of Palestine would render an independent Palestinian state economically unviable within non-contiguous areas  that violated the basic fundamentals of territorial integrity. At best, it would only permit the Palestinians to achieve some kind of “autonomy” without sovereignty in discontinuous parts of the West Bank and Gaza, punctuated by Jewish settlements and their network of roads. This was again obvious during the Camp David summit which dragged on for two weeks without coming to any agreement on the issues of Jerusalem, refugees' rights to return or be given compensation, and the drawing of final borders. With this return to the mass struggle on the street, attempts to revive Oslo seem illusory.

This large Palestinian uprising has underscored Palestinian determination to stick to their rights according to UN resolutions (esp.  242, 338, and 194, on the basis of which the Madrid Conference was initially convened), including a viable state. The Palestinian people have sent their message once again: they wish a just and lasting peace now, based on mutual recognition and respect. The uprising may have been lit by a religious spark; the slogans and perceived enemy may be nationalistic and religious, but at the root of the myriad problems and profound frustration is the broader overall discriminatory sociopolitical and economic system. Palestinian hopes for genuine freedom from oppression and the elimination of poverty, unemployment, and exploitation are the main component of their struggle for genuine independence. Israeli attempts to intimidate them by missile attacks and the hail of bullets will prove fruitless and counterproductive and will fuel further wrath. Yet just such a massive reprisal attack was launched by Israeli helicopter gun ships on 12 October 2000 in the cities of Gaza, Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, and Jericho. Following the air strikes, the unarmed masses took to the streets to voice their anger and stand up for their rights—and indeed their very lives.

The first Palestinian Intifada which lasted during the period 1987–91 proved to the Israeli government and people that the Palestinians en masse rejected the oppressive Israeli occupation. Moreover, the long years of occupation helped foster the Palestinian's determination to achieve their rights and establish an independent and free state along side the State of Israel. The Madrid conference spurred hopes that the peace process would deliver the region from a bloody struggle that had lasted more than a century and be conducive to establishing a just and lasting peace based on international legitimacy.

However, the most recent Al-Aqsa Intifada proved again that the only alternative to peace is war and hostility that jeopardize the stability of the entire region. It would be wise on the part of the Israelis as an occupying power to realize the fact that chances for peace are open if Israel recognizes the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and establishes a comprehensive peace with Syria and Lebanon. It is now more obvious than ever that if the Israelis continue with their previous strategy of eyewash, ignoring Palestinians’ rights and offering partial solutions, the result will not be stability and peace—but rather more devastating wars and interminable bloodshed.

(Submitted 15 October 2000)

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