The Middle East Council on Global Affairs (ME Council) hosted a webinar on April 12, 2023 to discuss the implications a critical juncture in Palestinian history, the Second Intifada, and address its legacy and influence on recent developments and the present reality. The discussion was moderated by Omar H. Rahman, fellow at the ME Council and editor of Afkār. The distinguished panelists included Ramzy Baroud, editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and Nour Odeh, a political analyst and journalist.
Rahman began the discussion by tracing the outline of events that led to the Second Intifada. The Camp David Summit, which occurred a couple of months prior in July 2000, capped a disastrous peace process that began in 1993 with the Oslo Accords. It was supposed to end with final status negotiations within five years, but conditions on the ground in the occupied territories continued to deteriorate. This intifada, or uprising, was precipitated by the infamous, intentionally provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to the holy site of al-Haram al-Sharif, site of Al-Aqsa mosque, escorted by approximately one thousand armed guards. The visit sparked protests by Palestinians in Jerusalem, which were violently suppressed by Israeli forces, leading to a wave of protests that cascaded into a full-scale rebellion.
Rahman then asked Odeh to expand on the drivers of the Second Intifada. She responded by recounting that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership at the time had concluded that the U.S.-mediated talks were at a dead-end. This was also a moment of consensus in the Palestinian community about charting a different path towards liberation from the occupation and reasserting their rights without having to prove to the occupier that they were worthy of negotiations and “goodwill measures.” Moreover, Israeli politics were moving to the right, despite then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s progressive posturing. Odeh recalled that the initial protests escalated after facing intense repression and violence at the hands of the Israeli state. This repression was characterized by an almost immediate assault on the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose operations were brought to a standstill by the systematic targeting and destruction of its buildings, institutions, and infrastructure. She added that Palestinian leadership and older generations (50 years+) tended to support a more acquiescent and survivalist approach towards Israel, on the basis that the U.S. and Arab states would not support Palestine. Younger generations, she highlighted, wanted liberation without the need to demonstrate goodwill towards Israel, and the Intifada widened this political divide and changed the terms of the conversation.
Rahman followed up by asking Odeh how the Second Intifada compares to other events in the Palestinian experience, including the First Intifada. She stressed a number of important differences between the two intifadas. The first was a popular uprising with mass demonstrations in the absence of formal Palestinian institutions and governance. The second rapidly evolved into a rebellion of armed resistance in a context where there were more Palestinian institutions, such as the PA. In addition, as soon as armed conflict broke out, the active participation of the masses decreased and Palestinian factions with their own armed groups spearheaded efforts on the ground. In her analysis, the Second Intifada also marked the beginning of the downfall of Palestinian factions, which were exposed for their lack of vision and political leadership. Hamas and Islamic Jihad perhaps had more traction, but in general, the period witnessed a crisis in Palestinian politics from which the community never recovered.
Subsequently, Baroud turned the discussion to the meaning of “intifada,” given recent claims of an ongoing Third Intifada which he views as unfounded. The First Intifada started as an outcome of several institutional failures, including the PLO’s decreasing relevancy as a viable platform for Palestinian resistance. It was generated by a new wave of leadership emanating from Palestinian society, particularly from academia, which was creating new political discourses in Palestine that gave rise to the First Intifada. Similarly, the Second Intifada included a component of mass mobilization that was fueled by anger at the failures of the peace process, on the one hand and the PA’s decline in political legitimacy on the other. In particular, Yasser Arafat’s empty-handed return from Camp David, and the humiliation he faced in the media, led him to advocate for a second intifada as a means to reassert his revolutionary credibility among supporters. In his books, The Second Intifada and My Father Was A Freedom Fighter, Baroud argues that Palestinian society was primed for a mass uprising and that Arafat likely did not anticipate that the Second Intifada would stretch on for half a decade.
Rahman then asked about the common narratives among Palestinians regarding the Second Intifada. Baroud replied that one narrative is that the Second Intifada marked the end of Oslo and the peace process. The Intifada also fundamentally altered the relationship between the Palestinian leadership and broader society, as what little trust remained in authority was greatly diminished. In response to the same question, Odeh added that there are three primary narratives regarding the Second Intifada.
The first is a pragmatic one invoked by PLO to garner support by recalling their struggles and sacrifices. The second narrative is similar to the first, but advanced by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to bolster their own support and minimize others’ influence. The third is a conflicted and complex narrative from among Palestinian civil society about the victories and failures of the Intifada, which recalls the heroism of Palestinians along with the ensuing chaos and vigilantism that occurred in Palestinian cities. In Odeh’s view, political actors have used the Second Intifada and narratives about it to pursue their various agendas, which has ultimately undermined these actors’ legitimacy and led to the current crisis of authority.
Baroud then charted the history of anti-colonialism movements and their influence on Fatah, noting that the latter drew inspiration from movements like the Algerian Revolution, all of which employed a model of armed resistance. After the success of this with regard to Hezbollah, the Israelis reacted violently to the Palestinian uprising, fearing parallels with Lebanon and wishing to signal that their capacity for deterrence was undiminished. Meanwhile, Palestinian factions had stockpiled mass stores of weapons and drew inspiration from the Hezbollah model.
Baroud concluded by highlighting the economic incentives that the Israeli authorities provide in an attempt to undermine Palestinian political resistance by channeling money into Palestinian society. For instance, around 30% of Palestinian society is paid by the PA, Palestine’s largest employer, which has a history of offering young protesters jobs to stifle demonstrations. Ultimately, the Second Intifada signified a key moment in Palestinian history and has had lasting impacts on how Palestinians view themselves and their political aims.