The al-Aqsa Intifada (uprising) of Palestinians broke out in September 2000 following a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon and 400 Israeli soldiers to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. The Haram al-Sharif complex includes the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is viewed by Muslims as the third-most-sacred site in Islam.
Many Jews believe the site is also the location of the ancient temple of Solomon and refer to it as the Temple Mount. Some also hope to rebuild the temple on the site in the future. Owing to these conflicting religious and historic claims, the site has been a flash point for confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis.
The al-Aqsa Intifada was also evidence of continued Palestinian opposition to the Israeli occupation and the failure to achieve meaningful national independence. The uprising fed Israeli fears and the determination by those on the Israeli right to retain control of the territories.
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli military government had controlled more than 1.9 million Palestinians through military orders; these included arrests, detention without trial, restrictions on movement, collective punishment, and land appropriation as well as appropriation of water resources.
Under dual governance, Israeli settlers in the territories—some 200,000 by 2006—came under Israeli law, but Palestinians remained under military rule. Under the Oslo Accords Israel had agreed to trade land for peace and had gradually withdrawn from some territory in the West Bank.
The Palestinians had hoped that Oslo would be a step toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Disillusioned and angry over the continued Israeli occupation and the perceived failures and corruption of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasir Arafat and Fatah, many young Palestinians turned to the more radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
They adopted a new tactic of using suicide bombers to attack not only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories but also Israeli civilians across the socalled green line inside the pre-1967 Israeli borders.
These attacks undermined support for the peace process in Israel and strengthened the position of Israeli hard-liners who were opposed to returning any territory. Further Israeli settlements also continued to be built even after Oslo in 1993. Ariel Sharon, known for his hawkish stance and support for the settlers, was elected Israeli prime minister in 2001.
In 2002 Israeli forces reoccupied much of the West Bank territory that had been turned over to the Palestine Authority. In Jenin the Israelis met with armed Palestinian opposition. Israeli forces retaliated by reducing much of the town to rubble, and many were killed or made homeless.
Israeli forces also laid seige to Bethlehem, where several wanted Palestinians had taken refuge in the Church of the Nativity. Arafat’s compound in Ramallah was also surrounded, and he spent most of the last two years of his life under virtual house arrest.
Israel also assassinated Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi, two key Hamas leaders. Yet the suicide attacks inside Israel continued, resulting in a number of civilian deaths. By 2004 over 4,000 Palestinians and 900 Israelis had died, more than had died in the six years of the first Intifada.
Israel also began to build a wall to separate the territories. At 360 kilometers long, with guard towers at about every 300 meters, trenches, and barbed wire, the wall was twice as long as and three times higher than the Berlin Wall.
Built entirely on Palestinian land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, the wall separated Palestinians from one another, limited access to Jerusalem, and isolated some communities entirely. However, the wall did not prevent further suicide attacks. Following Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, became the new Palestinian president.
But in spite of concerted efforts he failed to revive the peace process or to stop the suicide bombers. Hamas won the free and open Palestinian elections in 2006, and Ismail Haniyeh, a popular and charismatic Hamas leader from the Gaza Strip, became the prime minister.
Israel and its ally the United States refused to deal with Hamas, which the United States considered a terrorist organization. Much-needed foreign aid was halted or constricted, and the economic situation in the territories became increasingly dire.
Prime Minister Sharon adopted a policy of sequential unilateral decisions whereby he made policy regarding the territories without consultation with the Palestinians. In 2005 he withdrew Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and dismantled several Israeli settlements, but Israel retained control over land, air, and sea entries into Gaza and periodically attacked or invaded, often in retaliation for attacks by Palestinians.
After Sharon was incapacitated following a series of strokes, Ehud Olmert—a former mayor of Jerusalem—became the Israeli prime minister in 2006. He pledged to continue Sharon’s policies and supported a massive Israeli invasion into Lebanon in the summer of 2006 in a failed attempt to eradicate Hizbollah attacks. Hence the cycle of violence and retaliation continued to escalate and the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians became less safe.