"Civil uprising? That's not a civil uprising, just local riots," defense minister Yitzhak Rabin told journalists back in 1987 when they asked why he was going to Washington just as the territories were flaring up. Rabin waved his hand dismissively, and his aide, Danny Yatom, reprimanded the interviewers: "You don't know what you're talking about." True, journalists also didn't quite grasp the full scale of the upcoming intifada. At first the events were called protests, then disturbances, and finally riots. It took a while for the word "intifada" to enter the Israeli vocabulary.
Nor was anyone prepared for the second intifada. Some observers say Ariel Sharon set it off with his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, but the truth is that the intifada was waiting for a spark like a tightly packed powder keg. If not Sharon, someone else would have provided it.
Interestingly enough, both intifadas exploded when things were "more or less" all right. Just before the first one, the Civil Administration published a snazzy book detailing its achievements and including impressive data on the improved Palestinian economy. Forty percent of Palestinian manual laborers worked in Israel at the time, and the statistics on "television sets and refrigerators" ostensibly showed that the Palestinians never had it so good. Relations with the Palestinians seemed just as rosy in 1999. Growth in the Palestinian Authority was at 5 percent, and economic cooperation with Israel flourished. It seemed nobody could predict that someone on the Palestinian side would let an entire intifada break out and spoil the fun.
And so today Israelis once again have a warm and fuzzy feeling that "everything's okay." Shopping malls open in Jenin and Nablus, Hebron is thriving thanks to a clear-eyed mayor with vast business experience, Ramallah's bars and concert halls are packed, the Palestinian cell phone companies are bursting with new customers, and iPhones have become commonplace among Palestinian youth. Can it get any better? After all, not just armies but occupied nations also march on their stomachs, don't they?
Life is looking good on the political side, too. It's true that there's no peace process, but at least Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is talking peace, not armed struggle, and Hamas is locked up in the Gaza Strip. There are no leaders who can authorize a new intifada, and it seems Palestinians can be rather pleased about the approach of the new administration in Washington.
Most importantly, haven't the Palestinians learned their lessons from the two earlier intifadas? After all, these are intelligent people who know when not to provoke their occupiers. But here's the rub: A civil uprising always comes as a surprise. Only when it's happening do we begin searching for the early signs. Intelligence organizations will bicker over who predicted the revolt and who didn't, pundits will say they told you so, and the immediate concern will be how to stem the rebellion already underway. As far as early signs go, any number of them are out there already.
Last week, Amira Hass reported here about Palestinian leaders, including economics-friendly Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, joining the Land Day demonstrations. "We will be seen wherever the popular struggle is happening," Nabil Shaath told Palestinian news agency Maan. The participation of political leaders might indicate they know something the Israeli intelligence services don't. They don't want to be sidelined when the real uprising breaks out, as they were during the first intifada. This time, they will want to lead.
Meanwhile, "popular struggle" is a term that sits nicely with the Israelis. It's interpreted as demonstrations here and there, some joint protests by Israelis and Palestinians, maybe a stone or two. It's what they call "relatively quiet." Like a volcano that's relatively quiet, until it's not. The solutions are well known, and the Israel Defense Forces is, as ever, "prepared to make progress on every development."
An outbreak of violence will certainly do wonders for Israeli interests. There's nothing like a murderous terror attack to give Israel back its image of being the victim; it would give us an excellent excuse to stop the fake freeze on settlement construction and show Barack Obama who the real culprit is. Enough with playing games, bring it on. Save us with an intifada.
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