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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 6: From the First Intifada to the Oslo Peace Agreement

Morning Edition: October 7, 2002

audio icon Listen to Part 6 of Mike Shuster's series.

BOB EDWARDS: In 1987, Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza decided to confront Israel head on.

They launched the Intifada -- the uprising -- confronting the Israeli army with stones and words, and challenging Israeli society over whether it would repress the Palestinians' desire for their own homeland.

Just six years later, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed an agreement that was meant to bring peace.

NPR's Mike Shuster has the sixth installment of a series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict."

MIKE SHUSTER: In 1987, Palestinians were angry and frustrated. They were stateless, living under the humiliation of identity checks, body searches and verbal abuse that were the rule of the Israeli army, watching helplessly as Israel expanded Jewish settlements on what had been their land.

On December 8, 1987, a traffic accident near Gaza became the spark. An Israeli army vehicle hit several vans carrying Palestinian workers, killing four of them.

The next day, Palestinians poured out of a nearby refugee camp. Stones rained down on Israeli troops. The troops fired on the demonstrators, killing a teenage boy.

The Intifada had started, says Philip Mattar, a historian of the Palestinians.

PHILIP MATTAR: It galvanized Palestinians everywhere, and it created an enormous amount of sympathy for the Palestinian cause. And at first the Israelis did not know how to react to all that. They wanted to squelch the Intifada but without, you know, killing too many people so they devised the method of breaking their bones.

SHUSTER: As the days and weeks of protests continued, the Israeli army would seize the stone-throwers and literally break their arms. This was caught on videotape and broadcast to the world, which saw in the Intifada a Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath.

Philip Mattar says this was a form of near non-violent protest that got through to the Israeli public.

MATTAR: It was a very effective way of reaching out to Israelis, that you know, we are going to resist but without using military means, and that this could be very costly to you financially and morally. And it swayed many politicians and many generals and military people in Israel to accepting the concept of a Palestinian entity at that point.

SHUSTER: At the time, Israel was split down the middle politically. A unity government made Likud right-winger Yitzhak Shamir the prime minister, but Labor's Yitzhak Rabin was the defense minister. Rabin carried out the crackdown but differed with Shamir on how to end the Intifada, says Israeli historian Benny Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: This was one of the reasons for friction and a split between Labor and the Likud and the breakdown of the unity government in 1990, was that Labor reached the conclusion that one cannot suppress the Intifada and must give the Palestinians some form of statehood because the Intifada cannot be beaten just militarily. Whereas the Likud preferred basically a military solution to the Intifada.

SHUSTER: The Intifada dragged on for a year, and then two and three. More and more Israelis were coming to the view that it was time to break Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The idea of partition, which had first been proposed by the British in 1937 and then by the United Nations in 1947, had returned in a new form, says historian Anita Shapira, of the Chaim Weizmann Center for the Study of Zionism.

ANITA SHAPIRA: In a way partition was, I would say, at the basis of Israel's self-image. We did not intend to rule over another people. Somehow after '67, the whole matter got clouded. In the '80s, especially during the Intifada, it became clear again that it's time to realize the idea of partition.

SHUSTER: One other significant development emerged during the Intifada. In the absence of any political leadership -- the PLO was in exile in Tunisia -- Islamic fundamentalism had begun to spread in the West Bank and Gaza, emerging in the form of two political groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At first their growth had been encouraged by Israel, says Yezid Sayigh of Cambridge University.

YEZID SAYIGH: The Israelis, in order to promote alternatives to the PLO, allowed the Islamists to run their own institutions, social institutions, mosques, kindergartens, health clinics, et cetera. They encouraged them in a number of different ways as a rival to the PLO.

SHUSTER: But by 1988, Hamas was playing a major role in the Intifada, and its leaders were talking about more violent measures. In the 1990s, their primary tactic would become the suicide bombing, disrupting every effort for peace.

From exile in Tunisia, Yasser Arafat and the PLO tried to seize control of the Intifada, which had started from the grassroots spontaneously. But Arafat supported Saddam Hussein when Iraq's army invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Then in 1992 Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in Israel.

Rabin moved swiftly in secret talks in the Norwegian capital Oslo to bring the PLO into a deal, says William Quandt, author of Peace Process.

WILLIAM QUANDT: Rabin realized that talking to the Palestinians was inevitable but that the channel offered by the Americans in Washington wasn't going to work, and that secrecy was absolutely essential and that these public fora and perhaps even American mediation would result in premature leaks of what he had in mind. It was almost taboo in Israel in 1993 to think about talking to the PLO.

SHUSTER: Yet that's exactly what Rabin did, and on September 13th, 1993, he and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Israel and the PLO had formally recognized each other, and signed the Oslo Agreement which was to provide self-government to the Palestinians. Rabin and Arafat vowed to end the conflict, now nearly a century old, between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

YITZHAK RABIN: We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough! (applause)...

YASSER ARAFAT (in Arabic, with translator): Now as we stand on the threshold of this new historic era, let me address the people of Israel and their leaders with whom we are meeting today for the first time. And let me assure them that the difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage. (applause...)

SHUSTER: The Oslo agreement was an enormous step forward, but it was only a first step. It envisioned creating a Palestinian state and an end to the conflict, but it provided no road map. The Israelis and the Palestinians were to work that out as the process moved forward.

There were many reasons for the failure of Oslo, but the seeds of its own destruction may have been there from the first. Palestinian-American writer Edward Said says Arafat and the Palestinian public simply didn't understand what they had agreed to in Oslo.

EDWARD SAID: He committed the Palestinians without ever informing them of what he was committing them to. Even he didn't know it. One of his, his closest assistant who in fact is the architect of Oslo said that it took Arafat a year to understand that he didn't get a state.

SHUSTER: All the hardest issues were postponed: what to do about the Jewish settlers on the West Bank, how to handle Jerusalem, what would be the final borders of the two countries, could the Palestinians in the refugee camps return to their original homes?

Some on both sides understood the need to move quickly on those hard so-called final status issues, says William Quandt.

QUANDT: For or five days before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November of 1995, a very senior PLO official and a very senior Israeli official sat down and worked out a memorandum of how they would tackle final status issues, which when read today looks remarkably hopeful. Had Rabin survived, had that outline been given flesh and bones, it's not inconceivable that by 1998, '99, you would have had two states living side-by-side.

SHUSTER: But on November 4, 1995, Rabin was felled by a Jewish assassin's, a young right-wing zealot.

Six more years would elapse before it was clear to all that Oslo was dead. Then, a new Intifada would erupt, this time with deadly weapons in the hands of both sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis farther from agreement than ever before.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: There are historic photographs, background on Rabin and other key figures in the Middle East conflict and the 1993 Oslo Agreement at npr.org. Tomorrow, this seven-part series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," ends with a report on the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the second Intifada. That cycle of escalating violence, now two years old, has no end in sight.


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