The Second Intifada, unlike the first, did not have a political project. It was pure desperation, and some believed it announced the end of the world. Instead, 9/11 came.
by Massimo Introvigne
It was 1996. The victory of the right-wingers in the Israeli elections in May, the opening of a tunnel under the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities in October, and the authorization of Israeli colonists to settle in Har Homa, south of Jerusalem, provided Hamas with an opportunity to resume suicide bombings. Indeed, in 1997, they moved from buses to public places: first a café in Tel Aviv (March 21), then a market (July 30) and a shopping mall (September 4) in Jerusalem. Joint statements by Hamas and Arafat that the initiatives did not originate from the Territories but “from abroad” did not avoid Israeli retaliation, which this time targeted the Hamas leadership itself.
In place of the imprisoned Abu Marzuq, in 1996 Khalid Mashaal, born in 1956, had been appointed head of the Hamas political bureau, by then established in Jordan. In September 1997, Israeli services, which had already eliminated, after ‘Ayyash, several other heads of the Hamas military structure, attempted to assassinate Mashaal in Amman as well. The assassination attempt failed, and Israeli agents were arrested by Jordanian police. King Hussein returned them to Israel in exchange of the release of several Hamas detainees, including Yassin himself who, first deported to Jordan, triumphantly returned to Gaza. The episode represented the culmination of King Hussein’s strategy. The asylum he granted to Hamas leaders allowed him to maintain good relations with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and, at the same time, to continue a disruptive action against a historical enemy like Arafat.
The presence in Gaza of Yassin who, despite his wheelchair, made triumphant trips to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Syria, and Sudan, while also raising substantial funds for Hamas, posed a problem for Israel. Perhaps it was an even greater problem for the “outside” Hamas leadership established in Jordan, which was now challenged by the more pragmatic leadership “inside” the Territories.
In 1998, while under the auspices of U.S. President Bill Clinton negotiations between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel had resumed, the usual mechanism was set in motion again. The negotiations generated nervousness between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which reached a climax when on March 29 one of Hamas’ top West Bank leaders, Muhy al-Din Sharif (1966–1998), was assassinated in Ramallah. Hamas suspected a plot involving both the Israelis and Arafat, while the Palestinian National Authority claimed to have arrested the assassin in the person of ‘Imad ‘Awadallah (1969–1998), the brother of ‘Adel ‘Awadallah (1967–1998), who was the head of the al-Qassam Battalions in the West Bank.
This resulted in the “Sharif case,” one of the most controversial events in Palestinian history. The Palestinian National Authority claimed that the murder was the result of an internecine Hamas struggle following Yassin’s return to freedom, and took the opportunity to arrest several of the movement’s leaders, to Israel’s applause. Arafat also claims that ‘Imad ‘Awadallah allegedly confessed to his crime in prison. ‘Imad, however, took his secrets with him to the grave. He escaped with suspicious ease from prison and joined his brother ‘Adel only to fall into an ambush in which the Israelis killed them both in Hebron. The impression of a close cooperation between Israeli services and the Palestinian National Authority to deal a decisive blow to Hamas, in view of the Wye Plantation Accords concluded on October 23, 1998, was difficult to dispel in fundamentalist movement’s circles.
The reaction to the Sharif affair and the Wye Plantation accords was the usual one: the resumption of suicide bombings. One that would have been particularly heinous, against a bus of Jewish children, was foiled on October 29. On November 6, however, the Islamic Jihad struck a market in Jerusalem, an attack initially attributed in error to Hamas. Israeli retaliation went as far as putting Yassin under house arrest, a measure that was later lifted, and resulted in the usual negotiations between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority for suicide bombings to cease.
Until 1999, the “external” leadership of Hamas operated mainly from Jordan. However, the situation changed with the death of King Hussein in 1999. Several observers spoke of a “divorce” between a Jordan intent on improving its relations with the West (and Israel) and Hamas. Hamas offices in Jordan were closed and key leaders arrested and expelled. Abu Marzuq moved to Syria, Khalid Mashaal to Qatar.
These events made the moratorium on suicide bombings agreed between Hamas and Arafat last longer than usual. Throughout 1999 and into the fall of 2000 a mechanics of terrorism punctuated by attacks on isolated Israeli soldiers or settlers, firefights, and occasional bombings continued, but no new spectacular suicide bombings occurred. Hamas felt the need to reorganize itself with the usual tactic of returning to neo-traditionalist dynamics and its network of mosques, associations, and cultural centers, which required the pressure from the Palestinian National Authority to ease in order to function smoothly.
In early October 2000, the Palestinian National Authority, amid protests from Israel, freed several Hamas leaders who had been jailed after the Sharif case, while an Israeli report indicated the growth of the fundamentalist movement in the polls. On November 23, 2000, the car of one of the leaders freed from prison in October, Bani Oudeh (1966–2000), exploded. The Palestinian Authority ruled it an accident that occurred while Oudeh was recklessly carrying explosives, but Hamas was convinced he had been killed by the Israelis. Its response initially relied on car bombs, but in the spring of 2001 suicide bombings returned on a large scale. Twenty-eight were counted in 2001, of which twenty-one were claimed by Hamas and the other seven by the Islamic Jihad.
Through these attacks, Hamas, mindful of its successes in the first Intifada, sought to insert itself as a protagonist in the second Intifada. It was also known as the “al-Aqsa Intifada” from the casus belli of September 28, 2000, that originated it, the visit of the then Israeli opposition leader (later prime minister) Ariel Sharon (1928–2014), accompanied by a large core of bodyguards, to the Temple Mount Esplanade in Jerusalem. The Esplanade is also the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and Sharon’s visit was interpreted by Palestinians as a provocation.
Sharon’s gesture was the proximate and symbolic occasion for a movement that had already been gestating for several months, the result of a combination of causes ranging from renewed difficulties in peace negotiations to festering economic conditions in the Territories. The relationship between Arafat and the second Intifada is controversial. Some think he promoted it, while others claim he tried to stop it. Certainly, the greatest beneficiary of the al-Aqsa Intifada was Hamas.
The second Intifada was different from the first. The latter still had a political project; the second manifested a pure despair that now distrusted politics. Hence, the second Intifada provided a context for a blood feast of suicide terrorism that sometimes seemed to seek death for death’s sake. It also offered a context in which millenarian ideas, which in Palestine had previously been less successful than in Egypt and other Arab countries, were spreading like wildfire. Thus, among the largely young protagonists of the second Intifada circulated widely “The Day of Wrath,” a book by Saudi university professor Safar ibn ‘Abd al Rahman curiously influenced by Protestant Christian millenarianism and its numerological interpretations of the Book of Daniel and Revelation. Based on similar speculations, the author set the beginning of the end of the world at the year 2012, i.e., 45 years after 1967, the year of the Six-Day War linked by ‘Abd al Rahman to the “abomination and desolation” of the Biblical prophecies, He saw the second Intifada, which heralds the miraculous destruction of Israel, as the beginning of the end days.
“The” world did not end in 2012. However, on September 9, 2011, “a” world did end. With the al-Qa’ida terrorist attacks of 9/11, nothing could remain the same among Muslim fundamentalists. This series’ purpose was to cover the origins and the first phase of Hamas’ activities, until 9/11. It warrants, however, some conclusions that I will present in the next and final article of the series.