End of the Intifada: Four long years of bloodshed, bulldozed homes, suicide bombs and targeted killings

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The Independent Online
AN ACT of provocation by Ariel Sharon ignited the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, on 28 September 2000. On that day, the portly head of the Likud right-wing opposition bloc put on sunglasses and walked into one of the holiest sites in Islam, Haram al-Sharif, known as Temple Mount to Jews, in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem.

The predictable result was an explosion of Palestinian rock-throwing and the second intifada was born. In this, a total 3,350 Palestinians and 970 Israelis have been killed.

The first intifada, the spontaneous revolt against Israeli occupation that lasted from 1987 till 1991, gave rise to the first international attempt to forge a comprehensive and permanent settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians: the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

Four years of this intifada have produced another push for peace. But the world has been shocked by the scale of the devastation unleashed by both sides on the bloody road to Sharm el-Sheikh.

The iconic image of 12-year old Mohammed Durra, who died cradled in his father's arms as they sheltered from a gunbattle between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers defending the Israeli settlement of Netzarim, became a symbol of the intifada. Two days after the Sharon visit to the al-Aqsa mosque complex, the film shot by a French cameraman intensified the Palestinian anger against Israel's targeting of children. The army apologised but in the following days two other children were shot for throwing stones.

The horrifying pictures kept on coming. On 12 October 2000, two Israeli soldiers were lynched at a Palestinian police station in Ramallah; a jubilant Palestinian youth was seen at a window holding up his hands daubed in the victims' blood.

Then on Passover eve, on 27 March 2002, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the resort of Netanyah, killing 28 people as they prepared to celebrate one of the holiest nights of the Jewish calendar.

The retaliation by Mr Sharon, by then Prime Minister, was swift: Israel launched a massive military assault on the West Bank, targeting Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and condemning him to be a prisoner inside his bunker. He left it only to die.

The Israeli army chased Palestinian militants into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. That provoked an international crisis that lasted for five weeks and was defused only by the negotiated departure of 39 militants from the church.

The Palestinian suicide bombers - including women - were undaunted. In response, in April 2002 Israel sent tanks into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, and hundreds of homes were bulldozed.

That spring, the Israeli government began building the towering security barrier designed to keep the bombers out of Israel, but that was condemned by the Palestinians for encroaching on their land. The argument went as far as the Israeli supreme court which ruled in June last year that the security fence must be re-routed because of the hardship to the Palestinians.

But Israel dismissed as "immoral and dangerous" a further ruling by the World Court, the UN's senior judicial body, which nine days later called for the "illegal" barrier to be torn down.

But even the wall failed to stop the suicide bombers. After a ceasefire lasting seven weeks during Mahmoud Abbas' short-lived first term of office as Palestinian prime minister, on 20 August 2003 a suicide bomber killed 20 people on a Jerusalem bus. The militants who claimed the attack said it was in retaliation for the Israeli assassination of Palestinian leaders.

Two days later, another militant leader was targeted by Israel: the co-founder of Hamas, Ismail Abu Shanab, was killed by a helicopter missile strike in Gaza City. Then the Israelis became even more bold: on 22 March 2004 they assassinated the wheelchair-bound leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, and his successor Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, whose deaths triggered another round of violence. But the final act in the four years of intifada was looming.

With no letup in the violence, Mr Sharon's plan for a unilateral pullout from the occupied territory of Gaza, began to gain traction as a way back to the internationally-backed "road-map" that set a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state.

The curtain fell on Yasser Arafat with his death in Paris on 11 November last year. He had been politically dead since being declared an obstacle to peace by the Israeli government in September 2003. With both sides weary of conflict, another window of opportunity had opened.