The Second Intifada Continues

What happened and why?

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For the Palestinian side it has consistently been the 'Al-Aksa Intifada,' after the name of the famous mosque, since the first day of clashes on the Temple Mount. This has had the effect of giving the struggle a religious dimension; had it been called the Independence Intifada or even the Jerusalem Intifada the implication would be more political than religious. The religious aspect has special significance in the context of Palestinian political history, because the PLO in its early years was dominated by secular and leftist-oriented organizations, with religious militias such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad appearing later on the scene. Initially the Islamic militias served as an opposition to the PLO, with their stress upon Islam over and above the need for a Palestinian state.

The second Intifada brought about a unity of Palestinian factions, with Fatah, a secular branch of Arafat loyalists, and even the Marxist People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine joining forces with the most rigid of Islamic fundamentalists in attacking Israeli targets.

Religious Aspects of the Second Intifada

In fact, the religious aspects came to dominate the second Intifada, from its Arabic name to the emphasis on suicide bombing attacks, which were initially conducted solely by fervent Islamic believers willing to be religious 'shuhada' (martyrs) but were adopted by all the Palestinian factions when becoming a shahid (martyr) for Palestine became an ideal to strive for throughout Palestinian society.

However, some of these violent tactics may have resulted in increased sympathy for Israel and Israelis. The images of Israeli civilians--including many children--blown apart by Palestinian suicide bombers brought Israel some sympathy in the American press. When a muscular form of Islamic fundamentalism brought about the suicide airplane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, the Palestinian militias found themselves frequently identified by an enraged U.S. administration as being part of the Islamic terrorist international movement.

There has been no evidence of direct connections between Al Qaeda and Palestinian movements, despite some limited Al Qaeda attempts to set up cells in the Gaza Strip. Israel's Likud-led government, however, pointed to Iraqi, Iranian, and Saudi support for various Palestinian factions and the general atmosphere of Islamic terrorism cultivated in Palestinian society to draw parallels between Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism and the international fight against Al Qaeda. After an extremely bloody series of suicide bomb attacks in the spring of 2002 culminated in a massacre of Passover celebrators in the coastal city Netanya--among them many elderly Holocaust survivors--the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) proceeded to enter all the Palestinian territories in an attempt to crush the Intifada.

A year earlier, a 24-hour incursion of the IDF into the Gaza Strip led to such international condemnation that Israel quickly withdrew out of fear that an aggressive move on its part could lead to international intervention. In contrast, the IDF's Operation 'Defensive Shield' in 2002 was subject to minor criticism given the new international atmosphere regarding the war on terrorism.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.