The Al-Aqsa Intifada was the largest popular uprising against the occupation. Two decades after it broke out, the Palestinian situation is grimmer than ever
Yom Kippur this year will mark the anniversaries of the outbreak of two of the most violent events in Israel’s history, events that shaped its character for years. It will be 47 years since the start of the Yom Kippur War and 20 years since the second intifada erupted. Both took Israel by surprise – but neither should have surprised anyone.
On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City and the powder keg exploded. A day later, an Israel Defense Forces soldier and seven Palestinians were killed. The following day, the killing of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura in the Gaza Strip in a crossfire was caught by the cameras. In the days that followed, an Israel Border Police officer from the Druze community, Madhat Yusuf, bled to death in Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, two IDF reservists, Yosef Avrahami and Vadim Norzhich, were murdered in Ramallah – and the demon of violent resistance to the occupation and its violent suppression exploded forcefully from the bottle.
Over four lethal years would pass before the fierce uprising would be quelled, with the use of massive force, and perhaps only temporarily, until the next insurgence, although no signs of it are visible at present on the horizon.
For Israel, the second intifada morphed into the nightmare of exploding buses and suicide bombers, years of unremitting horror and dread for the country’s citizens. For the Palestinians, these were years of brutal suppression, extensive bloodshed, sieges, closures, lockdowns, checkpoints, mass arrests, and also combat and sacrifices that got them nowhere.
Twenty years later, their situation is worse, more desperate than it was before the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and grimmer than ever: Only in the Nakba, the calamity of 1948, was their situation even harsher and more hopeless. But this was no zero-sum game. It’s never a zero-sum game: Their blood and our blood were dispensable, their blood and our blood were shed in vain. Only the price that they paid, as always, was far higher than the steep price paid by the Israelis. There were 138 suicide attacks and 1,038 Israelis killed from September 28, 2000 through February 8, 2005, according to data of the Shin Bet security service; and 3,189 Palestinians killed, according to data of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. In addition, 4,100 Palestinian homes were demolished and some 6,000 Palestinians arrested.
I went back this week to the start, to the articles, the reports and the notes taken on the first days, from the Palestinian side, of what quickly became the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The first three Palestinian victims whose stories we – photographer Miki Kratsman and I – told, were children, immediately at the end of the first week of the uprising. One was wounded, one was dying and the third was already dead.
Israel launched its suppression of the uprising by shooting children in the head on the Temple Mount: Ala Badran, 12, lost an eye; Mohammed Joda, 13, lay dying in the intensive care ward of Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem; and Majdi Maslamani, 15, was already dead and buried in the cemetery of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. About 10 days after the start of the intifada, 14 Palestinian children had already been killed. These cases were barely reported in the Israeli media, which as usual dealt almost exclusively with the Jewish victims, of which there were as yet only a few.
When we visited, the director of Makassed Hospital, Dr. Khaled Qurei – the brother of one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, Ahmed Qurei (better known as Abu Ala) – already had a display in his office of 16 jars containing bullets removed from the wounded. One of them, Joda, was brain dead. His father, a truck driver, had just returned from pouring cement at the Har Homa settlement in Jerusalem when his son was shot in the head on the Temple Mount.
“Man, do you understand that this is a 13-year-old boy?” Dr. Wahab Dajani, a doctor in the intensive care unit who had already seen everything, shouted at us.
A few hundred meters away, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, mourning was already underway for Maslamani. His bereaved father, Samir, the proprietor of a computer store called the Japanese Technology Center, in East Jerusalem, related that his son had gone to the Temple Mount on October 6 to protest the lockdown imposed on the territories. A bullet had slammed into his head from close range.
Ala Badran suffered a less brutal fate: He only lost an eye. Queen Elizabeth was smiling from a portrait at the entrance to St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital in the eastern city, where 11 children underwent surgery in the first two weeks of the intifada after having been shot. Ala was one of them. His mother didn’t tell him until a few days after the operation that he had lost one eye permanently.
The visit to the police station in Ramallah on October 15, three days after the lynching of the two Israeli reservists there, was far more fraught. The station chief, Col. Kamal al-Sheikh, told us that he had tried to protect the two uniformed soldiers physically but that the mob that invaded the place had pushed him forcibly against the wall and snatched the two soldiers away. Sheikh was the last person to see them alive. The incident was “the greatest failure of the Palestinian Authority” and “the greatest humiliation of mine and of the Ramallah police,” he told us. Israelis, shocked by the photographs of the blood and of the bodies thrown out of the second-story window, were not prepared to listen to his account, and its publication elicited much anger.
A week later, we visited the home of Jamil Muslith, a baker from Beit Jala, outside Bethlehem, whose house had been shelled by the IDF. He was still shaken by the event. His wife Munawar and nine children had been saved by a near miracle. But pasted on the walls of the town were photographs of 14-year-old Mueid Juarish, whose skull had been shattered by a soldier’s bullet a few days earlier. Beit Jala was under curfew then, and extensive destruction was already apparent on its streets. That was Israel’s response to shooting directed at the adjacent Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built by Israel across the Green Line after 1967. It was hard to believe that just a year earlier a group of children from Beit Jala had attended a concert of the Israel Philharmonic in Jerusalem, and that a year before that Leah Rabin had inaugurated an Israeli-Palestinian center for environmental protection here.
The Deheisheh refugee camp lies just a few kilometers south of Beit Jala. While people in Beit Jala were still talking about peace, in Deheisheh the talk was of war. A tidal wave of emotions of rage and revenge swept the streets of the refugee camp during the initial weeks of the intifada, where only a few years earlier we had covered a lively election campaign for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Now, residents set out for blood-drenched demonstrations next to Rachel’s Tomb, which became a focal point of resistance. In the summer we visited Rami Maali, a boy from nearby Bethlehem who sold juice and whose arm was broken by an IDF soldier for no reason.
On the walls of Deheisheh were Che Guevara and George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. All bitterness over decades of refugeehood and occupation burst out all at once in this militant camp. Here the dream of return had never been forsaken. And perhaps it never will.
“Before this intifada we were oppressed,” one of the armed men told us. “Now our spirits have been raised. They thought they could shatter our dream. To remove the Palestinians from history. But the intifada has restored our dream. It will be hard to go back to what there was before. [Yasser] Arafat and [Ehud] Barak will not be able to hold talks again. What will they talk about? Oslo is over.”
And then the targeted assassinations began. Student and Islamic Jihad activist Anwar Himran emerged from the university in Nablus after taking an exam, books in hand, his wife by his side, and waited for a taxi. Twenty IDF sniper rounds cut him down from a range of 300 meters, from high up on Mount Gerizim. A good many passersby were killed in the course of the assassinations. By December, a total of 250 Palestinians had already been killed in such incidents as well as under other circumstances.
Three months before the intifada erupted, we published a photograph of the display window of the Oslo Shirts store in Nablus. The proprietor, Saad al-Haruf, who spoke German from years of exile, warned us then about the looming uprising. In late December he was assassinated, when a caller posing as an acquaintance called him late at night and asked him to come rescue him in his car.
The Al-Fawar refugee camp, south of Hebron, was under siege when one of its residents, Samar al-Hodor, 18, was shot and killed by soldiers, just a few hours before his scheduled wedding. That was just two weeks after the start of the intifada. Al-Hodor was buried in the wedding suit his parents had bought him. The siege imposed on the remote camp lasted for months afterward. The roads in the West Bank were gradually blocked.
“You split up Palestine, now every village is an independent state,” an employee of the United Nations development agency in the camp told us.
A few weeks later, a taxi driver, Ismail al-Talabani, 50, was killed near the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim – simply because he dared drive close to a passing convoy of settlers’ cars. Sabarin Balut was born in a taxi in the West Bank as her parents begged soldiers to let them get to a hospital. She was removed from the taxi still connected by umbilical cord to her mother as the soldiers laughed.
In March 2001, we published the photographs of 66 Palestinian children who had been killed since the outbreak of the second intifada. At the time, Obai Daraj, a boy of 8 who was playing at home when a stray bullet entered his room, was the latest victim. Afterward he was joined by many other young victims, both Israelis and, mainly, Palestinians. A few weeks earlier, on February 6, Ariel Sharon, whose visit to the Temple Mount had triggered it all, was elected prime minister of Israel.