The Second Intifada: Trauma and Tragedy

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To appreciate the current Israeli and Palestinian psyches, it’s vital to understand the first five years of the 21st century — the period of the Second Intifada. Noam Weissman gets to the heart of the issue and asks why this serious attempt at peace between Israel and the Palestinians ended in one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how the effects of those defining years are still felt to this day.

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Episode Transcript

The spring of 2002 was a defining time period for me. As a junior in high school, I was not so unique — three things were on mind: my basketball team, my social life, and… awaiting my SAT results – and in the spirit of over-sharing, my first SAT scores were nothing to write home about. In the spring of 2002, something else happened that changed my identity forever. My parents decided that our family should fly to Israel for the Passover holiday to visit our extended family and also see my older brother, Chanan, who was spending a year in yeshiva after high school. 

But, following the tradition of “mah nishtana,” this Passover was going to look different than all my previous Passovers. In synagogue, the morning after the first night of Passover, every single person looked like a ghost. What was it I wondered? Whispers, tears. What was going on!? Finally, I learned. Abdel-Basset Odeh, a Hamas terrorist entered a seder in Netanya disguised as a woman carrying a suitcase. Thirty people were killed. 140 people were injured.  

For the rest of this Passover, it is hard to describe the fear and anxiety we walked around with. Going on a bus? Are you crazy?! Dining out at a restaurant without a guard? Hell no. And, if you’re wondering — no, it was not just because I was some soft American. My family who lived in Jerusalem felt the same way. My friends who lived in Tel Aviv were on the same page as me. 

When entering the “eye of the storm” for our other episodes, I was hopefully able to speak a little dispassionately in the sense that the events took place a long time ago. We are less attached to events that happened a while ago. But, when something happened yesterday, it is hard to remain objective. 

At the time of this recording, it’s 2020, and yet in many ways, the spring of 2002 feels like yesterday. 

Question of the Episode

Here is what I want to know – in the story of the Second Intifada, which started in 2001, how did one of the most famous attempts at peace end in one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Wherever you stand in your relationship to Israel, if you have any desire to understand the Israeli psyche today and frankly probably the Palestinian one as well, the first five years of the 21st century are key.

The Intifadas:

Let’s get one thing straight, the first and second intifada are similar in name only.  What happened? Micah Goodman, an Israeli public intellectual describes the difference pithily: 

  1. The rioters of the First Intifada were now joined by suicide bombers. 
  2. The Palestinians did not just throw stones — they blew up buses. 
  3. The intifada targeted women and children in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem along with soldiers in the territories.

Palestinian Origin Story

This is a tale of two stories. Or probably, a lot more than that. Here is one angle. One might refer to it as more of “the Palestinian” narrative. I find that term a bit reductive, so let’s be a little more specific. This is mostly Sari Nusseibeh’s perspective, former president of Al Quds University, and how he might describe the Second Intifada. 

For one, he loathes the term “Second” Intifada primarily because nothing about it looked similar to the first one. Rather, the preferred term would be the Al Aqsa intifada. He finds the American and Israeli narrative that in the summer of 2000 while Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, Arafat was offered the world from Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak and simply rejected it all… to be incomplete or more likely disingenuous. Rather, he believes that “Everyone shares some blame in the summit’s failure.” In his account, Barak was a bully, Arafat was indecisive and paranoid, and Clinton should not have been so hard on the Palestinians.  

It was two months later that, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is where Ariel Sharon, head of Barak’s opposition, made a daring move. 

In Barak’s negotiations with Arafat, Barak brought up the contentious Temple Mount, you know the most coveted real estate on earth. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism but the compound also includes two famous Islamic landmarks: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, considered a super holy site in Islam.  

Nusseibeh explains. Ariel Sharon, the wily, daring and some might call him reckless leader came up with a mima nafshach, to use a talmudic term. Ok, Nusseibeh never used that term, but I am. Basically, a mima nafshach is when an argument puts the other person in quite the bind, to get someone in a tight corner. So, Sharon decided to totally mima nafshach his rival, Barak. On September 28, 2000, Sharon led a delegation from the Likud party to the Temple Mount. If Barak chose to block this visit, Sharon would shout to all Israeli Jews that Barak was ignoring 3,000 years of history. Would Barak really give up the Jewish right to this land? 

But, if Barak allowed the visit, they both knew that this controversial visit by this controversial man (Sharon’s history is a bit contentious for most Palestinians by the way) to this controversial place at this controversial time would be a powder keg moment, rioting would break out and the world would see the “true face” of the Palestinians. The peace process? You can say goodbye.

For Nusseibeh, this move by Sharon was brilliant, machiavellian to the extreme.  To be sure, Nusseibeh and others acknowledge that Israel coordinated this with the Palestinian authority’s security chief and it was legal and all good so long as Sharon didn’t enter a mosque. That much is not debated.    

Sharon’s time visiting the compound was mostly uneventful. He came with his entourage of hundreds of police officers (Nusseibeh says 1,500) and everything was mostly hunky dory. Except when things got a little out of hand. A skirmish broke out between police and Palestinian dignitaries, and the highest ranking sheikh in Al Aqsa’s turban was knocked off his head. For many Muslims, when they saw this cleric standing bareheaded, Nusseibeh explains, “he might as well have been naked.” When Friday prayers came around the next day, gangs of Palestinian teenagers rushed out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, starting throwing rocks and battling Israel soldiers. Within minutes, eight Palestinians were killed. 

Palestinians blamed what they perceive as Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which they saw as an intentional provocation, for the outbreak of violence.  

In poetic terms, Nusseibeh concludes: “For the Palestinians, the Second Intifada in quotations was a catastrophic slapdash brawl without leadership, strategy, or ideas; it was a ruinous and sanguinary fit of madness.”

Nothing was at all similar to the First Intifada except for one thing, Palestinian leadership was caught off guard in both instances. 

That’s one origin story.

Israeli Origin Story

A second origin story looks a little different. The argument from the Israeli side goes something more like this. After Ehud Barak made an unprecedented offer of 92% of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, Arafat rejected it and did not even make a counter offer. Dennis Ross, the democratic American diplomat, and President Bill Clinton’s Middle East Envoy’s take away from Camp David was direct. The Americans and Israelis were prepared to do what was necessary to reach an agreement, but the same could NOT be said for Arafat. 

When Barak returned empty-handed and Ariel Sharon made his pilgrimage, the Intifada was already set in motion by Palestinians. This is not just an Israeli idea, but it seems to be corroborated in some Palestinian circles. Palestinian Minister of Communications Imad Al Falouji admitted that the uprising “had been planned since Chairman Arafat’s return from Camp David, when he turned the tables on the former U.S. president and rejected the American conditions.” Similarly, he said that “the Palestinian Authority began preparing for the outbreak of violence the moment Yasser Arafat returned from Camp David at the explicit direction of Arafat himself.”

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar also stated at a lecture at the Islamic University in Gaza city that “President Arafat instructed Hamas to carry out a number of military operations in the heart of the Jewish State after he felt that his negotiations with the Israeli government then had failed.” Even Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, said on Dubai television in December 2012 that, immediately after the failure of the Camp David negotiations, Arafat said to her, “remain in Paris because I am going to start an intifada. They want me to betray the Palestinian cause. They want me to give up on our principles, and I will not do so.'” 

Daniel Gordis, in his book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn acknowledges that while Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was legal, it “struck some as a provocation.” 

So, those are definitely two separate narratives as to how the Second Intifada or Al-Aqsa intifada erupted. Was it just an eruption from brewing anger with Sharon’s visit as the final straw, or was it a thought-out premeditated plan? 

We’ll let the historians debate this one, but for Israelis, the Second Intifada devastated Israeli society. Left-wing Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit gave the clearest articulation of the Israeli frustration in 2014. “Exactly 14 years ago, Israel’s most generous peace offer led to the worst terror attack on Israel.” 

I want to share with you a few memories and stories that haunt me personally to this day and have become symbolic of the Intifada.

Mohammed Al Dura:

When the Intifada broke out, French cameras caught the image of 12-year-old, Mohammed Al Dura huddled with his helpless father, who was trying to shield him from the bullets flying back and forth. Mohammed Al Dura was killed in the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians, and while it was later shown that Israeli troops did not in fact kill the boy, an image of a father slumped over his dead Palestinian son in pain and anguish became a symbol of horror and deep trauma.

Less than two weeks later is another horrific event that burned a specific image in Israeli society’s memory. On October 12th 2000, two Israel Defense Force reservists, Yossi Avrahami and Vadim Nurvhitz made a wrong turn and accidentally entered the city of Ramallah. Palestinian police stopped them and took them to a police station. The atmosphere in the city was tense at that time, as thousands had just attended the funeral of a 17-year old killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

An angry mob numbering more than 1,000 assembled in front of the police station demanding the death of the Israelis. It wasn’t long before they stormed the building and murdered the two soldiers. There are some murky details, but here is what we know. A crowd of rioters stormed the building and stabbed and beat the soldiers to death. In one of the most ghoulish episodes of the conflict, a young Palestinian man appeared at the window of the police station to proudly show his hands — soaked in the blood of the Israeli soldiers — to the public, who responded with cheers. The mob brutalized and mutilated their corpses, then dragged them to a central square for celebrations. The image of the young Palestinian showing off his blood soaked hands in the window of the police station as if in “some frenzied pagan dance” to quote Nusseibeh, is terrifying and has left a deep scar on Israeli society.

In 2019, I visited Ramallah with a number of Jewish educators and professionals. While we went to the thriving, bustling city life there, I made sure to pause for a moment and close my eyes. No matter what I did, I could not get the image of Aziz Salha, the lynching terrorist out of my head.

Nava Appelbaum 

But, on a more personal note, a different story stands out. When I hear the term Second Intifada, I have a Pavlovian reaction and my mind takes me back to September 9, 2003. A month before turning 18, I just arrived in Israel for a year of study before university. A good friend of mine that I made in camp that summer named Shira told me her sister, Nava was going to get married, and I should totally crash the wedding. It’s a super Israeli thing to do. Shira and I were buds. She used to sing to me, “hachiyuch shelcha shave milyon dollar.” “Your smile is worth a million dollars.” I used to blush when she sang that.  

After being in Israel for a week, I was getting psyched for the wedding. Then, I got a text I never expected to get from a friend. “The wedding is off. Nava was killed.” 

What? This could not be true. What happened? Nava Appelbaum and her father Dr. David Appelbaum went out for some father-daughter time at Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem just before her wedding.

A terrorist entered the cafe, detonating himself and murdering seven others, including both Nava and Dr. Appelbaum. A night before her wedding? How could it be? Dr. Appelbaum had returned the same day from a conference in which he helped educate other doctors about how to deal with terrorist attacks. Instead of her wedding, I attended her funeral and the words of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau at the time stay with me to this very day. “David was supposed to stand under his daughter’s chuppa and is now lying, not standing, beside her.”

Countless other stories exist, but I hope you’re able to identify with the pain, the fear, the anxiety, the frustration. None of those stories are easy to listen to. 

In these four years, over 1,000 Israelis were killed with over 4,000 Palestinians killed in the fighting as well. 

Suicide bombings became a daily worry. With over 1,000 Israelis killed in four or five years, it was not soldiers this time, but over 70% of the Israelis killed were civilians. The countless horrific terror attacks during this time had a tremendously powerful and emotional impact on Israelis and continue to until this day. Micha Goodman can also offer an insight into why Israelis started losing faith in the hope for peace. Palestinians often lament their status in the territories, which is why it is why this Intifada was so maddening for many Israelis. “The Second Intifada did not break out because of the occupation,” says Goodman, “it broke out after Israel offered to end the occupation.” 

This became a traumatic time in the Israeli and Palestinian societies, and the pain is still tangible and has an effect on today’s reality. So let’s talk about the implications of this second intifada.

In addition to ordering troops into West Bank towns during Operation Defensive Shield in response to these suicide bombs, the Israeli government, which was now under Ariel Sharon’s leadership decided to move forward with the construction of a barrier, mostly in the form of a fence. The purpose was stated to prevent terrorists from entering Israeli areas. In fact, this idea had been first proposed by Prime Minister Rabin in the early 1990s.  

Regardless of one’s political perspective, as someone who grew up in the west, when we hear terms like Wall, we think of Berlin, we think of President Trump’s “build the wall.” Even as the numbers seem to indicate that wow, this has really worked, many are turned off by the concept of a wall. It can feel divisive and ugly, even for those who acknowledge its efficacy.

Even more than that, as is the case with many things in the Middle East, many words become subject to dispute. A wall, a barrier or a fence? A separation barrier, a security barrier or an “apartheid wall” as some say, which I find to be quite inflammatory. 

Taking over five years to construct, though never completed (a conversation for another time), the barrier has proven effective in stopping terrorists, a conclusion supported by statistics and acknowledged by almost everyone — including Palestinian terror groups themselves. A 2017 study published by a group of criminology researchers in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, evaluated the effectiveness of the “West Bank Barrier” and concluded that it had prevented suicide bombings and other attacks, and also significantly reduced violence on the Palestinian side of the barrier.  

For a period of almost three years — from the beginning of the Intifada until the completion of the first continuous segment of the barrier in July, 2003 — there were seventy-three suicide bombings that claimed almost three hundred Israeli civilian lives.  During an equal time period beginning with the completion of the first segment, only twelve such attacks came from the West Bank, taking sixty-four lives. Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, secretary general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, acknowledged “We do not deny that it limits the ability of the resistance to carry out suicide bombing attacks.” 

Israel’s security barrier, as effective as it is in curbing Palestinian suicide bombing attacks, was and remains controversial today. While Israel refers to it as the security fence or security barrier, many on the Palestinian side refer to it as the separation wall, the apartheid wall and a land grab. Leading up to a UN debate about the security barrier in 2009, Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors got into a shouting match about the barrier that really demonstrates both perspectives. Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman objected to the characterization of the barrier as a wall saying,”This is no separation wall. This is a security fence. Just to make things very very clear, a separation wall, if you take the example of the Berlin Wall, was a wall built to separate one people from each other, and to prevent people from fleeing to freedom. The security fence we’re building is to separate two people who are at war with each other, and to prevent crazy, fanatic, extremist suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel and blowing up babies and children,”

The Palestinian ambassador, Nasser al-Kidwa, laughed off  the description of the barrier as a security fence. Al-Kidwa referred to the barrier as an attempt for Israel to annex large areas of Palestinian land. He said “It has nothing to do with security. Otherwise, it would have run along the armistice line, the border of 1967. This is an expansionist conquest wall that aims only at annexing additional Palestinian land and protecting illegal settlements”.

The Second Intifada changed the landscape of the land (literally) and hardened the Israelis in ways they never could have imagined. Channeling my inner Yossi Klein Halevi, while the First Intifada shattered the secular right in Israel, the Second Intifada shattered the Zionist left. The left was pulverized. Israelis felt stuck. Illusions of peace became just that, fantasy. They felt like their leader offered way more than he probably should have, and the result was not peace, but terror. Meanwhile, the Palestinians, many of whom were hoping for a state of their own, saw a fence now go up and further divide the West Bank from sovereign Israel. Notably, Arab citizens in Israel at the time were also caught in an identity trap. On the one hand, they were Israeli, but on the other hand, many identified with their Palestinian brothers and sisters. When Israeli Arabs rioted in October of 2000, many quite violently, they were met with live ammunition by Israelis and 13 were killed. Gordis points out that many Israeli Arabs felt like second-class citizens whose lives were valued differently than Jews. In law, this is certainly not the case, but in terms of feeling, it was something that endured.  

The Second Intifada provokes many questions and strong emotions.  What price should one  pay for security? How far should we go to defend oneself? What role should honor and pride play in decision making? What role does leadership play in all of this? These are questions that many countries ask themselves while facing security issues. For the first time, the Second Intifada created a reality in which most of the Israeli left and right agreed on the need for strength and security. 

Unfortunately, the violence of the Second Intifada brought the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that had begun with the Oslo Accords to a complete halt. Feeling that peace attempts had only been repaid with terror, Israeli society moved firmly to the right of the political spectrum and in 2003 elected a Likud government for the first time since the 1980s. This government has persisted mostly until today. Even now, many young Israelis consider the security barrier a necessity to avoid bombings and terror attacks, and think of peace as a naive idea. 

Personally, when we lose hope for peace, that is the lowest point. And I was there in Israel during the Second Intifada. I saw us lose hope. I felt a loss of hope. 

The stories I shared with you today were meant to give a glimpse into the depth of the Second Intifada and to provide context for understanding the Israel we know today. It is an Israel that feels deeply that it requires checkpoints and a barrier for its citizens to go to sleep at night, feeling secure.

Five Fast Facts

While it’s hard to sum up something like the Second Intifada, here’s five fast facts about the time period:

  1. Over 5,000 people were killed during the Second Intifada
  2. Many Palestinians argue that the Second Intifada began as a result of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount whereas many Israelis often see the plan for the Intifada as premeditated. 
  3. Israel’s fence/wall was built by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in response to the Palestinian suicide bombings of this time — this would change the conflict for years to come and provide Israelis with a much greater sense of security.
  4. As a result of the Second Intifada, Israel voted in a right-wing Likud-led government.
  5. Israelis became hardened by the events of the Second Intifada — there was no Israeli citizen, Arab or Jewish, who wasn’t affected. The trauma and tragedy led many people to believe that security was the number one priority, at any cost.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. Each side of this conflict will continue telling their own story. Each side will have their origin story. Yes, there are facts. Of course there are facts. Whereas the rest of this series was primarily stories of Israel’s history, this is a story I saw unfold firsthand, and I am who I am because of what I saw firsthand, of what I heard, because of the fear and anxiety I experienced, because of the pain I saw in my friends, and my family. In many ways, I feel like my life changed then. I don’t mean to sound theatrical here, but when I look back at the Second Intifada, I see how I changed a lot as a person. Yes, SAT scores matter, yes your social life matters, and of course basketball was still on my mind, but I now felt like I was part of a people in a way I never could have anticipated. 

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