Two Decades After the Second Intifada, Palestine Still Has No Partner for Peace

Twenty years ago today, the second Palestinian intifada began in response to a provocation from Israel's Ariel Sharon after the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks. The brutal Israeli response inaugurated a war on Palestinian society that continues to this day.

A Palestinian flag is flown in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya. (Abid Katib / Getty Images)

It is now two decades since the beginning of the Second Intifada, when Palestinians rose again in revolt against the Israeli occupation. What is the significance of this anniversary, and what does it tell us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s colonial project?

Israel and its US allies have propagated the myth that Israel has no “partner for peace.” Yet the main conclusion we must draw from the last twenty years, which have seen an exponential rise in Israel’s use of force against Palestinians living under occupation, is that it is the Palestinians who actually have no partner for peace in Israel. Israel’s occupation has turned into a war against Palestinian society.

Separate and Unequal

The purpose of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was to establish Israel’s separation from occupied and colonized Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin, the main architect of the Oslo Accords, was clear about that. He ran his pre-Oslo election campaign in 1992 on the promise of separating Gaza from Tel Aviv.

This required not only political separation but economic exclusion as well. It would mean an end to Israel’s exploitation of migrant Palestinian labor, which had taken advantage of its position in the Israeli economy during the First Intifada to resist the Israeli occupation effectively and nonviolently.

For Israel’s state managers, separation meant disengaging from the Palestinians and excluding them from Israel on a permanent basis — not only during temporary closures and curfews. It thus deprived the Palestinians of any leverage. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass never tires of stating, closure actually started in Gaza in 1991: “The siege began in 1991 — before the suicide bombings.”

But such separation did not mean an end to Israel’s domination over Palestinians or its occupation. The reverse was true. Cutting Palestinians out of Tel Aviv involved intensifying domination, with more settlements, more parcellation and expropriation of Palestinian land, and more control over key aspects of Palestinian life: travel, security, and economic life. As Israel freed itself from reliance on Palestinian labor, Palestinians become ever more controlled and dependent upon Israel.

The visible physical sign of this new occupation regime was an illegal 700 km segregation wall built on occupied land in order to protect illegal settlers and settlements, alongside endless checkpoints and roadblocks cutting Palestinians off from Israel and from one another. The political sign was a newly formed local Palestinian entity called the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose core function was to serve Israeli security needs.

This separation with domination has been a total disaster for the Palestinians, who became invisible to ordinary Israelis. Being dominated but not exploited meant that occupied Palestinians became a superfluous population — a burden without leverage over their dominators, who were needed for nothing.

“A Bullet for Every Child”

It is this single fact that explains why Israel could now kill Palestinians in high numbers. Exclusion gave Israel’s army a free hand to deal with a now dispensable Palestinian population — especially when they protested against their conditions of mass confinement.

The new wave of killing began with Israel’s extremely violent response to the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Ariel Sharon’s highly publicized and provocative September 2000 visit to Haram al-Sharif, accompanied by thousands of troops and riot police, triggered nonviolent demonstrations. Israel responded by unleashing a war on the occupied population.

In the first few days of the intifada, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fired over a million bullets into the crowds, according to data supplied to the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Amos Malka. As the journalist Ben Caspit reported, a member of the IDF’s Central Command responded to this figure by suggesting that the operation should be called “a bullet for every child.”

For the sociologist of Israeli militarism Uri Ben-Eliezer, violent repression on such a massive scale suggests that there was a pre-existing army plan. The IDF sought to trigger a violent confrontation with protesters and push Palestinians to abandon the tactics of mass nonviolence that defined the first weeks of revolt: “It was the IDF that transformed the Al-Aqsa Intifada into a war.” The occupied were now a military target:

As part of the “new war” approach, and with the goal of reinstating ethno-national boundaries and “putting the Palestinians in their place,” the IDF began to attack Palestinian society in general, including its economy, infrastructures, daily routines, security, liberties, and freedom of movement.

This approach succeeded in militarizing the intifada and demobilizing widespread nonviolent mass protests. Although support for nonviolent tactics remained strong, it was localized and fragmented, as Julie M. Norman has shown.

Scapegoating Arafat

However, Israel’s deceitful propaganda portrayed the intifada as Yasser Arafat’s “right of return war,” supposedly instigated to achieve what he had failed to accomplish in the Camp David peace negotiations. In fact, even after the Second Intifada broke out, Israeli military intelligence briefed its political superiors that Arafat’s commitment to peace with Israel was strategic: according to those reports, he was convinced that the conflict could only be resolved peacefully.

Israel opted for war in order to undermine the potential for a peaceful settlement. Contrary to a legend assiduously promoted by Israeli leaders and their US sponsors, Ehud Barak made no generous offer at Camp David, and walked away from the last-ditch Taba peace talks that followed.

The Taba talks were, as the final joint statement affirmed, “unprecedented in their positive atmosphere and expression of mutual willingness to meet the national, security and existential needs of each side.” But Barak and Sharon had something else in mind. They wanted to destroy the two-state solution and force the Palestinians to accept colonialism-as-peace on a permanent basis.

The Second Intifada was not Arafat’s creation. It was a spontaneous revolt against the Oslo condition of dispensability and permanent exclusion, colonial domination and settlement expansion. A protest, too, against Arafat’s failure to deliver the independence he had promised. After Arafat’s death in 2004, a more pliable and politically inept figure, Mahmoud Abbas, would hound, disarm, and suffocate Palestinian resistance while scurrying to Washington.

When the Israeli reoccupation of West Bank cities came in 2002, it was accompanied by prolonged sieges and curfews, widespread collective punishment and demolition, army looting, and, in the words of Ramallah-based writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, “indiscriminate destruction . . . in a deliberate, willful, premeditated fashion.” How did Israeli spokesmen legitimize this state violence?

They repeat the word terror a million times. We, the Palestinians, are terrorists and therefore anything they do to us is legitimate. We are treated as homo sacer — people to whom the laws of the rest of humanity do not apply.

The United States’ “war on terror” after 9/11 was a perfect cover for Israel’s “new war” on the occupied, involving massive violations of human rights and systematic targeting of civilians. Washington supported all of Israel’s wars while it was destroying Afghanistan and Iraq, and destabilizing the Middle East under the bogus pretext of fighting international terror.

Criminalizing Palestinians

Herein lies the crux of Israel’s new strategy in the period since the Second Intifada. Its goal was to convert occupied Palestinians into terrorists in the public imagination and twist the laws of war to justify their killing.

Repressive military operations by a colonial army were transformed into a war against an entire criminalized population. A new Israeli narrative of self-defense against internationally sponsored Islamic terrorism and hatred overpowered the Palestinian narrative of legitimate resistance against an illegal occupier that was violating the right of an oppressed people to self-determination.

Palestinians became “ticking bombs” and potential suicide bombers, and Israelis were told they had to rise and kill to protect themselves. So they obeyed their army. On July 22, 2002, for example, an Israeli F-16 pilot dropped a one-ton bomb on a neighborhood in Gaza City killing a Hamas leader, his bodyguard, and fifteen civilians in their sleep.

Such illegal state assassinations and unlawful killings were normalized as part of Israel’s new military modus operandi in the Occupied Territories. Hundreds more one-ton bombs to be dropped on civilian neighborhoods would follow. War crimes became an integral part of the colonial occupation.

The Destruction of Gaza

Israel’s callous disregard for human life was on full display, especially in the attacks on Gaza in 2008–9 and 2014. Having disciplined its own population in the spirit of army worship and packaged these “new wars” as military campaigns against terror, the Israeli political class could count on public opinion to support such large-scale invasions of Gaza (a frightening and overwhelming 95 percent did so).

The first war lasted twenty-two days, killed 1,200 civilians (including 350 children), and destroyed more than 6,000 homes. The second lasted fifty-one days, killed 1,462 civilians (550 children), and destroyed over 18,000 homes. Although Palestinian armed groups fired thousands of homemade Qassam rockets into Israel, it was combat operations in Gaza that killed most of the eighty-seven Israelis who died in the course of these wars on Gaza (which also included a one-week military campaign in 2012 that claimed 174 Palestinian lives).

Nowhere was safe in a terrorized Gaza that was bombarded from air, land, and sea. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans were forced out of their homes; whole neighborhoods and families were wiped out. On reviewing the unprecedented scale of bombardment and destruction, historian Rashid Khalidi concluded his survey of this “one-sided war” on Gaza with the following words:

One of the most powerful armies on the planet used its full might against a besieged area of one hundred and forty square miles, which is amongst the world’s most heavily populated enclaves and whose people had no way to escape the rain of fire and steel.

Israel perfected the art of war as collective punishment.

The Myth of Self-Defense

No talk of self-defense can obscure Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in Gaza, which utilized the Dahiya Doctrine applied in Lebanon in 2006 to full effect. In a profoundly consequential legal analysis of the war on Gaza in 2008–9, the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq argued that Israel cannot invoke the right to self-defense established by Article 51 of the UN Charter as a justification for war.

Any attempt to do so contravenes Israel’s obligations as occupier (in “effective control”) of Gaza and the legal principle of military necessity “as the exclusive legal justification for any operation.” As Al-Haq concluded:

Despite the widespread acceptance of Israel’s pretext, the legal status of the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] excludes the application of Article 51 of the UN Charter as a result of the prolonged occupation.

The Gaza wars would not have been possible without Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza — without, that is, a policy of separation with domination for the tiny Strip as well. Since the territory had no strategic or religious importance, the evacuation of its settlements enabled total exclusion, closure, and ultimately a state of permanent siege and war. It fit in with the policy of intensified colonization in the West Bank, allowed Israel to divide the two areas from one another, and fueled Palestinian factionalism and internal political competition.

Israel succeeded here to such an extent that Abbas’s pliable Palestinian Authority aligned with its objectives of weakening Hamas by force, especially after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections and preemptive takeover of Gaza in 2007. Palestinian national reconciliation and a unity government have been made impossible by the PA’s subservient commitment to the moribund Oslo framework and the US-Israel boycott of a democratically elected Hamas government, as well as by the divisive logic of Palestinian factional strife.

Wars of Politicide

The wars since the Second Intifada should be defined as wars of politicide, in the sense described by political sociologist Baruch Kimmerling:

The term politicide means a process of preventing one ethno-national entity from achieving an enduring self-determination through the denial of its legitimacy and the systematic annihilation of its leadership and its material, economic, political, and cultural infrastructures.

In order to facilitate colonial expansion, they also created a pliable, subservient, and repressive Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and an isolated, besieged, and repressive Hamas regime in Gaza.

Through its illegal wars of aggression, Israel has devastated any real prospects for peace. At every crucial point when it had the chance to resolve conflict and antagonism by peaceful means, whether with the PLO or with Hamas, Israel opted for war.

It has a long record of actively destroying ceasefires with Hamas (in exchange for lifting or easing the siege on Gaza) and, even worse, rejecting countless long-term hudna (truce) offers from the Hamas leadership — a key part of its pragmatic political program that had led it to participate in the legislative elections of 2006 and de facto accept a two-state solution. “I don’t want any more wars” was Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s most recent direct message to the Israeli public. If Israel wanted peace, it would listen.

Israel also rejected the option of ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace and normalization with twenty-two Arab countries known as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Historian Tom Segev made the point well after the attack on Gaza of 2008–9:

The justification for all the wars and retaliatory raids, the punishments and acts of vengeance Israel has carried out since the day it was established, derives from the claim that there was no choice. Yet time and again it later transpired that choices did in fact exist.

Real peace is not a priority for Israel. Nor is ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel has to be compelled to make peace a priority. For that, defunding its appetite for war is necessary. More and more American progressives are adopting this position. That, too, is an outcome of war.