Analysis: The second intifada, a spontaneous act that shocked Israelis and Palestinians

Guest Ed PostOn the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada (October 2000), the debate arises again in Israel as to whether the Palestinian move was an initiative of Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority or whether it was a spontaneous evolution on the Palestinian side that largely surprised not only Israel but also the Palestinians.

One opinion in Israel states that the intifada was the result of an initiative by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, and that Israeli intelligence knew about it in advance and warned Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who did not listen. This opinion was expressed in the memoirs of Maj. Gen. Res. Amos Gilad, formerly the head of the research division in the Israeli Military Intelligence (IMI) and former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lieutenant Gen. Res. Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon. However, the picture presented by the two former IDF senior personalities seem to be wrong, and in this article, I’ll present another view showing that actually, the IMI (which is responsible for Israel’s national intelligence estimates), contrary to its allegation, failed to predict the Palestinian moves and did not warn the IDF and the Prime Minister to prepare for the intifada.

The different and probably correct opinion has been argued by the ISA (Israel Security Agency, known also as Shabak or the Shin Bet) former managing directors at the time, who discussed the event very openly and presented a clear conclusion: namely that Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat did not initiate the intifada but was as much surprised by it as was Israel. The source of the views presented by ISA leaders is the book The Gatekeepers (in Hebrew) by David Moreh (2014), in which six former ISA leaders were interviewed. Among other things, the book raised the question of how the second intifada broke out. It is important to mention that there is no doubt in Israel that the ISA is the organization that has the best intelligence on the Palestinian territories.

Avi Dichter, who was the head of ISA at the outbreak of the intifada, said in this context (p. 263): “I do not recognize the intelligence materials beyond the reality that existed, indicative signs that Q Quote 1they are heading towards an intifada. The Palestinians did not know that an intifada was going to break out”. Yuval Diskin, who was Dichter’s deputy at the time, says (pages 263,264): “The atmosphere in the Palestinian public, as well as in Israel to a large extent, was that we were going to an inevitable confrontation. I do not know if you remember the media at that time. Everyone prepared for the intifada, prophesied and the prophecy came true […] there were also incidents in Joseph’s tomb. This time the IDF decided that it would be prepared for an eruption. “No one thought we would enter here for five, six, or seven years of suicide bombings and such a large cycle of bloodshed”, according to Dichter.

His deputy, Diskin, went on to talk about internal processes in Judea and Samaria that created unrest against Chairman Arafat, and said: “On the eve of the second intifada there were elections in Judea and Samaria and [Marwan] Barghouti won. Arafat turned the election around because Barghouti was an oppositionist. Barghouti led the intifada and not Arafat”. Diskin notes that, “contrary to what experts say, Arafat did not drive the intifada. He rode the wave later. The Fatah youths started the riots and Arafat was surprised in the early stages by what was happening on the streets. He even tried, not with all his might, to stop the events in the first weeks, at some point he decided to join them and rode the wave in a very nice way”.

Avi Dichter, head of the ISA at the time, says the following later on in Moreh’s book (p. 265): “There was an argument between us and the IDF’s Intelligence Division (IMI) that lasted until Operation Q QuoteDEFENSIVE SHIELD, in 2002. The IMI claimed that the intifada was Initiated by Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria and possibly also in Gaza, and we –the ISA– argued that it has no intelligence back up and it’s all speculation. During DEFENSIVE SHIELD, all the perpetrators of the intifada were arrested by ISA, and told in the interrogations how they were being led into the intifada, how they caught the bull by its horns to gain assets just like Marwan Barghouti did […]. When we interrogated them”, Dichter added, “they told us how they were dragged in and how they started putting names and terms together. I remember there was someone very senior in IMI’s research division, who said, ‘It’s good that ISA is investigating. They can direct their investigations to support their thesis'”. In my (the present author) opinion, the man who said so was Amos Gilad, who was then the head of the research division at IMI.

The question of the initiative for the intifada also arose in an interview given in 2009 by Col. Ephraim Lavie, who was the head of the Palestinian department in IMI at the outbreak of the second intifada. Lavie told journalist Akiva Eldar in Haaretz that he demanded a thorough investigation of the failures in IMI and claimed that a culture of speaking in two voices had developed there, one the oral version for the consumption of the political echelon, and one the written version for internal purposes. According to Lavie, this “formula” allowed the head of IMI and the head of the research division to claim, ‘we told you so’ and be ‘covered’ no matter in which direction reality would develop. Gadi Zohar (Brigadier Gen. Res.), former head of the Palestinian department at IMI, strengthens Lavie’s opinion –in the book Craft of Thought (Hebrew), p. 121– and claims: “The heads of the research division [developed and promoted the] ‘no partner’ theory and [promoted the idea of] Arafat having planned and initiated the intifada, even when it was clear at the time that this was not the professional opinion of the IMI’s Palestinian analysts”.

It should be noted also that an investigation conducted in 2004 by Ephraim Lavei’s successor at the Palestinian desk in the research division of IMI stated that the second intifada broke out as aQ Quote 3 “popular protest” that sought to release steam and vent the popular outrage accumulated after the failure of negotiations and inability to extract political achievements from Israel, and not as an initiative of the Palestinian Authority.

In conclusion, the narrative that exists among sections of the Israeli public, especially encouraged by the political right, according to which Arafat initiated the intifada, is incorrect. It is essential to know the reality because as a result of errors in the Israeli intelligence, a wrong assessment was presented to the decision-makers, according to which Arafat initiated the intifada. Decisions and vital political moves were made in Israel, which only worsened the situation. In this case, we are facing again the implication of intelligence failures and also the difficulties to predict civil rebellions, which are often spontaneous and diffused, and which make them hard to anticipate.

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 22 September 2020 | Permalink


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