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The Lessons of Intifada - 2001-09-25

On September 28 of last year the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted, shattering hopes for the peace process and plunging the region into a bloody conflict. More than 800 people, mostly Palestinians, have died in the past year. Violence has become a part of daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israelis have faced a steep escalation in the number of terrorist attacks inside their country.

The al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City is the third holiest site in Islam. It is where tradition says the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven. The compound was built on top of the remains of the Jewish Temples, the holiest site in Judaism.

On September 28, 2000, then-Israeli opposition leader and now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, surrounded by thousands of policemen, visited the compound in a move considered extremely provocative by Palestinians.

The incident sparked violent demonstrations in Jerusalem that spread quickly to the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian "intifada," or uprising was born.

Unlike the previous intifada between 1987 and 1993, when Israeli soldiers fired rubber coated steel bullets at stone-throwing Palestinians, the clashes this time quickly turned into an armed conflict.

Palestinian militants began using automatic weapons, suicide bombers, and cars packed with explosives against Israeli military and civilian targets.

The escalation occurred quickly as the Israeli military dug deep into its arsenal, firing shells and missiles from tanks, combat helicopters, and F-16 warplanes, as well as targeting Palestinian militants.

According to professor of political science and Middle East studies at Bethlehem University, Manuel Hassassian, both sides have learned after a year of fighting that violence will not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Palestinians have lost," said Mr. Hassassian. "Israelis have lost. These are the two realities. Israel did not achieve by oppressing the Palestinians its objective. Palestinians did not achieve by militarizing the intifada their aspiration of an independent Palestinian state."

Among the hundreds killed and thousands wounded on both sides of the fighting are children, including infants.

For Mireille Widmer of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, the intifada has created an atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza where violence has become part of everyday life.

"Disputes are settled at gunpoint now," she said. "This violence will have such long-lasting consequences that you cannot only look at the figures, at the death toll. You have also to understand that now, when you go to Gaza and you see kids, they run towards you and instead of showing you their toys they show you their bullet wounds. I think what strikes me is how much people get used to this violence and this shouldn't happen. Violence shouldn't be the norm."

The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States created some dramatic changes in the way Israel and the Palestinians view their conflict.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat quickly pledged support for the U.S. war on terrorism and made an unusually public and pointed call for a ceasefire.

Israel responded by withdrawing tanks and troops from areas under Palestinian control, and agreeing not to attack Palestinian targets.

Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib says continued U.S. pressure on both sides is critical to maintaining the ceasefire and moving toward peace talks. "So the immediate objective of the American move here is almost achieved," he said. "Now is this going to be consolidated by strengthening the peace process by pushing the peace process forward by the Americans or not? This is a question we don't have an answer to."

The political correspondent for the Jerusalem Report magazine, Leslie Susser, says Israel and the Palestinians are reassessing their policies after the terror attacks in New York and Washington.

According to Mr. Susser, both sides are trying to determine how the new U.S. war on terrorism will affect the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. "It seems to give both sides a chance to take a step back and to look at what they have achieved in the way they have handled the intifada," he said.

"For the Palestinians to ask the key question: has this intifada really made us any political gains? The answer, I think, is no. For the Israelis to ask the question: has the way we have been using violence to combat violence, limited Israeli military operations, been successful? No it hasn't."

"In fact, both sides might be led to realize that the only way they can resolve their problem is through some kind of political compromise," said Mr. Susser.

So as an uneasy calm brought on by a shaky ceasefire settles over the region, both Israelis and Palestinians are asking themselves what will happen next?

It appears, once again, the Middle East is at a crossroads with leaders facing a decision whether to continue down the path of violence, or take tentative, halting steps toward peace.