Stabbings, shootings, rock throwing and riots: it is hard to keep track of the incidents that have spread across Israel and Palestine in September and October 2015. Both international and Israeli media have been eager to ask whether this wave of violence can already be called an intifada. Are we looking at the outbreak of the third Palestinian uprising? And is it even important what it is called?
The first intifada began in 1987 and ended in 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Although approximately 1,100 Palestinians and 164 Israelis lost their lives during this period, the first intifada was mainly characterized by civil disobedience, boycotts and strikes. During the second intifada, a lot more blood was spilled on the Israeli side, due to an increased number of Hamas suicide attacks; 972 Israelis were killed between 2000 and 2005. However, the Palestinians suffered a tremendous 3,301 deaths. Ever since, many waves of Palestinian violence have been labelled the beginning of a third intifada. In the autumn of 2014, there were several incidents where Palestinians drove their cars into civilians and soldiers. Three people died, tens were injured and the media again began suggesting it was the beginning of an intifada. But the attacks faded and life returned to “normal.”
Normal for Jewish Israelis, that is. Between January and August 2015, 19 Palestinians were killed by Israeli Security Forces. At the end of July, the house of a Palestinian family in Duma, in the West Bank, was firebombed. One toddler was burned alive and both his parents died in the hospital. Only one child survived and the suspects, extremist settlers, were never arrested. In the meantime, the number of Jewish settlers in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem has risen to a staggering 800,000. The continuing expansion of settlements and outposts is dividing the West Bank into countless pieces, making a two-state solution close to impossible. Approximately 12 times a week, a West Bank resident is attacked by settlers. According to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, “the probability that a complaint submitted to the Israel police by a Palestinian will lead to an effective investigation, which results in the location of a suspect and is followed by indictment, trial and conviction, is just 1.9 per cent.” Combined with the humiliating security measures at checkpoints, restriction of movement for Palestinians and the numerous other policies that come with the occupation, it would hardly be surprising if this one day resulted in a third intifada. But has that day arrived?
Division among Palestinians
Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, thinks it has. “The third intifada is already here or, in the best case, is just around the corner.” But we should also take into account the factors that have prevented an uprising until now, Levy adds. “The heavy price paid by the Palestinians for the second intifada (…); the absence of a leadership moving the people toward another broad uprising; internal Palestinian divisions (…); the international isolation of the Palestinians amid growing international indifference; and the slightly improved economic situation on the West Bank.”
Avihai Stollar, who works for an Israeli organization for Palestinian human rights, agrees. In a telephone interview, he said: “The second intifada left the citizens of the West Bank with the separation wall. They ended up worse than when they began. Also, not all the Palestinians are willing to pay the same price for an uprising. When you live in a refugee camp, you don’t have a lot to lose. But take, for example, the Palestinians from Ramallah. I surely won’t say they don’t suffer from the occupation, but their living standards are a lot better. An intifada would destroy the Palestinian economy.”
The division among Palestinians from different areas is also a complicating factor, according to sociologist Nohad Ali. The Palestinians of the West Bank will be suppressed by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians in Israel, or ‘Arab Israelis’, have much to lose, he argues. Yet the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are frustrated, do not see a light at the end of the tunnel and lack leadership, he adds. “Israel neutralized this leadership and left all the power with the crowd on the streets.”
This lack of organization also defines the recent attacks. According to Stollar, this is an important difference from the situation during the first and second intifada. “To stab someone with a knife or run someone over with a car, you only need one man, a lone wolf. But to blow up a bus, you would need materials, an expert, an organization. Because of the separation wall, it will be a lot harder for Palestinians to penetrate into Israel and complete such an assault.”
Anshel Pfeffer makes the same analysis in Haaretz. “The violent events of the past few weeks conform with what the security establishment has long called ‘individual terror’ or ‘popular terror’ attacks. They don’t yet exhibit the generalized intent that characterized the previous two intifadas, but that could change quickly.”
In The National, Joseph Dana writes: “Palestinians know they must reform their own leadership and its relationship to Israel as part of any genuine uprising against Israeli rule – something that doesn’t appear likely in the short term.” Intifadas are strategic, he argues, and not simple reactions to isolated events, or even sustained Israeli incitement. “The first intifada was a declaration that Palestinians refused to accept Israel’s slow annexation of the West Bank and the expanding occupation. The second intifada was an attempt to use violence to change the status quo.”
The Occupation must End
Regardless whether it is a third intifada or not: should the Palestinians desire one? No, says Sam Bahour, an economist and activist from Ramallah. “An intifada needs unity, leadership, money and a clear commitment to non-violence from all political parties. None of these ingredients are currently present. So let’s get real and not allow more precious young lives to be lost for nothing.” Mohammad, a lawyer from Ramallah who did not want to give his full name, also believes a third intifada would be undesirable. “It would cost so many lives. The first two uprisings gave us nothing. We shouldn’t waste the lives of civilians, men, women and children.”
Nada Elia, a diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, begs to differ. “Intifadas are good. They reveal to the world that Palestinians have not, will not, acquiesce to their oppression.” The third intifada, she says, must be against the ongoing occupation as undertaken by the Israeli forces as well as their sub-contractor, the Palestinian Authority. “Only then will the farce of peace accords and road maps be finally tossed into the trash heap of history, where it belongs.”
It seems inevitable that it all comes down to the occupation – and ending it. Would it be an illusion to think that one day the Palestinians will stop resorting to violent resistance and just accept Israeli rule? Journalist Ben White argues that it is neither interesting nor helpful to debate the definitions or labels we put on the current clashes: “A new tide of Palestinian rebellion has been rising for the last few years, for the quite obvious reason that occupation, colonialism and apartheid produces resistance.”
Usama Nicola, a guide for political tours on the West Bank, says it is too soon to tell if Palestine is on the brink of a third intifada. “First all the Palestinian areas have to participate.” He admits he is getting nervous and scared, but adds: “The most important thing is that the occupation must end.”