The outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, in December 1987, took everyone by surprise. On the Israeli side, they were so convinced the rioting would quickly down that then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not cancel a planned two-week visit to the United States. Afterward he was criticized, probably unfairly, for not cutting it short.
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The Palestinian leadership, then still mostly in exile, was just as taken aback by the spontaneous escalation, and struggled from afar to exert some degree of influence over events.
Those began with protests in the Gazan refugee camp of Jabalya, over the deaths of four local men who were hit by a truck driven by an Israeli (intentionally, locals claimed), and rapidly spread to the rest of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
When the second intifada began, at the end of September 2000, both sides were much more prepared. While the timing perhaps could not have been foreseen, both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership had been girding themselves for wide-scale violence since the failure of the Camp David talks two months earlier and even before.
While the triggering event was held to be the visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, that was at most the spark that ignited a series of explosions of increasing intensity that occurred over the next several days, most of them outside Jerusalem, that quickly blew any prospect of a speedy resolution.
It was, of course, the Palestinians who called these uprisings an intifada – a shaking-off, in Arabic – though it is interesting that, in contrast to previous Israeli-Arab conflicts, which each side named differently, in these two cases the Israelis also adopted the Arab term.
Despite their opposing perspectives, for both sides these prolonged outbursts of violence represented a change in consciousness that set them aside from other chapters of the post-Six-Day War era.
So what made these episodes intifadas? In retrospect, you could say it was their extended duration. While there is no agreement on when they actually ended, both ultimately petered out after about four years. But they were being called an intifada already in their first months, long before anyone knew how long they would last.
This wasn’t just an exercise in “branding.” In both cases it was clear, first to the Palestinians, and then the Israelis as well, that something had fundamentally changed.
By late 1987, after more than 20 years of occupation – during which successive Israeli governments of the left and right had allowed and sometimes encouraged a blurring of the Green Line between Israel in its pre-1967 borders and the territories it wrested from Jordanian and Egyptian occupation in the Six-Day War – collective Palestinian frustration in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem boiled over and resulted in a grassroots uprising.
It was not planned, and only toward its latter stages did the main Palestinian organizations – including the nascent Islamic movement Hamas – manage to gain some control of the streets.
But the realization on both sides that the Palestinians weren’t going to allow Israel to achieve a peaceful occupation and a de facto annexation was clear from those first months.
And while there had previously been long periods of violent protests and unrest, it was the first time that the demonstrations captured in such a way the imaginations of the both the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as the outside world.
The first intifada failed to dislodge the occupation or the settlements, but it succeeded in repainting the Green Line and establishing the Palestinian claim to the occupied territories.
Ironically, while Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization tried to claim public ownership of the spontaneous first intifada, initially it claimed that the second one – for which it did have a large degree of responsibility – was popular and unplanned.
The intifada’s evolution into a concerted campaign of suicide bombings in buses and cafes within the Green Line quickly underscored just how much Arafat’s underlings and the rival Palestinian factions were organizing the uprising. But they had blown up Israeli buses in previous rounds of violence, and they had not been considered an intifada.
What changed in late 2000 was that when the 8-year Oslo process finally collapsed, there were now well-armed and organized militias in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel, of course, still had overwhelming firepower and resources, but the whole point of the second intifada was to try to prove to Israelis that their army couldn’t deliver security.
Ultimately that failed, and Arafat’s successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has since clung to his conclusion that an armed struggle will not deliver a Palestinian state.
The myth of the third intifada, circulated largely on social media, was in the making as soon as the second one ended, and has been intensely hyped up since the first revolutions of the Arab Spring, in early 2011.
But for all the third intifada Facebook pages (“liked” largely by those living far from the region), it hasn’t happened, because there is as yet no great motivation for a paradigm-changing uprising.
The monopolies dominating the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and yes, even Hamas, still have too much of a vested interest in the current distribution of power.
The periodic conflagrations between Israel and Hamas in Gaza were not intifadas, and neither is the current upsurge in stabbings, terror attacks using cars, Jewish vigilante reprisals, and clashes between police and rock-throwing youths at the usual flash points on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the Qalandiyah checkpoint, spreading at times to Arab communities within the Green Line.
They will probably diminish over time. But even if they do not, as long as the PA retains control of its enclaves in the West Bank and Hamas still has an interest in perpetuating its rule in the Gaza Strip, there will be no third intifada.
Only a (presumably Hamas-backed) revolt that is broad enough to topple the power structure in Ramallah, or a conscious decision by Abbas and his successors to relinquish control and, like Arafat in 2000, allow the PA security forces to turn their guns on Israelis, could unleash a third intifada.
We don’t have that now. All we have is another bitter cycle of bloodshed, born of frustration and leading nowhere.