JERUSALEM (Sep. 28)
Four years ago this week, all hell broke loose here. Palestinians and Israelis, who for almost a decade seemed on the verge of historic reconciliation, turned in opposite directions — killing each other, hating each other and losing hope.
Who is winning this intifada? Who is losing?
Some losers are painfully obvious: According to figures released Monday by the Shin Bet security service, 1,017 Israelis and foreigners have been killed since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 and 5,598 have been wounded.
According to unofficial Palestinian figures, at least 3,300 Palestinians have died in the conflict — not to speak of the thousands of wounded, crippled and imprisoned.
The second intifada broke out after Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition Likud leader visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, on Sept. 28, 2000.
Some have insisted Sharon’s visit triggered the uprising, while others have argued that the outing was simply used as a pretext for Palestinians to revolt.
Either way, rioting soon engulfed the territories, spilling over briefly into Arab population centers inside Israel, and Israel reacted harshly. The area has since been caught in a bloody cycle of action and reaction whose end is not in sight.
This intifada, the second such uprising against Israel, has been the longest war in the long Arab-Israeli conflict.
In pure military terms, there is no doubt that Israel has won the war. Israel has conducted a targeted and extensive military campaign to go after the terrorists. And Israeli forces now control most of the major population centers that the Palestinians had regained during the Oslo process.
Palestinian terrorism is being contained and Israelis have learned to live with whatever terrorism remains.
If the Palestinians had hoped to shift the national mood in Israel toward defeatism, they have achieved the opposite: Many Israelis who had been strong advocates of dialogue with the Palestinians no longer believe the conflict can be resolved.
In the face of Israeli military superiority, the Palestinians turned to their own so-called “F-16,” the suicide bomber.
Palestinian groups — first the Islamist Hamas, and then secular organizations such as the Al-Aksa Brigade of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction — have staged 138 suicide attacks and 13,730 shooting attacks since the start of the intifada, according to the Shin Bet statistics.
Suicide bombers have staged some of the most horrendous terrorist attacks in the history of the Middle East. They have included the June 2001 Dolphinarium disco attack in Tel Aviv in which 21 youngsters were killed, and the 2002 Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in which 30 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian cause has lost little credit in world public opinion. By and large the outside world linked Palestinian terrorism with the Israeli occupation. There was the paradox: As Israel paid a steadily growing price in blood, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish feelings in Europe soared.
Still, there is evidence that this may be changing. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the lack of Palestinian political reform has led donors who provide financial assistance the Palestinians to grow weary.
U.S. President George Bush, who has shunned Arafat since entering the White House, last week called on the world community to end its support of “corrupt” Palestinian leaders in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
After recent meetings with Arab diplomats on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris said, “There’s a change in the tone and the substance of these meetings.” Arab officials, he said, spoke openly about their hope for a successor to Arafat.
And on Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, called on his people to rethink their fight against Israel.
“This anniversary should make us all — the people, factions and Palestinian Authority — reconsider the past four years, where we went wrong and where we went right,” he said.
Still, the Palestinians are largely seen as the underdogs in the conflict with Israel, and in that regard, the writing was on the wall almost from day one.
On Sept. 30, 2000, as the intifada was erupting, Mohammed Al-Durrah, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, was shot dead in his father’s arms, tragically caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen.
Though investigations later showed that Al-Durrah probably was killed by a bullet from the Palestinian side, in the Palestinian narrative, he has become a symbol of the innocent Palestinian victim in the conflict with the mighty Israelis.
In July, the International Court of Justice sided with the Palestinians against Israel’s security barrier, and the European Union in general endorses the Palestinian demand that Israel quit the territories and dismantle settlements.
In addition to the heavy toll in human life, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have paid a very high economic price.
The Palestinians have lost their primary place of work, with foreign workers replacing Palestinian laborers in Israel proper. The Israelis have lost investors and tourists, though tourism, too, seems to be recovering somewhat.
The year of the millennium should have been an economic boon, drawing waves of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, but it ended as a disaster. New hotels built to accommodate the projected influx of tourists closed down. One hotel in Nazareth was turned into a detention camp for foreign workers, just before they are deported.
Some say former Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost his job to Sharon because of his failure to reach an agreement with Arafat and prevent the intifada.
But four years later, Sharon has been unable to deliver on his own election promise of “peace and security.” Now, as Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan gains steam, some in Israel are worried that the country faces a potential civil war.
And Arafat, though confined to his Ramallah headquarters by the Israelis, is still considered the leader of the Palestinians. Although Bush, in his U.N. speech last week, insinuated that Arafat was doing disservice to his people, the European Union still regards Arafat as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians, the one with whom Israel should negotiate.
And so, on the eve of the fifth year of the intifada, both parties are caught in the ring, like exhausted boxers.
Sharon believes the disengagement from Gaza could create a change. But no one knows for sure — perhaps even not Sharon himself — what kind of a future he envisages after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Israeli diplomats, dreading the vacuum the pullout set for mid-2005 might create, have scrambled in recent weeks for American, European and Arab help in propping up an Israel-free Gaza Strip.
And Palestinian factions have recently been trying to achieve an agreement on keeping the peace once Israel leaves Gaza.
Some, though, believe that nothing will really move as long as Arafat is around. Perhaps the parties must wait for Arafat’s successor to bring about the end of the intifada, to create some sort of a modus vivendi with the Israelis.
After all, say the optimists, Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel after the brutal Yom Kippur War in 1973. At his wink, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered along the streets of Cairo to greet Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who until then was among the most hated Israelis in the Arab world.
The truth is that any guess could be right. Meanwhile, as commentators and headlines blared the fourth anniversary of the intifada’s outbreak, violence in the region carried on at a brisk clip.
An Israeli settler killed a Palestinian, claiming self defense; the Israeli army detained a 15-year-old would-be suicide bomber in Nablus; three Kassam rockets landed in Sderot, and Israel again appeared to be ramping up its attempts to kill terrorist leaders, with the car-bomb killing of a Hamas leader in Damascus being widely attributed to Israel and the attempted assassination of a terrorist from the Popular Resistance Committees that ended up killing a Hamas man.
And Riad Ali, 42, an Druse Israeli journalist working for CNN, was kidnapped in Gaza on Monday.
Though he was released the next day, Ali’s kidnapping is another example of the continuing anarchy in the territories.