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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

One Year of Yasser Arafat’s Intifada: How It Started and How It Might End

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 4     October 1, 2001   

The first anniversary of the current Palestinian Intifada was marked on September 28, 2001, throughout parts of the Arab world. The date was chosen to correspond to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount one year ago, when he served as head of Israel’s parliamentary opposition. Because of the alleged proximity of his visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque (he actually did not get near the Muslim shrines), the Palestinians called their uprising: the Al-Aqsa Intifada. But clearly this name was chosen in order to mobilize Arab and Islamic public opinion for a more general struggle over Jerusalem rather than over the Palestinian cause alone.

“Whoever thinks the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong….This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David Negotiations,” admitted Palestinian Communications Minister ‘Imad Al-Faluji six months ago (Al-Safir, March 3, 2001, trans. MEMRI). Even earlier, Al-Faluji had explained that the Intifada was initiated as the result of a strategic decision made by the Palestinians (Al-Ayyam, December 6, 2000). By forgetting that the present Intifada violence resulted from a strategic decision taken by Yasser Arafat, most diplomatic initiatives over the last year have been misdirected, focusing evenhandedly on both Israel and the PLO. As a result, these efforts have largely failed.

These previously-noted statements are matched by additional overwhelming evidence that the Intifada was planned in advance and was not a spontaneous popular response to the Sharon visit:

  • Arafat began to call for a new Intifada in the first few months of the year 2000. Speaking before Fatah youth in Ramallah, Arafat “hinted that the Palestinian people are likely to turn to the Intifada option” (Al-Mujahid, April 3, 2000).

  • Marwan Barguti, the head of Fatah in the West Bank, explained in early March 2000: “We must wage a battle in the field alongside of the negotiating battle…I mean confrontation” (Ahbar Al-Halil, March 8, 2000). During the summer of 2000, Fatah trained Palestinian youths for the upcoming violence in 40 training camps.

  • The July 2000 edition of Al-Shuhada monthly, distributed among the Palestinian Security Services, states: “From the negotiating delegation led by the commander and symbol, Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat) to the brave Palestinian people, be ready. The Battle for Jerusalem has begun.” One month later, the commander of the Palestinian police told the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida: “The Palestinian police will lead together with the noble sons of the Palestinian people, when the hour of confrontation arrives.” Freih Abu Middein, the PA Justice Minister, warned that same month: “Violence is near and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties.” (Al-Hayut al-Jadida, August 24, 2000 — MEMRI).

  • Another official publication of the Palestinian Authority, Al-Sabah, dated September 11, 2000 — more than two weeks before the Sharon visit — declared: “We will advance and declare a general Intifada for Jerusalem. The time for the Intifada has arrived, the time for Intifada has arrived, the time for Jihad has arrived.”

  • Arafat advisor Mamduh Nufal told the French Nouvel Observateur (March 1, 2001): “A few days before the Sharon visit to the Mosque, when Arafat requested that we be ready to initiate a clash, I supported mass demonstrations and opposed the use of firearms.” Of course, Arafat ultimately adopted the use of firearms and bomb attacks against Israeli civilians and military personnel. On September 30, 2001, Nufal detailed in al-Ayyam that Arafat actually issued orders to field commanders for violent confrontations with Israel on September 28, 2000.

Since the Intifada was deliberately initiated by Yasser Arafat, the question remains: what exactly did he hope to achieve through this pre-mediated escalation of violence against Israel? It should be remembered that when the Camp David Summit broke down in July 2000, Arafat was blamed for the failure. Thus, his advisor, Hani al-Hasan, admitted on October 12, 2000 (Al-Ayyam, MEMRI): “The present Intifada permitted the Palestinians to change the rules of the game, damaging Barak’s attempts to place responsibility for the deadlock in the peace process (on the Palestinians).”

Arafat’s advisors hoped that by combining violence with negotiations, the Palestinian Authority could force Israel to make further tangible concessions. Moreover, they expected that excessive Israeli firepower would bring about the kind of international intervention that would externally impose new political arrangements on Israel that would be to the Palestinians’ advantage.

Ending the Intifada: Demonstrating that Arafat’s Strategy Failed and is Self-Defeating

Arafat’s continuing pursuit of the Intifada option, including the use of his own security forces in attacks against Israeli civilians, is based on his assessment that he is succeeding in converting the violence into tangible gains. For this reason, Arafat has refrained from taking action to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide attacks launched from areas under his control. Clearly comparing the U.S. Camp David proposals of July 2000 to the December 2000 Clinton parameters and then to the final Taba negotiations of January 2001, Israel demonstrated its willingness to make further concessions at the negotiating table, despite the Intifada attacks. While this was not Israel’s intention, Arafat could have concluded that the pressure of the Intifada violence succeeded in altering Israel’s negotiating position.

This process ended once the Sharon government resolved not to engage in substantive peace negotiations while Israelis continued to be under fire. Nonetheless, a variety of international actors may have given Arafat the impression that his adoption of violence was working. For example, the Mitchell Committee recommended a settlement freeze, a unilateral Israeli concession that did not previously exist in the Oslo Agreements. At least the settlement freeze was not an explicit condition for a Palestinian cease-fire, but only appeared at a later stage of the Mitchell sequence, after a “cooling-off period.”

Subsequently, from the G-8 to the U.S. Department of State, a variety of international actors over the last six months have suggested the deployment of international observers or monitors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in order to verify the implementation of any cease-fire. These international forces would serve Arafat’s intent of internationalizing the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The net impact of these various international interventions was to give Arafat the sense that important elements of the international community contemplated providing him with a quid pro quo for stopping his campaign of violence against Israel. If Arafat perceives that violence is regarded as an accepted instrument for achieving political ends, then there is no reason why he should permanently terminate the Intifada. It is not surprising, under such circumstances, that every cease-fire initiative with Yasser Arafat has failed.

The problem Israel faces is not the lack of a political initiative at present that would only reward Arafat’s violence with some new Israeli political concession. A new U.S. Mideast envoy is also not required. What is needed is Arafat’s compliance with cease-fire commitments that he has already made but not fulfilled. This message requires new international political will.

America’s new war against terrorism presents an opportunity for bringing an end to the year-long Intifada. If Arafat internalizes that there is now a universal norm in the international community renouncing terrorism as a political instrument, it might be possible to alter his cost/benefit calculus as he engages in the present-day violence. That new norm would have to clearly establish that no political grievance can justify the resort to violence and terrorism. Indeed, political movements that adopt terrorism should find their cause to be losing international support because of its reliance on such means. However, if Arafat understands that the new international consensus applies restrictively to the Bin Laden case alone, but not to the terrorism emanating from areas under his jurisdiction, then, unfortunately, the Intifada will likely be prolonged, with all its escalatory potential.