How the war began

A chronology of Palestinian moves leading up to the outbreak of violence two years ago shows it was planned in advance and ignited over the Jerusalem issue

A few days after the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000, the Palestinian Authority's monthly magazine, Al-Shuhada ("The Martyrs"), published the following letter on July 25: "From the negotiating delegation [At Camp David,] led by the commander and symbol, Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) to the brave Palestinian people, be prepared. The Battle for Jerusalem has begun."

The letter appeared in the aftermath of reports emanating from Camp David suggesting that the summit had failed because of Arafat's intransigence. According to PA sources, the letter was written by a senior Arafat adviser and approved by the PA chairman beforehand.

The letter was published in a magazine distributed only among PA security personnel. It did not appear in any of the daily newspapers published in Jerusalem or Ramallah. Hence the message Arafat was sending to his armed men was clear: "Be prepared for an all-out confrontation with Israel, because I refuse to accept Israeli and American dictates."

One month later - long after Arafat had returned to Gaza - the PA's (former) police commissioner, Gen. Ghazi Jabali, told the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida on August 14: "The Palestinian police will lead together with the noble sons of the Palestinian people, when the hour of confrontation arrives."

Freih Abu Middein, the PA Justice Minister, said he could see the writing on the wall. In an interview with the same newspaper published on August 24, 2000, he warned: "Violence is near and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties." The statement came after a series of meetings that Arafat had held with his cabinet ministers.

Another official publication of the PA, Al-Sabah ("The Morning"), on August 30, 2000, echoed the tone of escalation when it declared a few days later: "We will advance and declare a general intifada for Jerusalem. The time for the intifada has arrived, the time for jihad has arrived."

The rhetorical escalation started even before Arafat and his entourage left Camp David. A PA official who was with Arafat said the PA Chairman was furious with Israel and the US because they had accused him of being responsible for the botched summit. He felt that both prime minister Ehud Barak and US president Bill Clinton were now seeking to isolate him by declaring that the Palestinian people deserved a better leadership.

Upon his return from Camp David, Arafat received a hero's welcome from his people because he was being portrayed as the Arab and Muslim leader who refused to compromise on their historic, national and religious rights. Public-opinion polls showed a dramatic rise in his popularity, and even his secular and religious rivals were now heaping praise on him for not compromising. Arafat told well-wishers who came to see him in Ramallah that he refused to become [Egyptian president Anwar] "Sadat No. 2," who was denounced by many Arabs for signing a separate peace treaty with Israel.

"Welcome Arafat - the hero of war and hero of peace," said one banner in the streets of Gaza as Arafat's motorcade made its way from the local airport to his office. Another read: "Jerusalem is in our eyes, tomorrow it will be in our hands."

Earlier in the day, hundreds of Palestinians marched in the city demanding a return to the intifada against Israel. Buoyed by the failure of Camp David, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad issued statements urging Arafat to abandon the peace talks with Israel and return to the armed struggle.

The two radical Islamic groups regarded the breakdown of Camp David as further evidence that Israel was not serious about reaching a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians. Their spokesmen also told Arafat that if the summit proved anything, it was the fact that the US remains fully biased toward Israel.

After the failure of Camp David, Arafat visited almost all the Arab states, except for Syria and Iraq, asking their leaders for their support for his position. He also visited a number of European countries in an effort to explain his stance.

"Jerusalem and its holy sites, especially al-Aksa mosque, belong to one billion Muslims and I don't have the right to give them up to anyone," he reportedly told the Arab kings and presidents.

The Arab leaders assured Arafat that they stand behind him, but his tour of other world capitals after Camp David highlighted the fact that, for the first time in years, international sympathies were now on the side of Israel. For Arafat, this signaled the beginning of his isolation in the international arena.

For nearly three decades the PLO leader became accustomed to receiving a red-carpet welcome by kings and heads of state all over the world. He also became used to hearing sympathetic words for him and the cause he represents from his hosts. Now things were beginning to look different for Arafat in the West.

US assistant secretary of state Edward Walker was dispatched on a 14-stop regional tour in a last-minute attempt to persuade its Arab allies to withdraw their support for Arafat's position, but by then it was too late.

AS the pressure on him mounted, Arafat became even more defiant when he declared that he would go ahead with plans to announce the creation of the State of Palestine on September 13, 2000. In an interview with a Saudi newspaper on August 1, Arafat said: "There is no retreat on the fixed timetable of the declaration of the state. It will be declared on the fixed time which is September 13, God willing, regardless of those who agree or disagree."

Almost all the Arab states gave Arafat their blessing for the state idea. The PA chairman also received a commitment of diplomatic recognition from South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose country then had a big impact on the decisions of many other Third World states. Arafat was so confident that he would obtain widespread support that he ordered the PA Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation to start training Palestinians for diplomatic jobs overseas.

But on September 10 Arafat and the central committee of the PLO were forced to postpone, yet again, the planned declaration of statehood. The decision only increased the sense of bitterness among top PA officials who accused the US of blindly backing Israel and misleading the rest of the world on the reasons for the failure of the Camp David summit.

In conjunction with the political offensive, which began almost immediately after Camp David, the PA was also preparing for a possible military confrontation with Israel. PA security officials interviewed in the local media openly talked about a looming armed confrontation. Some even warned that the PA areas would be turned into a "graveyard" for the IDF if Israel decided to reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their statements came in response to remarks made by former IDF chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz, who warned that Israel would use tanks and jets if the Palestinians launched an armed offensive.

According to reports from Gaza in mid-August, some of the PA's paramilitary forces were holding battalion-level training exercises.

Moreover, many senior PA security officers were being sent to attend military training courses in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Pakistan. On the ground, Palestinians started feeling the tension when members of Force 17, Arafat's elite presidential guard, were seen digging trenches and heavily reinforcing their positions with sandbags. Within days, most of the PA police stations and bases looked like military fortresses.

As the Camp David summit was under way, Arafat's Fatah organization, the biggest faction of the PLO, started training Palestinian teenagers for the upcoming violence in 40 training camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Some PA officials and newspaper commentators also started calling for the adoption of the Hizbullah strategy, which, they believed, led to the withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon a few months earlier. Hizbullah leaders, including secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, appeared on Arab satellite television networks to mock Arafat and his negotiators, arguing that Palestine could be liberated only through the use of force, and not at summits like the one held in Camp David.

BY NOW the atmosphere in the Palestinian street was one of "the eve of war." PA ministers and representatives stepped up their criticism of Israel and the US as part of the PA's efforts to refute accusations that it was responsible for the collapse of the Camp David talks and that the Palestinians had missed yet another historic opportunity.

PA-appointed imams in West Bank and Gaza Strip mosques began referring to Israel as "the Zionist enemy" and urged all Muslims to mobilize for the war against the "infidels." In the words of one Gazan preacher, "All weapons must be aimed at the Jews, at the enemies of Allah, the cursed nation in the Koran, whom the Koran describes as monkeys and pigs, worshipers of the calf and idol worshipers."

Other imams spoke of the need and duty to liberate Palestine from the Zionist aggressors. This time the talk was not only about liberating the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now the demand was for Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Ashkelon.

Israel was also being accused of distributing drugs among young Palestinian men and women in order to corrupt them and bring about the disintegration of Palestinian society. In addition to the drugs, the Israelis were also believed to be behind sexually-arousing chewing gum found in Palestinian shops. The alleged goal: to turn Palestinian women into prostitutes.

As the tensions intensified, PA officials this time accused Israel of spreading "radioactive belts" that cause cancer.

An August 3 poll conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians supported a new intifada against Israel. This was the first time since the signing of the Oslo Accords that a majority of Palestinians said they supported violence against Israel.

In an attempt to avoid the inevitable clash, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, including PA Secretary-General Tayeb Abdel Rahim and Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh met to reduce tensions and prevent the outbreak of violence following the breakdown of the Camp David talks. The meetings were authorized by Arafat under pressure from Washington.

More than a year later, on the first anniversary of the intifada, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti gave an interview on October 22 to the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat in which he admitted that he had played a direct role in igniting the intifada.

He said: "I knew that the end of September was the last period [of time] before the explosion, but when Sharon reached al-Aksa Mosque, this was the most appropriate moment for the outbreak of the intifada... The night prior to Sharon's visit, I participated in a panel on a local television station and I seized the opportunity to call on the public to go to al-Aksa Mosque in the morning, for it was not possible that Sharon would reach al-Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount] just so, and walk away peacefully. I finished and went to al-Aksa in the morning.... We tried to create clashes without success because of the differences of opinion that emerged with others in al-Aksa compound at the time.... After Sharon left, I remained for two hours in the presence of other people, we discussed the manner of response and how it was possible to react in all the cities and not just in Jerusalem. We contacted all [the Palestinian] factions."

Barghouti traveled to the Triangle area inside Israel later that day where he was to participate in a conference. He explained: "While we were in the car on the way to the Triangle, I prepared a leaflet in the name of the Higher Committee of Fatah, coordinated with the brothers [e.g., Hamas], in which we called for a reaction to what happened in Jerusalem."

Imad Faluji, the PA communications minister, admitted on October 11, 2001, that the violence had been planned in July, far in advance of Sharon's "provocation." He said: "Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to Al-Aksa Mosque, is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton. [Arafat] remained steadfast and challenged [Clinton]. He rejected the American terms and he did it in the heart of the US."

Sakher Habash, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, said in an interview with the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on December 7, 2000: "After the Camp David Summit it became clear to the Fatah movement, as brother Abu Ammar [Arafat] had warned, that the next phase requires us to prepare for conflict [with Israel], because Prime Minister Barak is not a partner capable of complying with our people's aspirations. In light of this estimation, Fatah was the most prepared for a conflict among all other [Palestinian] national movements. [At the Camp David Summit] we thought that President Clinton would be able to put pressure on the Israeli government before leaving the White House so that Barak would agree to a political solution acceptable to us. But it became clear that the American position coincides with the Israeli position: sharing sovereignty over al-Haram al-Sharif with us, and dividing east Jerusalem into four or five parts in order to guarantee Israeli control there.

"In light of the information, [after] analyzing the political positions following the Camp David summit, and in accordance with what brother Abu Ammar said, it became clear to the Fatah movement that the next stage necessitates preparation for confrontation, because Prime Minister Barak is not a partner who can respond to our people's aspirations. Based on these assessments, Fatah was more prepared than the other movements for this confrontation. In order to play the role given to it, Fatah coordinated its administrative, civilian and sovereign apparatuses, and was not surprised by the outbreak of the current intifada... The Fatah movement believed that the phenomenon of comprehensive struggle would appear at the final settlement stage."

In October, almost two months after the intifada began, Arafat went to the Sharm e-Sheikh summit against the will of most of the Palestinian factions and some of his cabinet ministers. PA sources said Arafat's decision to go to the summit came largely in response to pressure from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which feared that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was spinning out of control. As far as Arafat was concerned, prime minister Ehud Barak and his government were no longer peace partners.

As expected, the "cease-fire agreement" reached at Sharm e-Sheikh drew fire from many Palestinians, who believed Arafat was under immense pressure from Washington to comply. PA officials told Palestinian journalists that Arafat's acceptance of the agreement "was more out of courtesy for president Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who hosted the summit." Arafat himself later denied that he made any agreement with Barak. He rejected an Israeli and American request to call directly and personally on the Palestinians in the streets to show restraint and restore calm. "Arafat was really offended by the accusations that he was responsible for the failure of the Camp David talks," explained a Palestinian negotiator. "That's why he wasn't prepared to humiliate himself by calling for an end to the violence."

The intifada was actually the best thing that could have happened to Arafat. It came at the right time, because it turned the fury of the Palestinians away from the corrupt and inept regime that he had established in 1994. Moreover, the violence united Palestinian factions against the common enemy, Israel, and rallied the people behind Arafat's leadership. In a sense, the intifada saved Arafat and his self-rule government because it directed the anger and frustration towards Israel instead of the PA.

Another reason why Arafat didn't move quickly to end the violence in the first days of the intifada is the fact that he believed that it would enhance his position in any future peace negotiations. Arafat hoped to use the intifada, which he expected would last for a number of days or, at the most, a few weeks, to tell Israel and the world that this is one of the results of the breakdown of the peace talks.

One of Arafat's conclusions following Camp David is that the best way to extract more concessions from Israel would be to involve more countries in the peace process. One of his main goals now was to drag the Arab countries into the conflict with Israel. He repeatedly reminded the Arab and Muslim countries that Jerusalem and its holy sites were their responsibility too.

Arafat and the Palestinians were once again greatly disappointed by the lack of support from the Arab League Summit, held in Cairo in October 2000. There was plenty of lip-service but an unwillingness to do anything practical on the ground.

It is now clear that the past two years of violence were unleashed as part of a strategy to internationalize the conflict and force Israel into making further concessions. But the violent tactics spiraled out of control taking on a deadly momentum of their own. What remains to be seen is whether there is a way out.