All Writings
September 24, 2004

The Intifadah: Four Years Later

As the fourth anniversary of the second Intifadah has come and gone, perhaps it is a good time to survey what has happened since that infamous day in September 2000, when the first Israeli and the first Palestinian were killed. Their deaths signaled the beginning of the destruction and despair that continue to this day. Struggling to restore some normalcy to relations shattered by indiscriminate violence, both Israelis and Palestinians are searching for a way out of the morass. There may be a glimmer of hope that the maddening rage will end, fueled by the growing recognition among many on both sides that the violence has not only gained them nothing but set their cause back a decade, if not a whole generation.

For the present, both sides are trying to cope in their own way with the current bloody reality. In Israel, the Intifadah brought Sharon's Likud party to power. The Israeli military continues to target Palestinian militants; more than 3,000 have been killed thus far. The deteriorating security conditions have seriously undermined the Israeli economy. And the continuing violence has also pushed to the fore the idea of separation from the Palestinians, now manifested in the accelerated building of a fence to separate much of the West Bank from Israel proper. This barrier, it is assumed, will help to stop the suicide bombings that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis, injured thousands more, and shattered the last semblance of trust between the two sides. For the Israelis, the construction of the fence has become a tragic admission of failure. Meanwhile, Prime Minster Sharon has decided on unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. The extreme right-wing members of his coalition have resigned in protest, and he has lost his majority in the Israeli Parliament. Even with these setbacks, Sharon remains popular, and he has invited Labor to join him in a national unity government, which remains a plausible prospect depending on how his fortunes unfold in the next few months in the face of the withdrawal plans. As I witnessed in a recent trip to the region, in one form or another, the Israelis have created a new reality for themselves, one that permits them to endure and even to lead relatively normal lives in an abnormal environment.

On the Palestinian side, the picture is considerably gloomier. The second Intifadah, which was by no means was accidental and in fact apparently planned by Arafat, has not advanced the Palestinian cause an iota. Rather, it has had a negative impact. The Israeli military incursions into Palestinian-held territories have left most cities there in ruin. Arafat is confined to his nearly destroyed compound in Ramallah. Enraged by the fence, especially when it encroaches on their territory and causes additional hardship, the Palestinians see the fence as a symbol of shattered dreams The bleak situation includes an economy in shambles, nearly half of the labor force jobless, and most municipal services in disarray. The Palestinian Authority has lost much of its power, and disenchantment with Arafat's leadership is growing, although he remains the nominal leader. Public security and safety is nonexistent, vigilantes roam the streets, and kidnaping and extortion are daily events. Although Hamas is still popular, ordinary Palestinians want an end to the violence as they debate the effect of the pending Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. While many private institutions continue to function in isolation, the signs of desperation are visible everywhere, causing a majority of Palestinians apparently to feel the need for a change in direction. Four years of Intifadah have left most of them wondering how so much went wrong. Why did they allow themselves to be so misguided? So many opportunities have been missed, but now a large constituency of Palestinian intellectuals, professionals, and politicians are beginning to think enough is enough.

But much else has also transpired both regionally and inside the territories. Saddam Hussein is gone and the Arab states have once again shown their ineptitude to do or change anything. Occupied with the uprising in Iraq and with no clear agenda about the real war on terrorism, Washington has for all intents and purposes left the Israelis and Palestinians to their own devises and virtually abandoned the road map for peace. Terrorist attacks have been on the rise and democracy has not advanced a single inch anywhere in the Middle East. Hatred for America has reached a new zenith and the conditions in Iraq are deteriorating, raising the spectrum of a civil war. Most Arab regimes feel more vulnerable than ever before and are hard at work trying to tighten their grip on power. And despite the huge increase in revenue in Arab oil-producing countries, poverty is more pervasive than four years ago and public discontent is on the rise.

In the prevailing present environment, one wonders if there is still a faint hope that some form normalcy and human decency could exist between Israelis and Palestinians. For this to happen, it would take, on the Palestinian side, men and women of valor and foresight to rise up and declare a new Intifadah. Theirs would be an Intifadah against the current order of Palestinian misery and despondency, an Intifadah against the corrupt leadership that has misled a proud people, an Intifadah against the dehumanizing violence that has destroyed the last vestiges of civility, and an Intifadah that will chart a new course for the next generation of Palestinians so that they may live and prosper in peace and dignity. On the Israeli side, for such a goal to be realized, it will also take men and women of conviction and purpose to say that the time for real change is here and now. They must then seize the moment and raise the banner of revolt against the self-defeating settlement policy, revolting against a minority of settlers that have hijacked the Israeli body politic, against violence, against the humiliation of Palestinians, against the occupation and the policies that deny the reality of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground, and against the self-defeating attitude that nothing can really change. Finally, Jewish and Muslim clergy, men of true religious wisdom, must make their voices heard. Their silence has been deafening. They, more than any other Israelis or Palestinians, have the solemn responsibility to speak out against this raging madness.

Much can change. It will take, however, courageous, committed, and visionary leadership that recognizes that the Israelis and Palestinians are destined to co-exist. This would be a leadership that assumes the responsibility of finding a peaceful and dignified way out of the present tragic events currently pushing the two peoples towards the precipice.