Why Do We Rush to Call Palestinian Violence an 'Intifada?'

Has another intifada started? Why should the average Palestinian or Israeli care so much what this cycle of violence is called?

Palestinians throwing rocks, a ubiquitous image of the intifada.
Palestinians throwing rocks, a ubiquitous image of the intifada.Credit: Emil Salman

What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to choosing the proper moniker for an extended period of violent Palestinian actions against Israel, apparently what one decides to call it means a great deal.

As stabbing follows rock-throwing follows rioting follows yet another stabbing and shooting, everyone seems extremely interested — even obsessed — with whether or not the time has come to officially break out the “I” word: Intifada. The headlines — including those in this publication — ask endlessly, “Has the Third Intifada Begun?” “Is the Third Intifada on its Way?” “How Will We Know When the Third Intifada Begins?”

So far, the Israeli media has been quite assiduous in its efforts to avoid doing so. The favored term on Israel’s evening news up until now has been a “wave of violence.” On one hand, this feels like an inappropriately picturesque description, but also leaves some room for hope. Like waves in the Mediterranean, what is now tall, foamy and furious, will, after all, eventually calm and recede. In the Palestinian media and online discussions, the word being used for what is happening is reportedly akin an “outbreak” — which evokes connotations of a deadly disease that can spread rapidly and only ends after a great deal of devastation — more menacing and long-lasting than a “wave.”

The people who are most eager to call it an intifada are of course those who most want it to happen and take its place in history with the first and second intifadas — the terrorists themselves. That’s no surprise, considering that it would raise their actions to a higher level of importance, especially if their act is seen as the one to trigger Intifada Three, in the way that Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire, is seen as the catalyst for the Arab spring.

“The third intifada is here,” declared Muhannad Halabi, 19, a resident of Ramallah and law student, on his Facebook page just before he stabbed a family in the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday, one in the series of brutal attacks over the past week. Former Brig. Gen. Yehiam Sasson (res.) warned in an interview with the right-wing outlet Arutz Sheva that “in my estimation we are at the beginning of a possible third intifada. The question is if it will develop into a full intifada," he said, indicating that a so-called “full intifada” (as opposed to a “partial intifada”) is preventable if Israel gets tough enough.

Clearly, for the power players, labelling the events is critical. As my colleague Anshel Pfeffer has observed, “intifadas aren’t just about mayhem engulfing the occupied territories — they’re also about a shift in the ground rules governing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Right now, there is the fear, or from the perspective of Hamas, the hope, that a “full intifada” would spell the end of Israeli-PA security cooperation and perhaps even the Palestinian Authority itself. On the other hand, there is the desire of hardline Israelis to be able to justify brutal military measures, because, after all, in the case of an intifada, the gloves must come off.

Why should the average Palestinian or Israeli — or their media — care so much what it is called? Terrible, bloody, murderous events and violent clashes take the same toll on both the Israeli and Palestinian side no matter what we call them.

And yet, we care. This leads me to believe that the ongoing fixation with “intifada or no intifada” goes beyond the practical and into the realm of the psychological. Presumably, it is simply human nature to want to place frightening events into clean, neat categories and give them a name and a label. Both in the case of Operation Protective Edge, and before that in Operation Defensive Shield, the public was similarly restless. Is it a “war” or an “operation”?

And when does an “operation” cross the line into an actual “war”? In the case of last summer’s conflict, the endless cycle of rockets and bombings may not have been dubbed a war, but it sure felt like one. And when you are in a miserable situation, you want to know, more than anything, how long it will last. An official announcement of an intifada tells us that we are talking about months and years, not weeks.

But somehow, we need to know. For those who are lucky enough to live in a less conflict-ridden part of the world, perhaps it can be understood better when compared to extreme economic events. In the United States, there is always anxiety over whether a sudden drop in the stock market is officially a “crash” or if a long slowdown is being labelled a “recession.” The words “recession” or “market crash” or “bubble bursting” may arouse unhappy memories — but it also helps us batten down the hatches and get ready for an extended period of tough times ahead, like knowing that it is officially a hurricane heading our way and not a mere tropical depression.

Weather-watchers are luckiest in this regard. The designation of a hurricane is purely empirical. Once the winds measure 119 kilometers per hour, you know that a real hurricane is happening. A recession also has a generally agreed-upon indicator, defined after two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth take place as measured by a country's gross domestic product.

How strongly do the winds of anger and discontent in the hills of the West Bank have to blow and how many consecutive quarters of death and mourning on both sides have to take place before we know for sure that we’ve got a third intifada on our hands?

Not that we’ll be at all satisfied when we get the official notice. Just as in the case of a recession or a hurricane, as soon as we find out it’s an intifada, our next obsessive question will be: when will it end and how much damage will we all suffer by the time it does?

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