Israel probably came closer to a third intifada this week than any time since the second one wound down 12 years ago – and not because of the role of religion in sparking the violence. It’s because of the dangerous economic backdrop.
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Religion and economics are two factors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that routinely get short shrift.
The idea that Islam plays a critical role in Palestinian life and politics muddies the waters for people who want to see the cause as nationalism and resistance to oppression. Economics upsets that prevailing narrative, because it implies the cause can be solved with jobs and rising incomes.
But the reality is that religious piety and economic distress make a combustible mixture, and that’s what we have in the West Bank and Gaza today.
The second intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. The so-called knife intifada or lone-wolf intifada began in 2015 when Palestinians and Israeli police clashed outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
It’s not just in Palestine that religion speaks so strongly to the masses. The Arab Spring may have begun with calls for freedom and democracy, but they were quickly overtaken by Islamic groups of one kind or another. The Muslim Brotherhood won the only free and fair elections Egypt ever had, as did Hamas the last time Palestinians went to the polls.
Religious faith doesn’t have to lead to violence, but the odds grow if the economy isn’t performing. It means a lot of idle young men with little to do – bored, angry and frustrated, and ready to sign up for a cause that promises a better life in the future and some action in the form of stone-throwing right now.
This is in no way meant to disparage Palestinian aspirations. A lot of upheavals – the French and Russian revolutions immediately come to mind, as does Trump’s election victory – achieved critical mass not from multitudes of politically aware activists, but from people with only the vaguest notion of what is wrong with society and how to correct it, and not a few looking for a little action.
The difference in the Arab world is that Islam is the default cause rather than, say, Marxism or populism.
The worst of times
The Palestinian economy is not only in a bad way, it’s in an even worse way from the perspective of combustibility.
Palestinian economic growth has been unusually volatile since the days of the last intifada – posting strong growth some years and lousy growth others. But it has never been strong enough to absorb all the young people entering the labor force or create the stable environment investors require.
In the last decade, the World Bank estimates, the West Bank and Gaza economies have generated 500,000 new jobs for 800,000 graduates in need of one. The unemployment rate for young people in Gaza is a staggering 56 percent; in the West Bank it’s 27 percent.
With the economy expected to grow just 3 to 4 percent annually this year and next, unemployment isn’t going to be falling anytime soon.
Israel has helped address the joblessness problem by letting more Palestinians work inside Israel. But even at 100,000 that is far less than worked over the Green Line in the 1980s.
The government can’t resist the right’s fear of Palestinians. It can’t even resist its natural tendency to do as little as possible to help them, even if it is in the interests of Israel and the settlers.
The Palestinian economy alone is too stunted to solve its job problem. Manufacturing and agriculture are in decline, and international aid has dropped sharply.
Predicting when the next intifada will occur is a fool’s errand. You can point to all the combustible material, but you can’t predict which match will finally cause the flames to spread.
But when it happens, it will be an economic disaster for the Palestinians. It took until 2009 for the West Bank just to recover to its 1994 level of GDP because of the ruin of the second intifada (between 2000 and 2005).
It will be very unpleasant for Israel, too. Together with the collapse of the dot-com boom, the second intifada pushed Israel into its deepest recession ever. An outbreak of serious violence could easily cause the flow of foreign investment to the high-tech sector to dry, amid images of exploding buses in Tel Aviv and rockets landing in Haifa.
It would certainly put an end to the consumer boom that has been fueling the economy for the last few years.
A severe Israeli response could be no less dangerous, bringing new life to the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement.
Compared to the time of the second intifada, the ability to broadcast problematic images around the world in a flash has grown immeasurably, and social media gives activists outsized influence. Panicked businesses and governments respond quickly to this kind of pressure.
If that scenario plays out, Israel is in the unfortunate position of currently having a government that’s incapable of handling it. It is prisoner to a far right that is paranoid, suspicious of Western powers and has no mercy for the Palestinians. It will crack down hard, tell the world to mind its own business, and take down the economy along with it.