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Al-Aqsa Intifada: Background & Overview

(September 2000 - September 2005)

Incident Sparks Violence

On September 28, 2000, Likud leader Ariel Sharon went to visit the Temple MountJudaism’s holiest place, which Muslims have renamed Haram al-Sharif and regarded as Islam’s third holiest place. Since that time, Palestinians have engaged in a violent insurrection that has been dubbed the al-Aqsa intifada.

Palestinian spokesmen maintained the violence was caused by the desecration of a Muslim holy place – Haram al-Sharif – by Sharon and the “thousands of Israeli soldiers” who accompanied him. The violence, they said, was carried out through unprovoked attacks by Israeli forces, which invaded Palestinian-controlled territories and “massacred” defenseless Palestinian civilians, who merely threw stones in self-defense.

In fact, Israel's Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami permitted Sharon to visit the Temple Mount only after calling Palestinian security chief Jabril Rajoub and receiving his assurance that if Sharon did not enter the mosques, no problems would arise. The need to protect Sharon arose when Rajoub later said that the Palestinian police would do nothing to prevent violence during the visit.

Sharon did not attempt to enter any mosques and his 34-minute visit was conducted during normal hours when the area is open to tourists. Palestinian youths — eventually numbering around 1,500 — shouted slogans in an attempt to inflame the situation. Some 1,500 Israeli police were present at the scene to forestall violence.

There were limited disturbances during Sharon's visit, mostly involving stone-throwing. During the remainder of the day, outbreaks of stone-throwing continued on the Temple Mount and in the vicinity, leaving 28 Israeli policemen injured, three of whom were hospitalized. There are no accounts of Palestinian injuries on that day. Significant and orchestrated violence was initiated by Palestinians the following day following Friday prayers.

As violence escalated over the following days and weeks, the Palestinians and the media blamed Sharon for the violence. The truth was that the violence started before September 28. The day before, for example, an Israeli soldier was killed at the Netzarim Junction. The soldier was killed after the explosion of a roadside bomb. The next day in the West Bank city of Kalkilya, a Palestinian police officer working with Israeli police on a joint patrol opened fire and killed his Israeli counterpart.

In addition, official Palestinian Authority media exhorted the Palestinians to violence. On September 29, the Voice of Palestine, the PA's official radio station sent out calls to all Palestinians to come and defend the al-Aqsa mosque." The PA closed its schools and bused Palestinian students to the Temple Mount to participate in the organized riots.

Just prior to Rosh Hashanah (September 30), the Jewish New Year, when hundreds of Israelis were worshipping at the Western Wall, thousands of Arabs began throwing bricks and rocks at Israeli police and Jewish worshippers. Rioting then spread to towns and villages throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.

While the Palestinians accused Israel of desecrating their holy places, it was the Palestinian rioters who were actually attacking shrines. In October 2000, Palestinian mobs destroyed Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, tearing up and burning Jewish prayer books. They stoned worshipers at the Western Wall and attacked Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem with firebombs and automatic weapons.

None of the violent attacks were initiated by Israeli security forces, which, in all cases, responded to Palestinian violence that went well beyond stone-throwing. It included massive attacks with automatic weapons and the lynching of Israeli soldiers. Most armed attackers were members of the TanzimArafat’s own militia.

Imad Faluji, the Palestinian Authority Communications Minister, admitted months after Sharon's visit that the violence had been planned in July, far in advance of Sharon's  "provocation." "It [the uprising] had been planned since Chairman Arafat's return from Camp David when he turned the tables on the former U.S. president and rejected the American conditions."1

On November 7, 2000, an investigatory committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was established to determine the causes of the violence and to make recommendations for calming the situation. The Mitchell Report issued in April 30, 2001, concluded "the Sharon visit did not cause the al-Aqsa intifada.

In 2017, former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath admitted that, in 2000, Saudi King Abdullah, then the Crown Prince, provided the Palestinians with half a billion dollars and collected another half a billion from the Arab League to keep the intifada going.1a


Palestinians, young and old, attack Israeli civilians and soldiers with a variety of weapons. When they throw stones, they are not pebbles, but large rocks that can and do cause serious injuries. Imagine yourself being hit in the head with a rock.

Typically, Israeli troops under attack have numbered fewer than 20, while their assailants, armed with Molotov cocktails, pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and explosives, have numbered in the hundreds. Moreover, mixed among rock throwers have been Palestinians, often policemen, armed with guns. Faced with an angry, violent mob, Israeli police and soldiers often have no choice but to defend themselves by firing rubber bullets and, in life-threatening situations, live ammunition.

The use of live-fire by the Palestinians has effectively meant that Israeli forces have had to remain at some distance from those initiating the violence. In addition, the threat of force against Israelis has been a threat of lethal force. Both factors have inhibited the use of traditional methods of riot control.

According to the rules of engagement for Israeli troops in the territories, the use of weapons is authorized solely in life-threatening situations or, subject to significant limitations, in the exercise of the arrest of an individual suspected of having committed a grave security offense. In all cases, IDF activities have been governed by an overriding policy of restraint, the requirement of proportionality and the necessity to take all possible measures to prevent harm to innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians escalated their violent attacks against Israelis by using mortars and anti-tank missiles illegally smuggled into the Gaza Strip. Palestinians have fired mortar shells into Jewish communities in Gaza and Israel proper and IDF reports indicate that anti-tank missiles have been fired at Israeli forces in Gaza.

IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz told visiting American Jewish leaders on Feb. 28, 2001, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was stockpiling weapons smuggled into Gaza by sea and underground tunnels linked to Egypt. The possession and use of these weapons and other arms by the Palestinians violated commitments they made in various agreements with Israel. Under the Oslo accords, the only weapons allowed in the Palestinian-controlled areas are handguns, rifles, and machine guns, and these are to be held only by PA security officers. The violence made clear that in addition to the police, Palestinian civilians and members of militias, such as the Tanzim, also possessed such weapons.2

The PA failed to take adequate measures to prevent attacks against Israelis. While many terrorists were apprehended, they were usually released shortly afterward and, at least some of them subsequently was involved in assaults against Jews. In May 2001, for example, Arafat freed more than a dozen Islamic radicals who had been in jail since a wave of suicide bombings that killed 60 Israelis in eight bloody days in 1996.3

Over the course of the uprising, more than 1,000 Israelis have been murdered in suicide bombings, sniper attacks, ambushes, and other attacks. Press reports, nevertheless, usually focus on the far higher number of Palestinian deaths (nearly 5,000). The disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties is the inevitable result, however, of an irregular, ill-trained militia attacking a well-trained regular army and the Tanzim’s frequent use of Palestinian civilians as shields for its attacks. Furthermore, if children were in school or at home with their families, rather than throwing rocks in the streets, they would be in no danger.

Impact of the Violence

Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has taken the lives of numerous civilians and soldiers. In addition, terrorists acting in the name of the uprising have carried out heinous attacks inside Israel. The violence also has a collateral impact on the Israeli psyche, military, and economy.

Israelis must now be careful traveling through many parts of Israel and the territories that should be safe. Palestinians have also sniped at Jews in cities such as Gilo that are outside the territories. The violence has severely undermined the faith Israelis had that if they made territorial concessions, peace with the Palestinians was possible.

The uprising also affects military readiness because troops must be diverted from training and preparing against threats from hostile nations and instead must focus on quelling riots and fighting terrorism.

The violence has also caused a sharp reduction in tourism and damaged related industries. And it is not only the Israelis who suffer. The loss of tourism also hurts Palestinians. The number of visitors, for example, who normally visit Bethlehem for Christmas was significantly lower in 2000. The same is true in other pilgrimage sites in the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian shopkeepers in places like the Old City are also affected by the drop in tourism. Terrorist attacks also force Israel to periodically prohibit Palestinian workers from entering Israel, hurting individuals trying to make a living and provide for their families.

Cease-Fire Efforts

The United States and European Union failed in repeated attempts to broker a cease-fire, and the killing stifled peace efforts such as the Arab League-approved Saudi peace initiative in 2002 and the Roadmap for Peace presented by the Quartet in 2003.

In February 2005 Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordanian King Abdullah II met at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to work toward ending the violence. Sharon agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners and end military operations in the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas agreed to end terrorist attacks on Israelis. Egypt and Jordan agreed to return their ambassadors to Israel (they had been recalled to protest Israeli operations). The summit ended with Sharon and Abbas declaring that the Second Intifada was over.

At the conclusion of the summit on February 8, Sharon expressed his determination to carry out his Disengagement Plan, which he saw as a step toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians and called on them to demonstrate the strength and the courage to compromise, abandon unrealistic dreams, subdue the forces which oppose peace, and live in peace and mutual respect side-by-side with us.

“We have an opportunity to break off from the path of blood which has been forced on us over the past four years,” Sharon said. “We have an opportunity to start on a new path. For the first time in a long time, there exists in our region hope for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Speaking to his fellow Israelis, Sharon said, we have passed difficult years, faced the most painful experiences, and overcame them. The future lies before us. We are required to take difficult and controversial steps, but we must not miss the opportunity to try to achieve what we have wished for, for so many years: security, tranquility, and peace.

On May 22, 2001, Sharon declared a unilateral cease-fire in an effort to calm the situation, and in the hope the Palestinians would reciprocate by ending their violent attacks against Israelis. Instead, the Palestinians intensified the level of violence directed particularly at Israeli civilians. Yasser Arafat did nothing to stop or discourage the attacks. More than 70 attacks were recorded in the next 10 days, during which Israel held its fire and eschewed any retaliation. The campaign of Palestinian terror during the Israeli cease-fire culminated with the suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco on June 1 that killed 20 people and injured more than 90, mostly teenagers. In the face of overwhelming international pressure generated by the horrific attack, and the fear of an Israeli counterattack, Arafat finally declared a cease-fire.

The violence continued, however, and CIA Director George Tenet traveled to the Middle East in June in an effort to solidify a cease-fire and lay the groundwork for a resumption of peace talks. The Tenet Plan called for an end to all violent activities. In the six weeks following Tenet's visit, however, Palestinians carried out 850 terrorist attacks resulting in 94 Israeli casualties, 17 of them fatalities.4

Throughout the remainder of the summer, U.S.-led efforts were made to end the violence without success. It was not until after the September 11, 2001, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington that Arafat began to take serious measures to stop the violence by arresting terrorists and using his police force to prevent attacks. Though his actions were largely seen as an attempt to curry favor with the Bush Administration in its war against terror, and not repeat the mistake he made of supporting Iraq in the Gulf War, the effect was to reduce the level of violence against Israelis and the al-Aqsa intifada petered out.

1Jerusalem Post, (March 4, 2001).
1aFormer Palestinian FM and Chief Negotiator Nabil Shaath: Saudi King Abdullah Financed the Second Intifada,MEMRI, (March 7, 2017).
2Near East Report, (March 5, 2001).
3Jerusalem Report, (May 21, 2001).
4Washington Post, (August 15, 2001).