by Wesam Khaled
28 September 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, or Second Intifada, in September 2000. The Intifada saw millions of Palestinians fill the streets in a programme of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience to oppose Israel’s occupation and programme of ethnic cleansing. Rejecting years of a one-sided ‘peace process’, the Palestinian people shook the Israeli state and shone a spotlight on the realities of the Israeli occupation. Israel’s response to the uprisings was brutal and bloody, and was backed to the hilt by western imperialist powers including Britain’s then-Labour government led by Tony Blair. Solidarity activists around the world supported the Palestinians in their struggle, including FRFI which organised constant events across Britain; but, then as now, those actions faced vilification and harassment not only from Zionists but from false friends of Palestine on the British left. Wesam Khaled reports.
Origins of an uprising
The Intifada emerged out of the failure of the Oslo ‘Peace Process’ which started in 1993. The dynamism and resistance of the First Intifada (1987-1993) had forced Israel into negotiations with the Palestinian exiled leadership with the supposed aim of peace (see FRFI 266: Oslo’s legacy – a disaster for the Palestinians). The agreement in Oslo between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), led by Yasser Arafat, marked the beginning of this process. Palestinians were led up the garden path of negotiations with their oppressor-occupier, putting an end to the Intifada. But this peace process was predicated on the unilateral recognition of Israel’s right to exist and a PLO commitment to non-violence, while the issues of Palestinian self-determination and Israeli violence went unaddressed. Arafat’s desperation to secure a deal, however miserable, was key: his negotiations took place behind the backs of the internal leadership of the Intifada, which was appalled at the consequent betrayal.
By 2000 the consequences were clear. The negotiations had moved no closer to resolving the key issues for the Palestinian people, such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees or the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Quite the opposite: Israel’s settlement expansion tripled during the post-Oslo years, and there was no change in the oppressive conditions of the Israeli occupation. This failed process culminated in the Camp David Summit in July 2000, where Arafat had to reject an Israeli proposal that would have confined Palestinians to a sham ‘state’ criss-crossed with Israeli-only roads and without any control over its borders. For Palestinians, such a pitiful outcome of years of negotiations proved the impossibility of reaching a settlement with the occupying power. With the ‘peace process’ in tatters, and Palestinian frustration at their oppressors’ intransigence reaching a boiling point, Palestine was on the brink of a second uprising.
The Al Aqsa Intifada
The catalyst came on 28 September 2000 when Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, took a contingent of 1,000 Israeli police to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. After the injustices and frustrations of the Oslo years, the Palestinian response to this provocation was swift and fierce: the following day, Palestinians gathered for a mass demonstration at the mosque. Israeli forces retaliated with lethal force, killing seven Palestinians and injuring over 200 more.
The revolt quickly spread throughout historic Palestine as people took to the streets en masse in a wave of protests and civil disobedience unseen since the First Intifada. The uprising became front-page news across the world as Palestinians forced their demands for freedom, justice and self-determination into the spotlight. Iconic images of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli tanks illustrated the character of the uprising as one of a largely defenceless and unarmed population courageously confronting one of the strongest military forces in the world.
The Israeli state responded with utter brutality. Within six months of the outbreak of the Intifada, Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel, signalling the atrocities that were to come. Sharon had been a general in the Israeli army, and had overseen the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilah refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. When he came to power, he promised to crush the Palestinian uprising within 100 days. In this he failed, but not for lack of trying. One of his earliest acts was to unleash a bloody assault on the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, then home to 60,000 refugees who lived in squalid conditions. This was followed the next year by the launch of Operation Defensive Shield, a large scale military operation which saw roughly 20,000 Israeli troops invade and occupy cities across the West Bank. The most notorious of these was the attack on Jenin, a refugee camp-cum-city, home to 13,000 displaced Palestinians, in April 2002. The Israeli army besieged the city, preventing anyone from leaving or entering, cut off water, electricity, food and medical supplies, and destroyed hundreds of buildings, often with people inside who were buried in the rubble: dozens of Palestinian men, women and children were killed.
The Palestinian people did not take these assaults lying down. Alongside non-violent forms of resistance the Palestinian people resumed violent forms of struggle that had been largely abandoned during the Oslo years. Palestinian fighters held their own in pitched street battles against well-armed Israeli soldiers. Inevitably, Palestinian casualties far outnumbered those on the Israeli side.
Imperialist support for the Zionists
Yet throughout the Intifada, western imperialist states and the international media framed Israel as the victim and Palestinians as the aggressor in these battles. Israeli casualties were highlighted while Palestinian casualties minimised, if mentioned at all. The nature of the Intifada itself – at its core an uprising of an unarmed and oppressed population against a heavily armed occupier – was obfuscated. In its place, Israel’s assault on Palestinians was cast as a continuation of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’; Zionists made use of the rampant Islamophobic propaganda employed to justify imperialist interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and framed the Palestinian struggle as just another example of the ‘uncivilised’ Muslim world.
This included the then-Labour government of Tony Blair, which was shameless in its support for the Zionist state during the Intifada. Two days before the assault on Jenin, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended Israel in an article in The Guardian, condemning Palestinian violence while glossing over the continued occupation and denial of Palestinian rights that gave rise to that violence in the first place. In 2004, the British government opposed the decision of the International Court of Justice to examine the legality of the apartheid wall Israel was building in the West Bank. The Labour government also took every step possible to cover up the murder of three British solidarity activists by Israeli soldiers and to prevent any justice being served for their deaths. In the words of the father of Tom Hurndall, one of the victims who had been shot by a sniper, ‘at one point [the British government] were as obstructive as the Israelis’.
By the end of the uprisings in 2005, Israel had killed 4,166 Palestinians, including 886 children; disabled or maimed a further 3,530 Palestinians; imprisoned 8,600 Palestinians, including 288 children; demolished 7,761 homes and damaged another 93,842; confiscated 2.3 million dunums of Palestinian land; and uprooted over 1.3 million trees in Palestinian land. 1,100 Israelis were killed. Arafat died in 2004 after being besieged by Israeli forces at his compound in Ramallah. He was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, an even more willing collaborator with Israel who remains in power today.
The British left: solidarity and selling out
In Britain, the Intifada was supported by a swell of grassroots actions opposing Israel’s atrocities and the support it received from the Labour government. FRFI was no exception; through the campaign Victory to the Intifada (VTI), it helped organise a longstanding series of demonstrations against Marks and Spencer (M&S). Founded by Greenribbon, an independent group led by young Muslim women, the campaign against M&S targeted the company for its role in openly supporting the Zionist state.
The ties between M&S and Israel ran deep. In 1990, Lord Marcus Sieff, M&S’s long-time chair, wrote that one of the company’s long-term objectives was to aid Israel’s economic development. In 1998, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu granted M&S the Jubilee Award for individuals and organisations that have done the most to strengthen the Israeli economy. After the outbreak of the Intifada, an M&S spokesperson said ‘we are as close to Israel as we have ever been’, and the company was conducting £250m worth of trade with Israel annually. VTI joined forces with Greenribbon under the banner of the Boycott M&S campaign, forming a regular presence in front of M&S stores in cities across Britain from the start of the Second Intifada and lasting for over 10 years. Demonstrations were regularly targeted by an assortment of British and Zionist fascist organisations which attempted to intimidate or drown out the protesters. They also faced a barrage of attempts by police and local authorities to shut them down using public order laws.
The campaign also had to contend with the open opposition of the opportunists of the British left, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Attempts to set up a regular M&S picket in Liverpool were attacked by the local SWP organiser for supposedly failing to seek the permission of the Liverpool left (meaning the SWP) to do so. PSC members and leaders went even further; one PSC member in Edinburgh hurled abuse at activists on an M&S demonstration and pulled petition boards out of the hands of members of the public, telling them not to sign them. PSC leaders openly discouraged people from supporting the campaign, committed as they were to the two-state solution supported by both the PLO and all wings of the Labour Party. At a meeting in 2006 the PSC National Secretary called the M&S events ‘anti-Semitic action, because M&S is a Jewish company’ (untrue) and encouraged people to boycott the campaign. It was in fact the PSC which first weaponised allegations of anti-Semitism, not the right wing of the Labour Party.
For all their professed indignation at Zionist atrocities, the affinity of these opportunist forces to the Labour Party translated into efforts to control the Palestine solidarity movement and undermine those who opposed not just Israel, but British imperialism and its Labour cronies. Despite the grassroots support for the Second Intifada, the leadership of these opportunists frittered away the potential of that period.
Yet despite this, the Second Intifada remains one of the most important periods in the history of Palestinian resistance and solidarity both in Palestine and on the streets of Britain. As Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud wrote in regards to the Israeli repression of that period: ‘Onslaughts that were designed to ravish and destroy a land and its people were in fact creating unity and igniting an awakening among the forces of good all over the world.’ We must apply the lessons of that period as we build the movements that will carry on the legacy of the Intifada today.