Twenty Years to the Second Intifada:


An Analysis of Shifts in the Palestinian System and their Implications for Israel


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | October 11, 2020

Photo: Avi Ohayon - GPO


A week ago we marked twenty years to the breaking out of the Second Intifada, or as the Palestinians call it – the Al-Aqsa Intifada. It is one of the most important crossroads in modern Palestinian history, certainly in the last three decades. Seven years after the signing of the Oslo Accords – which many in Israel and around the world viewed as the Palestinians' historical decision to embark upon a peace process and cast their eyes toward their soon-to-be state – the _Palestinians retreated back to the trenches of battle.


The ensuing struggle was one of the harshest in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrating the Palestinians' ongoing historical and indecisive meandering between contrasting range of national objectives.


The eruption of the struggle in September 2000 marked the beginning of a tumultuous time in the Palestinian system that ultimately changed its self-portrait, balance of powers, and affiliation with external forces, primarily Israel. Twenty years later, the shifts caused by the Second Intifada may be summed up, the scenarios that could develop in the Palestinian system analyzed, and their implications for Israel delineated. These issues will be at the heart of the present paper, which is part of a wider discourse currently held within the Palestinian system as it marks twenty years to the Second Intifada.


Despite the profound shifts in the Palestinian system's portrait over the last twenty years, and the fact that most of those who played the "lead roles" in 2000 are long gone, an analysis of the reasons behind that historical event and the changes to which it has led remains important. first and foremost because most of those involved in that conflict, particularly Israel and the Palestinians, regard it as an "open-ended story" of sorts – the reasons that led to the outbreak have been suspended or repressed, but have not vanished, and may resurface and be acted upon given the appropriate historical circumstances.



Analyzing the shifts


The Second Intifada is a historical event with an agreed start date (on September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon visited Temple Mount, and the following day violent upheaval began to spread across the "territories"), but with no defined end date. Some Palestinians argue that the Second Intifada ended with the death of Arafat in November 2004 and the rise to power of Abu Mazen, who has since led a distinctly different strategic vision; others maintain that the general elections in the Palestinian Authority in 2006, won by Hamas, and the latter's forceful takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, had put an end to the Second Intifada; and others still believe that the conflict never ended, only "morphed" from suicide bombings and shootings to military campaigns and rounds of escalation in the Gaza Strip alongside lone wolf terror attacks in the West Bank.


The evolvement of the Second Intifada proves – as in many other cases in Palestinian history – that escalation dynamics are mightier than plans, almost always leading Palestinians to a different, often worse reality than that which they had planned.


The first "blowup" deliberately promoted by Arafat in late September 2000, probably in order to return to the negotiating table that had been upturned from a position of power. It was accompanied by large-scale popular clashes, but soon transformed into an armed conflict led by the armed organizations and headed by Fatah – the Palestinian Authority's ruling party who spearheaded the support for the peace process. Moreover, the Intifada, which began as an all-national conflict against Israel, soon became a bitter, intra-Palestinian struggle that dramatically changed the portrait of the Palestinian system.


A comparison between the Palestinian system in 2000 and that of today demonstrates the profound shifts it has undergone, the highlights of which are:


  1. From one arena to two: The Second Intifada erupted when the Palestinian system was controlled by one entity (the Palestinian Authority) and a single leader (Arafat). Twenty years later, the Palestinian system is now controlled by two separate administrations – in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – that cannot (or more precisely, will not) promote internal reconciliation. To many Palestinians, this split, which has since solidified, is one of the most prominent and bitter fruit borne by the Second Intifada. The struggle that began as an act against Israel had undermined the central Palestinian regime, strengthening Hamas, who always believed it could be an alternative to the PLO's rule of the Palestinian system. Thus, after many years during which the Islamist camp was marginal, a form of opposition or persecuted resistance movement, the tables have turned, certainly in the case of Gaza.

  2. National goals are further than ever: In the summer of 2000, before the negotiating table was upturned, many in the Palestinian (Israeli and international) system felt that both parties were close to reaching a historical compromise. This development should have led to some strategic Palestinian national accomplishments, first and foremost the establishment of an independent state. Twenty years later, the Palestinian public feels further than ever from realizing its collective objectives, primarily an independent state based on the two-state vision. Ongoing stagnation in the peace process, alongside the continuous change in the geographic and demographic reality in the West Bank, are key contributors to this notion. The loss of faith in the peace process as the means by which to achieve national goals does not necessarily mean that the idea of "resistance" (Muqawamma) perpetuated and represented by Hamas will enjoy greater support. The ruling model exemplified by Hamas in the Gaza Strip is far from appealing to most Palestinians: over the last 13 years it has been accompanied by three lethal and destructive campaigns, as well as ongoing civil distress among the Gazan public. The despair from both the peace process alternative and that of resistance has led to the evolvement of a more modest and realistic idea: cultivating a fabric of life embodied in the bidna naish ("we want to live") slogan. Above all, this notion is a manifestation of the Palestinians' collective exhaustion from years of combative slogans, struggles, and ideologies that have not brought them any closer to significant accomplishments.

  3. The undermining of collective trust between Israel and the Palestinians: The first and difficult stages of the Second Intifada, particularly the mass terror attacks in Israeli cities, had thoroughly shattered the Israeli public opinion with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the chances of reaching a peace agreement. This trend was further enhanced following Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip, and the development of severe military campaigns in the last decade and a half that have posed a threat to the heart of Israel (primarily through rocket launching) although Israel had wholly withdrawn from the region in 2005. The change in Israeli public opinion was clearly demonstrated in the election campaigns of the last two decades, won solely by right-wing or center parties and leaders. The loss of trust is also apparent on the Palestinian side, particularly among Palestinians living in the West Bank, who do not believe that Israel intends to advance the peace process, but instead strives to continually change the reality in the region in order to ultimately regain control of it.

  4. The loss of external support: The Second Intifada broke out in an entirely different regional and international landscape than that of today. At least in its initial stages, the Palestinians were widely supported by both the international community and Arab world. The Gulf states severed their ties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan ordered their ambassadors to return home for several years, and large protests were held across the Arab and Muslim world in support of the Palestinians, forming a burdensome constraint on governments and their relations with Israel. Twenty years later, the regional and international landscapes are troubled with issues far more severe than the Palestinian one (such as COVID-19, the regional tumult, the conflict between the US and Russia/China, the Iranian and Syrian crises, and the tension between the Sunni and Shiite worlds), and are thus displaying fatigue and exasperation by the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is especially true in the Arab world, for it must forge closer ties with Israel to confront the rising Iranian threat, and is even willing to forego a fundamental principle that the Palestinians have tried to cultivate for many years, whereby no Arab country can normalize relations with Israel in the absence of an arrangement between the latter and the Palestinians. The average Arab does continue to display basic empathy towards the Palestinian issue; however, after years of exhaustion and distress in the wake of the "Arab Spring", s/he is far less inclined to demonstrate masse for the Palestinian cause, and is therefore less of a millstone around the Arab leaders' necks. Another acute manifestation of the loss of external support is the deepening rift between Ramallah and Washington since President Trump's term in office began. It too has undermined a fundamental principle that the Palestinians have attempted to promote for many years, whereby the status of Jerusalem will not change unless an agreement be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, as President Trump relocated the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018.

  5. A generational shift among leaders and laymen: beyond the political and strategic dimensions, there have also been shifts on the deeper levels of the Palestinian arena. At their core is the rise of a younger generation, born into the reality prescribed by the Oslo Accords, some of it even following the Second Intifada, as opposed to the fading generation of the Palestinian system founders (Abu Mazen remains its last remnant, almost), and the weakening of the interim generation that led the First Intifada in the "territories". The younger generation differs in its characteristics from those before it: it is more exposed to the goings on in the world (due to the social media revolution, among other things); it attributes importance to self-realization, at times preferring it to making sacrifices for national goals; and is less drawn to the ideologies that swept the Palestinian system. However, as its demographic weight increases, its impact on all levels remains fairly limited, both due to the strong hold the older leadership still has on centers of power in the Palestinian system (a phenomenon prominent in the Palestinian Authority and leading to the alienation of the public), and many youngsters' disinclination to play a part in the decision-making echelon on various levels, particularly the political one, preferring to focus on self-development and materialist accomplishments.



A look towards the future


Very few Palestinians, if any, will be able to sum up the last two decades positively, and for many, they have constituted a prolonged national retraction. The two-state vision is slowly evaporating, and is being replaced by the complex reality of an autonomous Palestinian entity on the West Bank that is divided and weak, alongside another, undefined Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip that has different ideals, social and cultural attributes. The two entities find it difficult to provide the wider Palestinian public with an optimistic vision that can be feasibly realized in the near future, contenting themselves instead with constant preaching, deemed insufficient by most Palestinians living in 2020, under the slogan Sabar Wa-Summud – patience and persistence.


The collective Palestinian despair of all strategic alternatives they had been offered has led them, over a process that lasted many years, to abandon the two-state idea (as well as the former preference given to peace negotiations as the chosen strategy by which to promote the realization of their strategic goals), and instead to soberly examine the one-state solution (that must not be confused with the binational state model).


Due to their inability to accomplish their national objectives, primarily an independent state, more and more Palestinians, particularly among the younger generation, are growing accustomed to the idea that coexistence alongside the Jewish population in a single state from the river to the sea is not altogether invalid. It does not mean that the national Palestinian identity has been abandoned, only that it has been "framed" and rephrased to meet the current social and economic needs of the Palestinian public.


The "one-state" scenario could develop independently of an Israeli or Palestinian resolution to promote it. It could be an unplanned and even undesirable or unintended outcome of a process that will weaken Palestinian rule over a lengthy period of time until it effectively ceases to function, while broadening Israel's practical authority in the management of civil life in the West Bank. Thus, both nations may find themselves coexisting in the same state, except without having discussed, let alone resolved, their fundamental issues and differences. It is less likely to be a trailblazing, original solution, and more likely to be a Balkan-like nightmare come true.


In the internal context – the Palestinians have, for several years, been waiting alert for Abu Mazen to vanish – a move that is expected to mark the transition from the era of the founders of the modern national Palestinian movement, who continue to adhere to the slogans that accompanied the Palestinians throughout the twentieth century and are, to a large extent, no longer relevant or on par with current needs, to a new era, the portrait and characteristics of which have yet to be clearly formed. It seems that this stage would be one where, on the one hand, state-building would be central, as would be the need to resolve current, 21st century distresses, and not just the dreams of an undefined future. On the other hand, the ties between all the components comprising the Palestinian system – the West bank and Gaza Strip, inside and outside the "territories" – will increasingly weaken.


At least at present, such leadership is not in sight, and in its stead, violent struggles may develop between groups claiming their alleged right to succeed the Ra'is (while splitting the three powers he currently heads: the PA, PLO, and Fatah). Since these will be impossible to settle, the Palestinian administration's foundations will be weakened, and the road paved for extremists, primarily Hamas, to "rear their ugly heads". This is not a scenario expected to take place in the distant future, it is a reality that could develop soon, and naturally will not be contained solely within the Palestinian system, but stands to spill over to neighboring countries, above all, Israel.


The Palestinians' multidimensional strategic distress should not make Israel feel satisfied. Although both national movements have been battling fiercely for over one hundred years, strong ties link them together, and the reality of one directly reflects upon the other.


For a start, Israel must focus its efforts on regaining coordination with the Palestinians, and even resuming peace negotiations. Should the current state of affairs continue, it would mean an ongoing "functional withering" of the Palestinian administration, alongside which the affiliation between Israel and the Palestinian public will grow closer, the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will deepen and strengthen the possibility that Islamic elements will become more prominent in the West Bank, assuming positions in the local Palestinian administration, and responsibilities gradually handed over to Israel, particularly on the civil levels.


In the absence of a realizable vision of strategic separation, the two national movements are persistently heading towards a "one-state" scenario: the Palestinians out of despair from the two-state vision and due to collective aspirations to improve their living conditions, and the Israelis out of disinterest and indifference towards their "hidden Siamese twin", and an ongoing deferral of strategic decisiveness with regard to their affiliation to the Palestinians.


The line separating the two nations is growing increasingly more blurred, and the two are becoming merged infrastructurally, economically, and geographically. Thus, without officially announcing annexation, such a reality is slowly emerging in West Bank. The Israeli public is required to express broad interest and awareness with respect to the complex present and anticipated future, while holding an alert and fierce discussion (that, at least at this time, is non-existent) in pursuit of some decisiveness, and exert pressure on its leaders to decide which strategic national direction it intends to take: separation here and now before the two parties reach the "point of no return" (even if it does not ensure calm and security on the other side of the border), or preparation for a profound shift in Israel's nature as a state, while rephrasing its essence and objectives.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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