Saturday was the third day of violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip border following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was also December 9, the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the first intifada.
On that day in 1987, rioting broke out across the occupied territories following the deaths of four residents of Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in a road accident. Rumors that their deaths had been intentional inflamed passions at their funeral, and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces quickly spread – from Jabalya to just about every point in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It lasted for nearly six years, ending officially only with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
In retrospect, the first intifada had been an event waiting to happen. It just needed a spark. The Palestinians at that point, over 20 years after the Six-Day War, wanted to prove to themselves, the Israelis and the rest of the world that they were not prepared to continue sitting docilely by while successive Israeli governments blurred the Green Line and settlements spread, stymieing the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.
It was a spontaneous awakening that ultimately succeeded in redrawing the pre-1967 borders and putting the Palestinian issue firmly on the international agenda. It took the established Palestinian organizations – the PLO and its offshoots – months to establish some semblance of control over the efforts and it spawned Hamas, the PLO’s Islamist rival, which was officially founded a week after the intifada began.
The second intifada was a very different affair. It had spontaneous and “popular” elements at first, in the rioting that broke out in Jerusalem following then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. But from a very early stage it had a much more organized fashion, with the paramilitary groups of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other organizations competing with each other to carry out armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and terror bombings against civilians within the Green Line.
Seven years after the start of the Oslo process, it was an attempt by the Palestinians to make gains they had failed to achieve by diplomacy.
By 2005, with Yasser Arafat dead and his replacement by the violence-opposing Mahmoud Abbas, it had petered out. Ultimately, it was a failure. Israel abandoned the Gaza Strip and dismantled its settlements there, but politically the Palestinians remained divided: Hamas ruling Gaza, the PA the West Bank, both cut off from each other and from Jerusalem by border fences and the separation barrier.
In the 12 years since, many have anticipated a third intifada, but it has not come. With every new outbreak of violence, there was an expectation of a full-blown intifada following in its wake.
In this period there have been four rounds of heavy fighting in Gaza, which have claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians. But the violence failed to spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In September 2015, a wave of daily stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks began in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – but while some dubbed it the “Al-Aqsa” or “knife intifada,” it remained an accumulation of individual, lone-wolf actions that tapered off after six months and never became a widespread uprising.
This July, there was a week of widespread protests over Israeli security arrangements at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound (Temple Mount), but it died down quickly after Israel backed down.
While it’s too early to make any definite assessments, it seems this latest wave, now four days old, isn’t the much-anticipated third intifada, either. Friday was the peak of demonstrations, with approximately 3,000 Palestinians protesting and rioting at some 20 flash points across the West Bank. By Saturday, their number was reduced to about 500 and Sunday was even lower. While this round of violence is not yet over – and a security guard was stabbed in central Jerusalem in a terror attack on Sunday afternoon – if nothing untoward happens, it will probably peter out again in a few days.
There are three key factors lacking right now, without which it is hard to see another intifada materializing.
One: Joint interests of the three occupied Palestinian communities.
In the two intifadas, the uprising took place nearly simultaneously among all three Palestinian communities living under Israeli occupation – the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Currently, not only are these groups physically divided to an unprecedented extent, they also have different agendas.
In Gaza, Palestinians are eagerly awaiting the implementation of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, which hopefully will lead to the easing of the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, and a much-needed boost to the local economy.
In the West Bank, the economic situation is less desperate and more of a political interest in the future of the dysfunctional PA. But Fatah here is more focused on maintaining the security coordination with Israel, which helps keep Hamas out and President Abbas in control.
The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are probably more disposed toward a confrontation with Israel. But as they contemplate their foreseeable future under Israeli civilian control, they are beginning to explore less violent tactics of civil disobedience in a quest for equal rights as Jerusalem residents.
Two: A decision by the Palestinian leadership to burn their bridges.
The PA in the West Bank and Hamas leaders in Gaza are loath to back a new round of all-out violence in their fiefdoms. They still feel they have too much to lose from chaos. Hamas is calling for an intifada, but only in the West Bank and Jerusalem where they don’t have any control. But an intifada in the West Bank will almost certainly mean the end of the PA – and when tens of thousands of officials and security personnel rely on the PA for their livelihood, there is a vested interest to continue coordinating with Israel and keeping a lid on things.
In 1987, there was no accepted local leadership that had anything to gain from maintaining the status quo. In 2000, Arafat took a gamble that Israel would not dare dismantle his hierarchy. He ended his life trapped in the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas is no gambler.
Three: An end of Palestinian war-weariness.
The memory of the thousands of deaths in two intifadas and four Gaza conflicts inhibits any mass outpouring of rage onto the streets. Plus, there are the scenes Palestinians see on their televisions of the desolation in other parts of the Arab world, like Syria and Yemen. There may be hundreds of individuals motivated to take a knife or homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun and attack Israelis in the hope of becoming martyrs – but that is not a feeling common to wider swathes of Palestinian society. The critical mass of tens of thousands, prepared to risk their lives in a desperate uprising, doesn’t exist. Yet.
There are other contributory elements minimizing the chances of an intifada breaking out. The Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and police in East Jerusalem have tightened their rules of engagement, reducing the number of serious casualties. The absence of mass funerals of martyrs has helped lower the flames.
Likewise, the policy of the coordinator of government activities in the territories to continue letting over 50,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank arrive daily in Israel has created a major incentive for maintaining the calm. At least half the families in the West Bank are reliant in some way on the Israeli economy, and they don’t want to go back to the intifada reality when Israel imported foreign workers to replace Palestinians.
There is plenty of Palestinian despair and anger at the lack of any prospect of diplomatic progress and an end to the occupation. But there is also political pragmatism and the necessity of making a living.
For the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, the price of another intifada is simply too high.