Violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians have traditionally ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Although violence and conflict have marked relations between these two peoples for almost all of the past ninety years, none of the confrontations has been so decisive as to administer a knockout punch or produce reconciliation. Indeed, the “decisiveness” of the rounds of combat between Israelis and Palestinians resembles the late stages of any of several Rocky movies—Balboa may be bloodied and down, but we know he’s not out. He’ll rise up and fight again. In both cases, however, the real question is does anyone not directly involved really care anymore?
More significant than events on the battlefield in ending any particular round of Israeli-Palestinian violence have been the fortunes of leaders. When they die, the violence tends to end at least for a while. In 1948, the Palestinians’ attempt to stop the United Nations Partition Plan and prevent the creation of the State of Israel petered out after their military leader, Abdel Khader Husseini, was killed in the battle of Qastel. The most recent intifada ran out of gas when Yasir Arafat died in November 2004.
Until there is a resolution of the underlying conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—that is, until the land is partitioned into two states and an agreement is reached covering political relations, security, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees—there will be recurrent periods of quiet, diplomacy and inconclusive violence. One way to assess those periods of violence is to ask whether either side has learned any lessons from past confrontations and applied them to present circumstances. It appears not: Neither Israel nor the Palestinians entered the most recent phase of the conflict—the so-called second intifada of 2000–04—having learned the right lessons from previous confrontations, and neither side had a clear practical understanding of what it wanted to achieve. There is little doubt, then, that there will be a third intifada. It may even be now upon us. Whatever its timing or pretext, will intifada III make a difference? Can U.S. policy encourage that difference? All that remains to be seen.
Academics, policymakers and pundits have debated fiercely the causes of the Palestinian uprising that started in September 2000. The immediate spark, clearly, was then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, on September 28, 2000. Palestinian protests turned violent the following day as Muslim worshippers in the Haram area pelted Jewish worshippers with stones at the adjacent Western Wall. Israeli police then entered the Haram area in force and, in the ensuing confrontation, killed a number of Palestinians. In the days and weeks that followed, Palestinian protests and Israeli responses mounted, setting in motion an action-reaction radicalization spiral that escalated the intensity and scope of the confrontation.
As significant as Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was in providing the spark for conflict, it was not the underlying cause. Palestinian anger and frustration over the lack of progress in the peace process had been mounting for some time. During the period of the Oslo Accords, from September 1993 on, Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza had increased substantially, and Israel had not transferred the amount of territory to Palestinian control that the Palestinian leadership had expected. An even more influential factor was the abject failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000, with President Clinton publicly assigning blame to Arafat and the Palestinians. Arafat certainly saw violence as a tool of policy and hoped that enough violent pressure on Israel would sweeten the terms of what the Israelis would offer Palestinians in negotiations. And indeed, a few months later at Taba, the negotiating terms proffered by the Israeli side were sweeter, as were the “parameters” offered by President Clinton late in 2000.
Notwithstanding all these factors, the outbreak of violence was not pre-ordained. Oslo was premised on the two parties making incremental progress toward peace, measured by gradual Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza and progress toward building viable Palestinian self-government. The process envisaged interim steps, followed by Palestinian independent statehood, and culminating in bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine to resolve the “final-status” issues of the conflict.
At the five-year mark, however—when the process had anticipated a Palestinian state coming into being—neither side had implemented its commitments. Israeli withdrawals had been slow in coming; less than 30 percent of the West Bank had been transferred to full Palestinian control by that time, although Israel subsequently handed over an additional 13 percent. Israeli settlement activity had continued during those five years. According to Israeli government figures, the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza (not including the Jerusalem area) increased from 114,900 to 188,100 between 1993 and 1999.
Palestinian performance of their obligations under Oslo was equally dismal. Indeed, the Palestinians breached their core commitment—to renounce and refrain from terrorism, most notably in 1996. At that time, a series of suicide bombings left the Oslo process badly wounded and contributed to the defeat of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in elections that brought Likud standard-bearer Benyamin Netanyahu to power. Arafat cracked down on the terrorists at the time, but the taboo against terrorism had been broken with almost no consequences. The Palestinians had also not done enough to prepare for statehood. Arafat ignored building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, instead rewarding cronies, building up overlapping and competing security services and cementing his personal authority. Nor did Arafat prepare his people for the inevitable need for compromise. Palestinians simply were not ready for statehood in 1999 or at any time thereafter.
In such an inauspicious environment, the worst of all possible situations developed: Israel and the Palestinians started thinking and acting unilaterally, even while maintaining the appearances of bilateral engagement. I recall, during my time in Cairo as the U.S. ambassador, the repeated shuttles of Secretary Madeleine Albright and the American peace team, as well as the efforts by the Egyptian government, especially with Arafat, to get Oslo back on track. But Arafat had seemingly lost interest, and Egyptian influence on him diminished. In place of more intense engagement to rectify the problems of Oslo and move toward a negotiated settlement, each side became conditioned to focus all of its attention on its own needs and only marginally on the likely reaction of the international community, of which the United States was primus inter pares. It was then a small step between the development of such an attitude and policies in the political and diplomatic sphere and the execution of similar actions in the military sphere. And so the step was taken—a small step for mayhem.
In 2000, therefore, at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian stage was a tinderbox waiting for a match. And yet, although both sides anticipated violence, neither had prepared for it, politically or militarily. From the outbreak of violence in September 2000 until Arafat’s death in November 2004, both sides failed to articulate political goals they expected to emerge from the fighting. Instead, both waged the second intifada war as a series of tactical engagements designed to secure discrete military victories, but without an overarching political strategy.
For all the pressures and frustrations to which Palestinians point as justification for the eruption of violence, there is no evidence that Palestinians developed an overall strategic plan, specific tactical objectives or realistic political goals they hoped to achieve in the uprising. Palestinians explained their motives publicly in familiar terms: The intifada occurred because of Israeli culpability for the failure of the peace process; Israeli responsibility for the dire economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza; and Israeli settlement activity. The Palestinian Authority could have asserted the need for Israel to complete the third territorial withdrawal called for in Oslo; or the need for a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity; or the need for substantial modification in the proposals offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David; or even the need for a new basis for negotiations, an improved Oslo framework. But there was no such public statement of goals and, to this day, no evidence that any set of political goals was formulated privately. No such statements were forthcoming from Arafat, and declarations by other Palestinian Authority figures—such as Minister of Information and Culture Yasir Abed Rabbo’s comments defining Palestinian political objectives during a November 5, 2000 political rally—were publicly challenged by rival Fatah leaders and opposition parties.
Rather, Palestinians entered the intifada with a vague notion that violence would change the situation in their favor, perhaps with a notion that greater violence would yield greater change. Indeed, it can be argued that the Palestinians entered the intifada with no notion at all of what they could achieve, and focused instead—if focused is the right word for such diffuse impulses—on releasing anger and frustration by simply killing a lot of Israelis. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had become a staunch advocate of the Camp David process after hearing the extent of possible Israeli concessions, urged Palestinians at the very outset of the intifada to bring it to an end. He received warmly President Clinton’s proposal for a summit at Sharm El Sheik in October 2000, designed to provide a ladder for Palestinians and Israelis to climb down from the violence. Mubarak repeatedly assessed, during our conversations, that Arafat would see the value in limiting the violence and return to negotiations. But this didn’t happen.
Palestinians also entered the intifada with a rather unformed view of their military expectations. Palestinian analysts insist that the intifada turned lethal as a result of the use of lethal force by Israel in response to Palestinian riots on the Haram al-Sharif after Sharon’s visit. This view doesn’t hold water, however. In May 2000, Palestinians held a “dress rehearsal” for the armed intifada, and these events started out lethal. Commemorating what Palestinians call al-nakba, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s declaration of statehood, demonstrators engaged in violent demonstrations on May 15 that left four Palestinians dead and 300 wounded, and 14 Israeli soldiers wounded, as well. Palestinians also attacked Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site in Nablus. Violent demonstrations continued for more than a week.
There is substantial evidence that Arafat knew a violent uprising was brewing and gave it quiet encouragement, believing that Palestinian society needed a pressure release and that Israeli society needed to be reminded that Palestinians retained the option of fighting against the occupation. Arafat still lacked any master plan with respect to the scope and extent of the violence or the direction it would take. But as opposed to the first intifada, the intifada of the stones, which was organized and directed by Palestinians from the territories when Arafat was still in Tunis, in this intifada—the intifada of the guns and bombs—Arafat was in control.
Some Israeli analysts contend that Arafat was responsible for leading the intifada and orchestrating the violence from its outset. What seems more plausible is that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority lacked any strategy, political or military. Arafat’s bargaining position had been greatly weakened following the failure of Camp David and the loss of U.S. support. The rise of the intifada and the outbreak of retaliatory violence against Palestinians gave Arafat an opportunity to reignite his international and national standing, especially among Palestinians and other Arabs, and to stand up to Barak. He did not need to orchestrate Palestinian violence. Merely by refraining from issuing a ceasefire, Arafat’s tacit consent ensured continued violence and widespread media coverage of Palestinian suffering.
Arafat’s hands-off approach also allowed groups within Fatah and the main Palestinian opposition parties to increase their own bids for power through organized violence. Lacking any strategic leadership from Arafat, Fatah militias (consisting of the Fatah Tanzim, Force-17 and the various Palestinian security services), the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were increasingly free to pursue their own unilateral and generally uncoordinated acts. With Palestinian casualties mounting and without any considered strategic alternative, Palestinian civilians continued to support the ongoing violence, which, in a sharp contrast to the first intifada, deliberately targeted Israeli civilians inside Israel proper. In this way, the absence of strategy proved disastrous for the Palestinians as the debate within Israel shifted during the autumn of 2000 from one about occupation and settlements to one about basic survival and personal security.
Within days of the outbreak of the second intifada, the intensity and lethality of the uprising already exceeded the bounds of the first. PA security services made no attempt to control the Palestinian street, and individual Palestinian security personnel themselves engaged directly in the violence. The vacuum created by the disappearance of the security forces was filled by militant leaders from the military wings of Fatah and the Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Beginning in the earliest days of the second intifada, Israel began targeting the middle managers of violence—the lieutenants who ran Tanzim activities at the regional and local levels. Through arrests and lethal encounters, the middle management of Palestinian violence disappeared, to be replaced by less experienced, often younger and almost invariably more radical former subordinates. Whatever “organization” this second intifada had at the outset evaporated within weeks, and subsequent tactical decisions were increasingly local and uncoordinated. I recall conversations with Avi Dichter, then the director of the Israel Security Agency (the Shin Bet) who noted that Israel’s success in arresting or killing intifada military leaders resulted in the decentralization of command, in which neighborhood and street leaders increasingly took independent decisions on what and when to attack.
Israel similarly entered the second intifada without clear political objectives or military strategy. Israeli frustration with the lack of progress at Camp David and Arafat’s failed leadership was mounting. Barak’s political base, severely eroded even before Camp David, had evaporated entirely by September 2000. But this mounting frustration had not led to preparations for the kind of violence that was to ensue. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Israel has pursued essentially the same tactical approach in dealing with Palestinian terrorism and violence. The Israeli objectives have been to protect its population wherever located; take the fighting as much as possible to the Palestinians; and to inflict as much punishment as necessary to persuade Palestinians to stop attacking Israelis.
When I arrived as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2001, I recall asking the Israel Defense Force’s head of operations to explain the IDF’s counterinsurgency doctrine. He handed me a Hebrew translation of a U.S. Army manual on counterinsurgency. The reality was that Israel had a very sophisticated counterterrorism strategy, but no counterinsurgency doctrine or strategy at all. Israeli measures of retaliation developed into a de facto strategy each time an act of violence occurred. In this way, Israeli countermeasures to Palestinian violence, such as targeted killings and closures, formed the backbone of an Israeli strategy that lacked either a political vision or long-term understanding of its consequences.
Were such tactics successful? Some argue that Israel’s actions actually expanded the scope of the conflict and ultimately cost more Israeli lives. Others point to the essentially short-term advantage of denying Palestinian terrorist leaders the sanctuary they had previously enjoyed in which to plot terror. Other countermeasures, such as closures that targeted the entire Palestinian population without distinguishing between terrorist targets and civilians, cost Israel in the battle to win “hearts and minds.” Time and again, I argued with Prime Minister Sharon that Israeli military tactics were alienating Palestinian civilians and thus widening and intensifying the conflict. Sharon’s response was that he needed to ensure security for Israelis, even at the price of promoting a security policy that harmed Palestinian civilians.
Israeli security policy focused on proving to the Palestinians the futility of a continued intifada. Yet IDF tactics, designed to foil terror attacks, did not stop the violence. Instead, by isolating Arafat and imposing tactics that in effect led to an economic blockade, Israeli policy severely undermined the political and social fabric of the Palestinian Authority, leading to soaring rates of unemployment (at least 64 percent in Gaza), and greatly restricting Palestinian freedom of movement. Many Palestinians, meanwhile, became increasingly dependent on the welfare benefits that Hamas and other extremist elements offered.
The course of the fighting during the second intifada settled into a pattern that proved very durable throughout the nearly five years of confrontation. Palestinian terrorists would attack an Israeli target, and Israel would respond; the more severe the original attack, the more sweeping the response. And the more encompassing the response, the more likely that the organization responsible for the original attack would feel compelled to attack again, harder this time, in revenge for the Israeli counterstrike. Thus did the severity and lethality of the confrontation intensify. Palestinian casualties mounted rapidly as the IDF employed lethal force in an effort to quell the uprising in its infancy. Israeli casualties then increased, as Palestinians changed tactics from violent demonstrations to more pinpointed attacks—especially suicide bombings—against Israeli civilian targets.
Indeed, a time-worn pattern soon emerged that reflected decades of Palestinian-Israeli violence. About thirty years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on the subject of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism in the years before 1970. I noticed the same pattern described above: Increasing Palestinian terrorism ? significant Israeli response ? temporary decline in volume and severity of Palestinian terrorism ? gradual increase in Palestinian terrorism to numbers and intensity levels greater than the original terrorism ? significant Israeli response ? and so forth. As though living in a time warp, the sides repeated this pattern between 2000 and 2005. So focused were they on the next act that few on either side noticed this or any other pattern, and one cannot learn from what one does not notice.
As the round of fighting that began in the summer of 2006 indicated, violence between Palestinians and Israelis has resumed. In a way, of course, it had never really stopped. Arafat’s death in November 2004 led to a significant ebbing of Palestinian violence, and the main Palestinian factions entered into a temporary ceasefire. But the ceasefire has been broken regularly by dissident Palestinian groups and by Israel’s periodic recourse to targeted assassinations. Now we may be on the verge of another escalation cycle—a third intifada.
Has either side assimilated the lessons of the second intifada, and will the next round of violence therefore have qualitatively different results? Palestinian militants, such as those in Hamas, argue that violence against Israel has raised the stakes and costs of occupation so high that the Israeli public is tiring of it. Indeed, Hamas claims “credit” for Israel’s disengagement policy in much the same manner as Hizballah argues that its 22 years of resistance finally drove Israel from southern Lebanon. If this attitude takes hold among Palestinians, there is no reason to believe that they will eschew violence in favor of a diplomatic process. To prove Hamas wrong, there would have to be significant progress in bilateral negotiations between Israel and mainstream Palestinians. But this seems a remote prospect in the present situation, in which Israel faces a divided Palestinian quasi-government where one part is able but unwilling to discuss compromise and the other willing but unable to do so. On top of all their other problems, Palestinian politics appears paralyzed to such a point that even a surface agreement on a national unity government may not shake the system enough to produce reasonable policies toward peace or democratic governance.
On the Israeli side, army planners assess Israel’s counterterrorism policy as a qualified success. The IDF adapted relatively quickly to Palestinian tactics and brought superior power to bear against Palestinian terrorists. Targeted killings, in the Israeli view, proved effective both in disrupting terrorist planning and as a deterrent. There appears to have been no rethinking in Israel of the policy of collective closures, blockades, roadblocks and checkpoints. With the continued building of Israel’s security barrier, Israeli military planners will feel even less urgency to develop a counterinsurgency strategy—that is, a strategy to convince Palestinian opinion to oppose terrorism and negotiate for peace.
Moreover, as a result of the Israel-Hizballah war in Lebanon this past summer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has shelved temporarily his plans for further unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank in an effort to upgrade Israeli security. If Olmert holds true to this, then Palestinian violence—in Hamas’ view, to wear down Israel’s will and to force it to withdraw from more Palestinian areas—will fail to make a difference. The two sides will thus engage in another round of violence, developing whatever new tactics and countermeasures they can conceive, and the result will be another bloody stand-off. Sylvester Stallone himself could not script it any better.
With neither side prepared to drive the conflict to a settlement, the question is not whether there will be a third intifada—there will be. The West Bank remains a tinderbox, and continued construction of settlement outposts may serve as the match to light the flame. As the Palestinian Authority’s ability to govern—never very high—declines further, there will be no brakes within Palestinian society against a resumption of violence.
If this were just another Rocky movie, the next scene wouldn’t matter much. But as the Israelis and Palestinians re-engage violently and move even further away from peace, the stakes—for them and the United States—are too high to ignore. During this past summer, I met with senior Israeli political and military figures in the midst of war in the north and war in Gaza. Intent upon delivering crushing military blows against Hizballah and the Palestinians, the Israelis gave little thought to building toward a political outcome. So, too, the United States gave little thought to the political outcomes of the confrontations, deciding instead to focus on creating conditions for a strategic change in Lebanon, but, unfortunately, without a coherent gameplan to make that happen.
If the United States is to help avoid just another futile iteration of Israeli-Arab violence, two policy changes are imperative: We must make Resolution 1701 succeed, by creating a significant enough UNIFIL force so as to give the Lebanese government and army the confidence they need to deploy to the south and to ensure that Hizballah does not return and cannot rearm. And we must help Mahmoud Abbas succeed not only in recrafting Palestinian politics but, more importantly, in delivering tangible political and economic benefits to the Palestinian people. There are no magic formulas to prevent the déjà vu scenarios of the past, only the hard work of diplomacy and political commitment of which the United States is more than capable. ?