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Inside Israel: The Al Aqsa Intifada

Community College Journalist -- Fall 2001

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
Inside Israel during the Al Aqsa Intifada: One Year and Counting

Sidebar: Personal Lessons in the Mysteries of the Mideast

Author's note: An earlier version of this article, completed in late May, was intended for publication in August but held until the fall. Because of continually changing events and steadily escalating violence in the Israeli—Palestinian crisis, I decided to update the piece. The revisions were finished, or so I thought, until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The tragic events of that day and their aftermath moved terrorism to the front burner of U.S. politics and diplomacy. A daily reality in the Mideast crisis, terrorism is now a central concern of the U.S. government and nation. Forging a worldwide coalition against terrorism is an essential weapon in President George W. Bush's arsenal that must include Arab and Muslim nations as well as our traditional European allies and many others.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Bush presidency had shown little inclination to follow the lead of former President Bill Clinton in actively trying to broker a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the need to build an anti-terrorism coalition transformed that stance. Aware that continued Mideast violence undermined Arab and Muslim support for the coalition, the Bush administration pressured both sides to establish a cease-fire and resume peace talks. Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, supported Palestinian statehood, which rattled some of Israel's supporters in the United States and many Israelis, including Ariel Sharon, the prime minister. After a round of name-calling and warnings, verbal restraint returned. But the so-called cease-fire has been continually punctuated from the outset by killing on both sides.

Ironically, one of the few positive outcomes of the calamity of Sept. 11 could be that the tragedy of Middle East carnage during the past year subsides or finally ends while both Israelis and Palestinians work towards a final status agreement to settle their disputes.

Prologue: September 2000 to January 2001

The words still ring in my ears: "You Americans think that all problems—no matter how intractable--have solutions. But this time you may be wrong."

So far, events in the Middle East have validated that pessimistic view voiced by my former college roommate, Joyce, after a Sabbath dinner in Tel Aviv, Israel, early last January.

It was a bittersweet farewell when a few hours later, my husband and I boarded a plane at Ben Gurion International Airport and returned to the United States, completing an academic sabbatical visit of almost four months, from mid-September 2000, to early January 2001.

We said goodbye to my long-time friend who had settled in Israel in the 1960s after her graduation from the University of Michigan. She married, raised three sons and a daughter, and became a grandmother. All of her children, like most Israeli youth, served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Her pessimism, or as she argued, her realism, referred to the dwindling prospects for a permanent peace in the Middle East. She and many of her religious compatriots believed nothing less than the excision of all Jews from Israel would satisfy the Palestinians and other Arabs.

The Palestinians called the most recent violent hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians that began Sept. 29, 2000, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and continue to the present, an Intifada, or rebellion.

When we returned to the United States in January 2001, we left behind a daily diet of media coverage about the Intifada ingested from English language radio and television broadcasts and newspaper coverage. During our stay in Israel, however, living our daily lives, we rarely felt fearful about personal safety. When friends in the United States e-mailed us copies of U.S. Department of State warnings about "unnecessary travel" in the region and urged us to return home, we immediately dismissed the idea. Overreaction, we thought, to media reports that focused almost exclusively on violence that still was limited mainly to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Despite the casualties reported by the media, most people we knew continued to live normal lives.

Sharon visits Temple Mount: a bit of ancient history

The Al Aqsa Intifada or Intifada 2, an armed uprising by Palestinians against the Israelis, began Sept. 29, 2000, one day after Ariel Sharon led an entourage, including other members of the Knesset or Israeli parliament, to the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Sharon is now Israel´s prime minister, but at the time of the visit, he was leader of the opposition right-wing Likud Party. Protected by almost 1,000 security officers, Sharon insisted on his right to visit, saying it was authorized under the agreements ending the 1967 Six-Day War. And former Prime Minister Ehud Barak also permitted Sharon's visit.

One result of Israel's victory in that war was the reunification of Jerusalem. This ended 19 years of separation into sectors controlled by Israel and Jordan, an outcome of the 1948 war between the new state of Israel, recognized by the United Nations, and its Arab neighbors.

Jerusalem, a city whose origins as a Jewish capital date to 1,000 B.C. in the time of King David, is claimed by both Jews and Palestinians as their rightful capital. Jews, Muslims and Christians regard Jerusalem as holy territory and all three have battled to capture and hold it.

The Temple Mount area, which Sharon visited, is built above the Western Wall, sacred to the Jews, and includes two important Islamic structures, Al Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, built from A.D. 690 to 720. This Temple Mount complex, called Haram es Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary in the Muslim world, was built over the remains of the second Jewish Temple. It is also the third holiest prayer site in the Muslim world after Mecca and Medina.

The rock within the dome of the Rock is believed by Muslims to be the place from which Muhammed ascended to view paradise during the Night Journey described in the Quran. Jewish tradition believes that this was the site at which Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac in 1800 B.C.

About 900 years later, in approximately 950 B.C., the first temple was built on or next to this rock during the reign of King Solomon. It was later destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., sending the Jews into exile in Babylon. And then in 515 B.C, 35 years after the Jews returned to Jerusalem, the Second Temple was built over the ruins of the first.

In A.D. 62, vast renovations of the Second Temple were completed under Herod, but between A.D. 66 and 73, during the Jewish revolt against Rome, the Romans captured the city and razed the temple. Centuries later, in A.D. 638, Islamic armies conquered Jerusalem, and established capitals in Damascus and later, in Baghdad. In 1099, the first Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and slaughtered both Muslims and Jews. Turks, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, and the British all controlled Jerusalem and what is now Israel in the centuries before Israeli statehood in 1948.

Intifada Begins: Rosh Hashonah Weekend

Ironically, at first we kind of missed the action at the Temple Mount. My husband and I took off on Sept. 29, 2000, from Haifa, where we were working and living, aware that Sharon had made his now momentous visit the day before. We headed for Beersheva in the Negev desert to visit friends we had first met in our hometown, Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-1970s. They invited us to spend the holiday weekend with them, and we welcomed the opportunity to see another part of Israel and to renew our acquaintance with them and their adult children. We were so busy eating, talking, exercising and reminiscing that we never turned on the television set. Nor did any newspapers arrive at their doorstep. So we were both surprised and dismayed when we returned to Haifa, turned on CNN, and watched the first of many accounts about the Intifada.

Protests against Sharon´s act began almost immediately near the Temple Mount where Israeli security forces on Sept. 29 killed four Palestinian demonstrators. According to the Israeli government, 14 Israeli policemen were injured. At the time, we thought that even if Sharon and his colleagues had the legal right to visit the Temple Mount, the actions seemed unnecessarily provocative.

An international fact-finding committee appointed by then President Clinton in October 2000 to examine the causes of the initial weeks of clashes did not attribute them solely to Sharon's visit nor to a preconceived plan by Arafat to launch a bloody popular revolt to force concessions following the breakdown of the Camp David talks.

The Mitchell Report, issued May 6, 2001, called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and a crackdown on terrorism by the Palestinians prior to a resumption of peace talks. In the succeeding five months since the recommendation, neither side has progressed very far towards this goal.

Intifada and Failure of Camp David Accords

But Sharon's supporters and many Israelis still do not accept his visit "caused" the Al Aqsa revolt. Rather, they believe the Palestinians were looking for a pretext to torpedo the Camp David negotiations of July 25, 2000, and Sharon provided it. If it hadn´t happened then, many Israelis believe another excuse would have set off the uprising because the Palestinians were frustrated over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and the failure to make more progress in implementing the Oslo Accords of 1993. That agreement was negotiated secretly with the Norwegian foreign minister but signed on the White House lawn by then President Bill Clinton as a witness who watched Arafat and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shake hands after signing.

The Accords included gradual Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, increased authority and financial aid to the Palestinian authority, further economic ties between Israel and Jordan, and the prospect of a future independent Palestinian state. But implementation of the accords, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, faltered. Near the end of his presidency, Clinton tried at Camp David to revive adherence to carry out the agreement for which Rabin, Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister, and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Arafat left Camp David in July 2000 unwilling to accept what most Israelis regard as the overly generous offer of land and control over Jerusalem´s holy sites by former Labor Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. The offer would have given the Palestinians control of almost 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Israeli settlements removed, total control over Arab East Jerusalem, and a modified right of return to the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinian refugees. But Arafat did not even make a counter offer. So the argument and the bloodshed continue.

The current eruption, one year and counting by the end of Sept. 2001, has seen almost 1,000 deaths, most of them Palestinian and enormous disruption to the economies of the Palestinian Authority and to a lesser extent, to Israel.

In a special Web edition published by Ha´aretz (an Israeli newspaper), the paper wrote of the Al Aqsa Intifada: It "has seen attacks on Jewish settlements and their residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, (on) IDF troops stationed in the territories and on neighborhoods in Jerusalem." And "there have also been a number of terrorist attacks against the Israeli population, including bombs placed in heavily populated areas such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There have also been reprisals for these terrorist acts, such as the bombing of PA (Palestinian Authority) official buildings and a series of assassinations of leading Palestinian figures, carried out by the Israeli security services." Nor has the killing of Palestinians been confined to Palestinian territory. During the early eruptions, 13 Israeli Arabs who had demonstrated in support of the Palestinians were killed in clashes with security forces, a fact that was bitterly cited by both sides long after the event.

Ha´aretz, an Israeli paper published in both English and Hebrew, and distributed jointly with the International Herald Tribune, became staple fare during our sojourn. Along with BBC television and radio and CNN, as well as various Web newspapers, including The Jerusalem Post, we tried to fathom what was happening, but of necessity, we did it through English-language sources.

Israeli Views

Some of the most interesting and revealing perspectives came from friends and colleagues whose lives were affected in ways we were unable to share. For we could and would return home to the United States, while they felt their very existence as a nation and a people was being tested.

Our invariably animated conversations on this topic, which began as soon as we arrived in Israel in mid-September 2000, often found us at loggerheads. I, the American "liberal," argued that the only sane policy was to seek peace. Somehow, both sides had to compromise. Killing each other just didn't seem to be a viable option, I argued. That meant each side had to forsake some of its cherished demands. And as a journalist, I had always tried to maintain some semblance of neutrality.

Joyce, my friend from college days, a Holocaust survivor because a Christian family hid and protected her during World War II, is deeply religious and extremely knowledgeable about the ancient and modern history of her adopted nation. She worked hard to persuade me that Israel had no choice but to be "tough" with the Palestinians, who read any compromise as weakness. I understood the fundamental Israeli insistence on secure borders after she pulled out maps and demonstrated the negligible distances from Israel´s borders to Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza, to friendly Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and to the hostile states of Lebanon and Syria. Also crucial for Israeli survival is a safe and controllable water supply. Equally fundamental was the retention of a sovereign Jewish state. But this would become impossible if future agreements honored the Palestinian demand for "the right of return" to Israel. The 700,000 Palestinians who lived in Israel in 1948, when it became a nation, has grown to an estimated three-to-four million people today, most of them living outside Israel´s borders.

Still another intractable and sad fact rarely discussed in the Western media but commonplace in private conversations in Israel is the extent of hatred for the Israelis being taught to generations of Palestinian children. Until this Intifada, many Israelis did not reciprocate similar feelings. The combination of a strong peace movement and the collective memory of the impact on civic behavior of policies based on ethnic hatred restrained such attitudes. But we noticed that this was changing, even among Israelis who regarded themselves as moderates in the political spectrum.

I asked an academic friend who heads a department of teacher education at a major university how the Intifada was affecting her teenage children. She shook her head and said, "They are beginning to hate the Arabs."

Even if the politicians are successful in implementing the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee Report (), the layers of hatred on both sides transmitted from one generation to the next will be hard to undo.

In an e-mail at the end of May 2001, I asked an Israeli physics professor, who hosted us during our stay in Haifa, for an update on the conflict. This was his response:

"The situation here is complex. The worst thing that happened is that Arafat, who declined Barak´s too generous proposals for peace, changed the opinion of practically all those Israelis who believed that giving back all the land behind the green line (including East Jerusalem with the Temple Mount), will bring peace in our times. According to recent polls, if the Likud (Sharon´s party) pushed for elections now, it would triple its representation in the Knesset. The mood here is that the region has been suffering from the conflict during the last 100 years or so, and will have to suffer for another 100 years, which is the time it will take the Arabs, and at least part of the world, to realize that we´re here to stay."

Between the end of May and mid-September 2001, terrorist suicide bombings increased, killing and injuring Israeli teenagers at a popular disco in Tel Aviv and young people and their families at a popular pizza parlor in Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, an Arab became the first suicide bomber who was an Israeli citizen to blow up himself and others at a train station in Nahariya, a small coastal town in northern Israel.

The tensions of living with fear and despair rise proportionally to the death toll. Only time will tell whether our friends are right and this is an insoluble problem.

Some U.S. journalists, writing in September 2001, believe the rebellion is over, and a new, more intensive phase of conflict has begun. Unwilling for the moment to call it "war," these experts nonetheless note an escalation of the hostilities by both sides.

Despite escalation of the conflict and painful losses on both sides, the violence could well be sustained for many months, even years. One result is the convergence of Israeli public opinion about the price to be paid for peace—the left and right are almost beginning to sound alike, the sad and bitter result of the yearlong Al Aqsa Intifada .

Epilogue: September 11, 2001

The U.S. government, the American public, and many media organizations spent the days and first weeks following the horrific tragedy of Sept. 11 in New York City and Washington, D.C. trying to cope with their grief and grappling with the magnitude of events. The nation and its leaders focused upon personal tragedies, disruptions to air traffic and financial institutions, wounds inflicted upon one of the world's great cities, the blows to the country's sense of security, and anxiety over how, when and where to respond. With few exceptions, Americans also displayed generosity, altruism, and a capacity to reach across religious and ethnic barriers to help those in need.

On Oct. 6, the U.S began to retaliate against those people and countries it holds responsible for the crimes. High administration officials pointed their collective fingers at Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist living in Afghanistan, whose al Qaeda organization has launched terrorist attacks against U.S. targets over the last decade. The president, vice president and secretary of state called the World Trade and Pentagon attacks "acts of war" and vowed retribution. The prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, after eloquent speeches to the Labor Party Conference and to Parliament, became salesman in chief to promote the anti-terrorism cause in India and Pakistan.

At the same time, U.S. leaders were trying to prepare the public for a new kind of protracted warfare against elusive, but persistent, enemies whose operatives are planted throughout the world, including the United States. Destroying both the terrorists and the infrastructure they rely upon, without undermining American values and democratic freedoms, loom as Herculean tasks for this nation.

Searching for an answer to the origins of our current dilemma, many media analysts, experts on terrorism and veteran Middle East watchers attribute at least part of the problem to U.S. support of Israel and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

That struggle, which seemed headed for a peaceful resolution at Camp David in the early summer of 2000, broke into the yearlong series of confrontations just discussed.

Then came Sept. 11 and the remote possibility that the catastrophe could alter the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring both sides back to the peace table. Whether the two sides choose this course instead of the streets to settle their differences remains to be seen. But an ironic and positive outcome of the terrible tragedy in the United States could provide the strongest impetus in the last year to end the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

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