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A Third Palestinian Intifada Is More Evident in Headlines Than in Reality

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Photographs of Tuesday's incident in the northern West Bank village of Tamoun, where Israel Defense Forces soldiers clashed with dozens of Palestinian demonstrators following the arrest of a suspect by undercover forces, were prominently displayed in the media the following day. Tuesday's events provided two new twists, in terms of the intensity of the resistance displayed by villagers, and the media coverage. The incident ended with a few light injuries.

For the time being, it appears that the third intifada is more evident in newspaper headlines than in reality on the ground. It's hard to ignore the feeling that at least part of the reason for this has to do with politics, and that the widespread media coverage is designed to undermine a claim that serves as the foundation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign: that, in their daily lives, Israelis enjoy a greater degree of security than during the eras of past governments (Barak, Sharon, Olmert ).

On Wednesday, Netanyahu invited journalists to join him on a tour of the security fence on the Egyptian border, a visit arranged to celebrate the fence's "completion." In actual fact, most parts of the fence have been finished, but it has yet to be constructed in a 12-kilometer stretch proximate to Eilat. For election campaign purposes, the celebration date was advanced to draw attention to the accomplishment.

The image of security quiet is critical to the success of Netanyahu's campaign. This was the main reason underlying Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip in November. Ongoing publication of photographs of residents of Jewish communities near the Gaza border, seeking shelter from rockets launched from Gaza, threatened to blemish Netanyahu's claim. They encouraged him to decide in favor of the military operation, even though the prime minister was careful not to get entangled in an IDF ground operation that could involve a considerable number of casualties.

Haaretz editor Aluf Benn remarked this week about the proliferation of military photographs on Netanyahu's Facebook page. His rivals are also dipping into this well: Habayit Hayehudi has a somewhat clumsy advertisement in which its leader, Naftali Bennett, is seen carrying a stretcher, beneath a caption proclaiming, in a Hebrew pun, "Bennett is a brother [also 'nurse']."

Meantime, Tzipi Livni tried to stage a joint press conference with Amir Peretz alongside an Iron Dome anti-missile battery this week.

In response to all this, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz is trying to keep the IDF at some distance from the preelection political trickery. He cannot deviate from rules of protocol and stop the prime minister, defense minister and president from delivering speeches at a graduation ceremony for the Israel Air Force's pilots' course. But the IDF stopped Livni and Peretz from using the Iron Dome as a campaign prop. Similarly, a media briefing with the IDF officer responsible for building the fence in the south was canceled at the last minute.

It's harder to impose restraints regarding events on the ground. The army learned this last weekend, when coverage of the evacuation of the settlement outpost Oz Tzion, near Ramallah, was deliberately overblown. Bennett outflanked the army on the right; he relied on the extremist wing in his party, which set up a simulated outpost for the weekend, in order to instill some fighting spirit in the party rank-and-file, just weeks ahead of the election.

Heads of center-left political parties closed ranks to denounce the extremists, and gained valuable screen time.

Some Likud politicians also profited from the Oz Tzion coverage. Coalition chairman Zeev Elkin expressed pride in the fact that he stopped the evacuation from occurring on Shabbat (and deferred it until Saturday night ), following two quick telephone calls with Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, IDF coordinator of government activities in the territories.

In fact, there was no Elkin-Dangot agreement. What happened was that Dangot phoned his General Staff colleague, GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, and the latter informed him that a decision had been reached to stop the evacuation.

Two reasons impelled Alon to act: the fact that IDF forces and Border Police on the ground were not sufficiently organized for the evacuation assignment; and the brief time remaining (about half an hour ) before the onset of Shabbat. Army officers wanted to avoid more ferment, so they dismantled the outpost the following evening, deploying a limited number of forces for the task. In this way, MKs from all parts of the spectrum profited from extensive news coverage, this being the object of the exercise from the start.

Returning to the Palestinians: In a Central Command discussion held a few days ago, brigade commanders expressed dismay about mounting public concern over the imminent outbreak of a third intifada on the West Bank. As the officers see it, tensions were evident on the ground before Operation Pillar of Defense, but since then there has been a gradual decline in the number of violent clashes with Palestinians.

Security coordination with Palestinian Authority frameworks is improving, to some degree, after a period in which it slackened, plus the PA has renewed arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suspects.

For their part, IDF Central Command officers are concerned about a rise in the number of attacks by Jewish right-wing extremists (this week, a Palestinian car was set on fire, and incendiary graffiti was splashed around the village of Beit Ummar, north of Hebron). These extremists are seemingly influenced by the election season atmosphere. Of course, it’s possible that the brigade commanders and intelligence officers are wrong. The incident in Tamoun merits attention owing to the intensity of the villagers’ resistance. It will be important to observe whether this phenomenon repeats itself when arrest operations occur in the future. Intelligence officers are continually wary of missing early warning signs about a reoccurrence of what happened prior to the first intifada in December 1987.

In retrospect, it seemed clear that the huge wave of protests which, to a large extent, led to the 1991 Madrid Conference and then the 1993 Oslo Accords, was preceded by blatantly obvious warning signs that Israel ignored. One sign pertained to an operation conducted by the IDF in the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus, a few months before the intifada erupted.

Shin Bet security service researchers drafted a document that analyzed Palestinians’ determination to clash with IDF troops at the refugee camp (in some instances, the IDF soldiers chose to withdraw and not engage) but Central Command decided to overlook this document.

Nonetheless, Tamoun’s realities are far removed from the Balata refugee camp, located in the heart of the West Bank. A series of events will have to accumulate before a declaration can be made about a significant change.

There’s no doubt that the peace process impasse, economic woes suffered by the PA, and continued settlement building infuriate Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet the factors which favor restraint first and foremost, certain calculations harbored by the PA leadership cannot be ignored. In the coming months PA President
Mahmoud Abbas plans to exploit the Palestinian achievement at the UN (where, in November, the PA won upgraded status), and try to win PA acceptance among a series of international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The outbreak of violent clashes in the West Bank could undermine the PA’s claim that it has the political resources and foundations worthy of upgraded status.

Senior figures within Fatah and the PA are worried that Hamas rivals will try to stir up violence as a means for augmenting their popularity popularity which was significantly heightened by what is viewed in the territories as a Hamas victory in the recent Gaza conflict. Right now, it appears the West Bank is likely to enter a period of stasis until Israel finishes with its election, and the U.S. clarifies its policies concerning the Palestinian dispute under the second Barack Obama administration.

There is also doubt about the Arab world’s level of attentiveness concerning the prospect of another intifada, with the continuing bloodshed in Syria remaining the focal point. Recently, turbulence in Iraq where tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims have staged raucous demonstrations protesting discrimination enforced by the Shi’ite government has also captured attention.

It also bears mention that even if a third intifada erupts, Israel’s situation would not be identical to what it was on the eve of the second intifada, in September 2000. Since then, a separation fence was installed an obstacle that impairs the entry of suicide bombers plus, the Shin Bet’s intelligence network on the ground has improved immeasurably, and the police and IDF have streamlined their operational capabilities.

If and when violence erupts in the territories, the tumult this time would take on an aura of popular revolt, partly as a result of the diplomatic failure endured by the Palestinians in the last intifada, when they chose to cast the uprising as a murderous wave of suicide bomber attacks.

In a period when media coverage is riveted by the West Bank, what the press don’t talk about bears notice. On the Gaza border, the past six weeks have been more quiet than in any period subsequent to the second intifada. The cease-fire remains intact, even though Israel occasionally operates within the “parameter” (the narrow, controversial strip within Palestinian territory, west of the border fence).

This is a fragile, ephemeral reality. It also seems clear that, despite Egyptian mediation efforts, the sides do not really want to draft a written document that would spell out the new rules of the game (under such formulations, both sides would be required to make concessions that would entail domestic consequences). In any case, there is now a state of virtually unprecedented quiet in Gaza.

Palestinian demonstrator in Tamoun. The intensity of the villagers' resistance was notable.Credit: Reuters

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