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Intifada: Terrorism or Martyrdom?

Last year on September 28, the intifada, or uprising against what Palestinians consider Israeli occupation, erupted. More than 800 people, mostly Palestinians, have died over the past year.

On that day, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who is now Prime Minister, visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. It was considered extremely provocative by Palestinians. Many analysts believe it sparked violent demonstrations that spread to the West Bank and Gaza.

Graham Fuller, former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at CIA, is the author of a forthcoming book on The Future of Political Islam. He says the al-Aqsa intifada had its roots in political and economic desperation.

Fuller: I think the origin of the second intifada is really a failure of the peace process, the Oslo process, to deliver what Palestinians and indeed some Israelis hoped was going to be a peaceful, fairly comprehensive settlement. I think an explosive situation emerged that was only waiting for a spark. That specific spark of course happened during Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, the Haraam es-Sharif. I think it would be ridiculous to say that, if he had never gone, none of this would have ever happened. Everything was ready for an explosion.

Latham: So, it might not have happened on the 28th of September.

Fuller: Yeah, weeks later or months later, but something was bound to happen because the discontent was palpable and the conditions of life in the West Bank had been growing worse and worse. With all due respect for Barak's considerable concessions, which was by far the best deal yet offered to the Palestinians, still it was a very much truncated state that would have been barely able to function or stay alive over the longer term.

Latham: At this point, how would you describe the intifada as a Palestinian uprising, or as a guerrilla war, a war of independence, or as Palestinian terrorism?

Fuller: Well, I'm inclined to say all of the above. It is certainly a struggle for national liberation that has been going on a very long time. It's very clearly a struggle for a Palestinian state in the full sense of a state rather than a truncated Banthustan or a bunch of connected little islands of Palestinian sovereignty. And guerrilla warfare is going on as the sole instrument that Palestinians have to pressure to Israel where it hurts. And, yes, there is genuine terrorism being employed.

Latham: One of the most frightening or dramatic aspects of the intifada has been the suicide bombings that have occurred in public places where civilians are the principal targets. Most Israelis see these attacks as terrorism that develops out of religious fanaticism, whereas Palestinians are more likely to see the phenomenon as religious martyrdom. Is the reality one or the other, or somewhere in between?

Fuller: It is correct to say that the suicide attacks are really a very new feature of the second intifada. And I think have very much drawn their inspiration from much of the Shi'a actions of Hezbollah in an earlier decade that were so sensationally successful against both American and Israeli targets. But we also get into the question: Is all violence terrorism, as many Israelis would like to say? Or, if you're struggling for national liberation, are all methods acceptable? In my personal view, I believe that killing women and children and innocent civilians arbitrarily is indeed a form of terrorism.

Now, whether this is conducted by a bomber who commits suicide, the other forms of killing innocents can be tanks being fired at random, so-called collateral damage in broader fighting, targeting of certain individuals in which other innocents are killed. You know we can debate about this for a long time. I see the terrorism as an inevitable product of nearly 35 years of Israeli occupation. But the root problem, which ultimately demands resolution, is the question of the continued occupation and hardship in the West Bank. How we define the root problem says a great deal about how we solve it.

Latham: Israel views the conflict as a battle for security in the face of the scourge of terrorism rather than as the struggle between two peoples with competing claims to the same land. How do you think the intifada will be regarded by historians in retrospect? Or is it simply a matter of which side one is on like the victory of the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th century?

Fuller: I think only future events will determine how we look back upon this. The first intifada I think ended up bearing significant fruit. It was the first time Palestinians and Israelis recognized that the violence was equally damaging to both sides. Out of that intifada came the whole Oslo peace process and some of the most dramatic progress that we've seen in the Palestinian-Israeli problem for decades. Those gains are permanent in the sense that everybody is aware of them and see them as starting points for future negotiations. With the second intifada, my hope is that once again both Arabs and, particularly Israelis, will recognize that even the powerful force that Israel possesses will not be enough to impose or bring about the kind of settlement that Israelis want in the end. And therefore people will go back, recognizing that all kinds of compromises have to be made, including issues like Jerusalem. But we don't know how this is going to come out. (END OPT)

Latham: How do the terrorist attacks of September 11th on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington alter the way that the international community views the intifada in particular, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general? Fuller: Clearly, the attacks made everyone realize that the dimensions of terrorism are now growing. The debate that emerges from this, particularly as it relates to the intifada, gets back to how do we eliminate the roots of the problem? Do we eliminate terrorism and hence the problem is solved? Or do we put an end to the occupation, which others would argue is the ultimate root of the problem? I don't think anybody can predict how the intifada will be seen. (OPT)

Latham: In the case of the suicide bombings, which seem especially tragic on both sides in that innocent civilians who may have nothing at all to do with the conflict they may be children their own families consider them as martyrs for Islam. But, how Islamic is suicide as a part of martyrdom?

Fuller: There's a great debate about this question, and there is no single answer, even among Muslim clerics. There have been a number of clerics who have said that, if you are fighting a war of resistance to protect the homeland and you die in war, this is an act of martyrdom with appropriate rewards. Others argue that killing women and children is not part of Islamic warfare, and there are texts that can be cited here to demonstrate that.

Others will distinguish between entering a war and the struggle in which you might get killed as opposed to an act of war in which you will certainly be killed because that is the weapon involved. Furthermore, I think we have the common situation that, when people die in a struggle, all members of that struggle want to tell those who die and those who remain that this was not in vain. So, the word "martyr" I think springs to the lips of everyone who has lost a child or a brother or husband in this struggle. We want to believe this was important and we want to link it with religion. And the fatwa of this or that imam is not a binding determinant, I think.

Robert Lieber, professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat bears primary responsibility for the intifada.

"Looking back on a year of the intifada, one can say that it's tragic. It didn't have to happen, and it suggests that Yasser Arafat's leadership has been a disaster for his own people," he said. "The Palestinians had the opportunity in the summer of last year to have an independent, recognized state. Israel presented the most generous offer. And not only did Arafat reject it, he wouldn't even negotiate. I think there are reasons to belief, although it's controversial, that Arafat deliberately inflamed an incident involving Ariel Sharon into the uprising that followed. Ultimately, there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than a two-state solution in which Israel gets peace and security and the Palestinians get a state with recognized boundaries."

Latham: Professor Lieber says he believes the character of the intifada is entirely violent. Lieber: It's murderous terrorism, pure and simple. This doesn't have anything to do with national liberation. These are people who simply want to kill Israelis, who make no distinction between military and civilian combatants, and whose objective is not a negotiated settlement and peace between two side, but to destroy Israel.

Jean Abi-Nader, managing director of the Arab-American Institute, says the reasons for the second intifada are complex. "The intifada is a combination of a response to occupation and the frustration and anger that comes from trying to live under occupation," he said. "It began in response to the frustration with the failure of the Camp David Two process and Ariel Sharon's appearance on the Temple Mount. I think certain elements realized that this was an opportunity to replicate what Hezbollah did in southern Lebanon, so you began to have an increase in militancy and armed action against civilians. I don't care whether it's the state terrorism of Israel or the terrorism of extremist groups in Palestine, when you target innocent civilians, it's not a message that helps you in terms of your ultimate goals."

Mr. Abi-Nader says that the international war against terrorism may provide an opportunity to reconsider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It's interesting that the United States is resisting making any linkage between the climate that encourages people to become fanatics and American policies abroad, including U.S. policy toward Iraq and Palestine. But the reality is that is what the people perceive on the ground, and that's what we have to pay attention to," he said. "So, I think if the human side of the Palestinian story is told that it will result in a greater understanding of the Palestinian side. And therefore I think more moderate American support will result in an ultimate return to the negotiating table. The Palestinian people have suffered extraordinarily during the intifada. The real question is: have the sacrifices that have made in the last year been worth it? I think the next six months will really tell us if the Palestinians will be able to enter negotiations with leverage that will allow them to bring about an acceptable negotiated agreement."

The first anniversary of the intifada comes as both sides hope to enforce a fragile truce amidst deadly clashes and confidence-building agreements. But the nature and character of the intifada, and how people interpret it, may be a key factor in the future of the region as well as the world.