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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 7: The Second Intifada and the Death of Oslo

Morning Edition: October 8, 2002

audio icon Listen to Part 7 of Mike Shuster's series.

BOB EDWARDS: Two years ago, the Middle East peace process collapsed. A second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, erupted. It's been far more deadly than the first Intifada, which came during the late 1980s.

Some 1,500 Palestinians and 500 Israelis have lost their lives in what has, in effect, become Israel's longest war.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The Oslo agreement of 1993 was meant to bring peace.

NPR's Mike Shuster has the final part of the series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict."

MIKE SHUSTER: On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the most disputed piece of real estate in the world: the Temple Mount as the Jews call it, the Haram As-Sharif in Arab eyes. Inside the Old City of Jerusalem, it is the location of the Western Wall, what is left of the ancient Jewish temples, built by Solomon and Herod. It is also where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosques stand.

ARIEL SHARON: "...(speaking in Hebrew)..."

SHUSTER: The Likud is here with a message of peace, Sharon said that day, surrounded by Israeli police. The Palestinians didn't see it that way; they viewed the visit as a calculated provocation. Moments after Sharon left, several hundred Palestinian men started throwing stones at Israeli police.

The violence hasn't ended yet.

Sharon's visit came two months after peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians had broken down at Camp David.

Palestinian-American writer Edward Said says the Palestinians had become disillusioned with a peace process whose benefits many failed to see.

EDWARD SAID: By the time the latest Intifada broke out, the Palestinians had gained only 18 percent of the West Bank -- 18 percent. The balance was held by Israel in a series of, through settlements and through military areas. Eighteen percent which were completely surrounded by Israeli settlements and forces.

SHUSTER: The latest phase of the peace process had started on September 13, 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. President Bill Clinton spoke of the difficult work ahead.

BILL CLINTON: What these leaders have done now must be done by others. Their achievement must be a catalyst for progress in all aspects of the peace process. And those of us who support them must be there to help in all aspects. For the peace must render the people who make it more secure.

SHUSTER: The first blow, and many consider it fatal, came just two years later. On November 4, 1995, a young right-wing Israeli zealot shot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to death after a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The lone Israeli politician of his generation who seemed capable of making peace had been gunned down.

New elections were held the next year, pitting Labor's Shimon Peres against Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. It was then that the bombings began. Hamas suicide bombers detonated themselves in the center of Jerusalem and other cities. Netanyahu was elected.

The bombs were meant to kill the Oslo process, and they did, says William Quandt, author of Peace Process.

WILLIAM QUANDT: When Likud came into power in 1996 Oslo was essentially over. We didn't declare its demise at that point because people remained hopeful. But the whole dynamic of Oslo turned around. You had a prime minister in Israel who didn't believe in it.

SHUSTER: Netanyahu paid lip service to the Oslo process, but he suspended the phased Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. And he sped up the construction of Israeli settlements there. University of Chicago historian Rashid Khalidi argues the Oslo Agreement should have included a freeze on Israeli settlements. It did not.

RASHID KHALIDI: It was necessary, is necessary, and will be necessary for somebody to get the Israelis to sit down and decide, do they want to end the occupation and do they want to remove settlements or not. Oslo gave them the luxury of another decade during which they not only didn't have to do that but the people who were paving the West Bank and turning it into an extension of Israel have gotten another 100,000 Israelis settled there, have paved hundreds of miles of roads, and are even less likely to give up these territories than they might have been a decade or more ago.

SHUSTER: Yasser Arafat returned from exile in 1994. He set up the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and in those portions of the West Bank that the Israelis abandoned. But his method and style of governing also contributed to the failure of the process, says historian Avi Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall.

AVI SHLAIM: The Palestinian leadership, Yasser Arafat in particular, bear a share of the responsibility for the breakdown. In particular for violating some of the terms of the Oslo agreement by importing arms, by having much bigger security forces than they were entitled to, and by not laying the foundations for a democratic regime that respects human rights.

SHUSTER: President Clinton concluded new pressure was needed.

In October 1998, he brought Netanyahu and Arafat together for negotiations at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland. For two weeks they went round and round, and eventually put their signatures on an agreement meant to give new life to Oslo.

When he returned to Israel, Netanyahu again dug in his heels, blaming the Palestinians for failing to fulfill the bargain.

But the mood in Israel was in favor of peace. When Netanyahu's coalition fell apart, he set new elections for the following May. Ehud Barak won handily.

President Clinton believed that with Barak as prime minister, he could bring the Oslo process to completion, and in July 2000, he invited Barak and Arafat to Camp David.

For the first time, the negotiations addressed the big issues -- Jerusalem, settlers, security. Barak made an offer that many consider Israel's best ever, but when he unfolded a map that showed a Palestinian state made up of several unconnected cantons, surrounded by Israeli troops, Arafat walked away.

For Edward Said the deal Barak offered was a bad one, but in his view, both leaders failed at Camp David.

EDWARD SAID: He meant this as a final offer, leaving out questions of what happened in 1948, Israel's responsibility, the return of the refugees or compensation for them. Or even acknowledging that they exist. And Arafat should have returned, not just by refusing but by saying, look here's what we will accept. He neither had the courage, nor the foresight, nor the intelligence to do that.

SHUSTER: Historian Anita Shapira believes that the roots of the failure reach back in history, to what happened in 1948 when Israel became independent, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes.

ANITA SHAPIRA: The only problem that was not tackled at all was the right of return because Israelis though that there was a tacit understanding that the Palestinians do not really mean it. And the Palestinians thought that the Israelis do not tackle the real problem. That's what this Intifada is all about.

SHUSTER: For historian Benny Morris, the problem goes even further back.

BENNY MORRIS: I think that the Arabs of Palestine regard all of Palestine as their birthright, their patrimony. They can't understand why Jews suddenly appeared in Palestine and started to take it over. They can't understand why they must agree to the Jews' continuing to possess 80 percent of Palestine and they will agree to only receive 20 percent. These things, I think, underlie both this Intifada and the Palestinian political stance today.

SHUSTER: The second Intifada turned more violent. Rioting gave way to guerrilla attacks and then to the apparently endless series of suicide bombings. Escalation on the Israeli side made use of tanks, helicopter gunships, and jet fighters, leaving many Palestinian civilians and gunmen dead.

Ehud Barak's government collapsed, and Ariel Sharon, possibly the Israeli politician most hated by the Palestinians, was elected prime minister.

In late March, Sharon launched a full-scale invasion of Palestinian territories. Much of that territory remains occupied.

A great opportunity had been lost, laments Cambridge University's Yezid Sayigh.

YEZID SAYIGH: Every time I look at what's happened in the last two years between Palestinians and Israelis, I look at the total unwillingness to understand each other, to start changing stereotypical images of each other. I think back to the assassination of Rabin, who started out where all these other people started, as someone somewhat arrogant. You know, a military man who felt that the Palestinians had to be dealt with by force but ultimately I think went through a genuine transformation in which he I think was able by the time he died to understand that the other side were human beings and had to be dealt with in a fundamentally different way.

SHUSTER: Over the past century of conflict, it has always been hard for the two sides to perceive a path to peace. The great irony of the past decade is that almost like equal poles of a magnet, the closer the Israelis and Palestinians came to each other, the more violently they pulled away.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: Tomorrow, listeners respond to this series on the Middle East conflict. All seven stories from the series "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," plus historic photos, background and information about the 2000 Camp David talks are at the Web site npr.org.


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