The Palestinian uprising is now entering its fourth week. There appears to be a broad consensus on the genesis of the violence, which has left at least 40 Palestinians and seven Israelis dead since October 1, and more than 1,200 Palestinians injured. How it may develop in the days and weeks ahead is much less clear.
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now almost fifty years old, is more entrenched than ever, while even the pretense of a political process aimed at bringing the occupation and the conflict to an end has been effectively abandoned. Political despair has been compounded by economic desperation. In Gaza, two-fifths of the population lives in poverty, and youth unemployment is the world’s highest, at more than 60 percent. In East Jerusalem, the epicenter of the uprising, 75 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Even in the remainder of the West Bank, where donor aid and a credit bubble have sustained the fiction of an economy, fully one in three of those aged 20 to 24 are unemployed. It is no coincidence that, of the 30 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces from October 1–14, nearly two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 22.
Such travails are not the product of an economic cycle or austerity policies, but rather the result of systematic institutional discrimination by a colonial regime over many decades. In East Jerusalem, which is not only occupied but has also been illegally annexed by Israel, the government and municipal authorities demolish more Palestinian homes on the pretext of a lack of planning permission than they issue permits for new construction; seize land and property for the further expansion of illegal Jewish settlements; and revoke the residency status of entire families. In the remainder of the West Bank, most of it under direct Israeli military rule, similar policies are pursued with even greater brutality.
If political and economic despair created the underlying conditions for revolt, two proximate causes triggered it. First is what Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group has characterized as the “crumbling status quo” at the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. A growing campaign of incursions by radical settler groups dedicated to demolishing the mosques and replacing them with a Jewish temple, provocative visits by prominent Israeli politicians including serving cabinet ministers, restrictions on access for Muslim worshipers, and the resultant clashes with Israeli security forces have persuaded Palestinians that the most extreme government in Israel’s history is determined to partition the Muslim holy site and Palestinian national symbol. Such fears draw upon experience, as this is precisely what Israel did at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque two decades ago after an American-born settler massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims during dawn prayers. Palestinian concerns are additionally shared by Jordan, which shares custodianship of the Haram and last year felt compelled to withdraw its ambassador to Tel Aviv in protest at Israel’s increasing belligerence on the issue. More recently, tensions came to a head in September as the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha coincided with the Jewish Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot holidays.
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Second is a growing sense of regional and international abandonment, particularly at the official level. The Palestinians are today more isolated and fragmented than at any point since their initial dispossession in 1948. Key Gulf states have sought out Israel as an ally in their proxy conflict with Iran; Egypt’s current rulers consider Palestine a nuisance and Hamas an enemy; Turkey is otherwise preoccupied; and what’s left of Iraq and Syria have neither the capacity nor inclination to exert themselves on the Palestinians’ behalf. There is “a perception that…Palestinians are on their own,” leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki explains, and “so they take matters into their own hands.” It is in this respect hardly coincidental that Palestinians have rallied around what is not only a national symbol but also one that continues to resonate in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds.
To this should be added the increasingly barbaric Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip, which along with the schism between the Fatah and Hamas movements will soon enter its second decade; unprecedented levels of official demonization of Palestinian citizens of Israel; lengthy hunger strikes by Palestinians detained without charge or trial; and regular killings by the Israeli military and settler militias in the West Bank—the last culminating in the late July arson-murder of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his parents outside Nablus. It speaks volumes that in the current context the latter factors are mere background noise.
A Third Intifada?
Have the Palestinians finally embarked upon their long-heralded third intifada? That depends upon how one defines the term, and can therefore easily lead to semantic rather than substantive debate. The more pertinent questions concern how sustainable and effective the current revolt is likely to be.
An instructive comparison can be drawn with the first intifada of 1987–93. It too erupted amid growing regional and international indifference. In the mid-1980s, the Arab states were preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq War, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its leadership languishing in Tunisia, was bereft of influence and ideas. At the November 1987 summit of the Arab League, Palestine was for the first time in the organization’s history absent from the agenda. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, none other than current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could barely conceal his glee, telling the UN General Assembly that “the Arab leaders” have “put the Palestinian” issue “on the back burner.” That was December 2. One week later, the occupied territories erupted in a mass nonviolent civil revolt that planted Palestine firmly atop the international agenda, transformed international perceptions of the conflict, and paralyzed Israeli society.
The first intifada awoke the world’s conscience to the justice of the Palestinian cause, and crystallized the international consensus for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict—a consensus that still endures. It marked a fundamental turning point in Western public opinion about the conflict. Since then, widespread revulsion at Israel’s massacres in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-9, 2012, and 2014) has made it one of the world’s least popular states, ranking it alongside Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. If current regional conditions resemble those that prevailed at the outset of the first intifada, today’s international environment is much more promising: if Palestinians rally behind a coherent program that seeks to activate a dormant international consensus, they can expect to receive broad international support.
Domestically, the situation is more ambiguous. The first intifada began spontaneously, independent of the formal political leadership. The same is true of the present uprising, which has been characterized by self-organizing groups of demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza and uncoordinated actions by individuals in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. Hamas is not preventing protests in Gaza, but neither is it delighted with them; in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is having to walk a fine line between its security commitments to Israel and the United States and its need for domestic legitimacy. Both fear that a popular uprising could challenge the modus vivendi they have established with Israel, or could—with or without encouragement by their rivals— develop into a challenge to their continued rule.
The first intifada caught the PLO by surprise, but the leadership rapidly made a strategic decision to support it, and in the process channeled large amounts of money to the occupied territories to that end. No such strategic decision has been made today by a leadership eager to end the unrest and restore calm, but this, ironically, could be a net benefit. Reliance on PLO largesse helped subordinate the first intifada to the PLO’s political direction, which led it down a painful dead end. The money helped sustain the struggle, but also undermined it.
In other respects, internal conditions are today much worse. The Palestinian national movement in practice no longer exists, and what remains of the Palestinian political system is deeply divided politically and also territorially. At the popular level the Palestinian people are fragmented in ways that would have been difficult to imagine prior to the 1987 uprising; in the intervening decades key communities in Kuwait, Iraq, and now Syria have been functionally eliminated, the diaspora as a whole has been effectively removed from decision-making structures, and the occupied territories transformed into a series of encircled bantustans.
The first intifada benefited from the fact that the official leadership was far away in Tunis, while the grassroots structures of the PLO (unions, political movements) were in place and functional, quickly coalescing to form the institutional backbone of the uprising: the Unified National Command of the Uprising. The situation is now effectively reversed: the official leadership is deeply entrenched inside the West Bank, and is not merely sclerotic and corrupt but actively collaborating with Israel in the form of an efficient security apparatus. It is no accident that it is those areas least susceptible to Palestinian Authority control—East Jerusalem, Hebron, Gaza, and Area C of the West Bank, as well as Palestinian communities within Israel—that have seen the most activism. Meanwhile, Palestinian grassroots structures have been largely hollowed out, primarily by the Palestinian Authority but also by an NGO sector that has absorbed many activists and defanged their agendas.
The leaderless character of this uprising has so far made it difficult for Israel and those Palestinian forces invested in the status quo to impose their control. But the fate of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world suggests that this feature could soon become a mortal flaw: in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, a dearth of leadership, organization and effective coordination enabled the entrenched powers to retake the initiative and gradually re-impose their will, or produced political vacuums that devoured their societies. The Palestinian uprising’s potential will depend upon its ability to sustain itself independently of, and perhaps at a later stage in open opposition to, the powers that be. This will require organization and a lot of political savvy.
It’s a serious question whether the infrastructure required to sustain the revolt can develop before it is crushed. In Egypt, activists and revolutionaries saw the fruits of their efforts snatched by the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, and then the Muslim Brotherhood watched helplessly as its electoral victory was snatched by the machinations of the much more experienced ancien régime.
The first intifada had three essential characteristics that were critical to its initial success. Mass participation: If young people constituted the most dynamic force in the revolt, nonetheless, the entire population, from infants to the elderly, took part. Nonviolence: The uprising consisted overwhelmingly of nonviolent demonstrations, as well as various forms of self-organizing such as alternative schools, tax strikes, and backyard food production. Its symbolic weapon was the stone. Efficacy: The first intifada severely disrupted civilian life inside Israel and isolated Israel abroad. These three elements were an indivisible package: nonviolent tactics won international sympathy and allowed for broad participation, which forced Israel to call up its reserves at great political and financial expense.
None of these aspects are yet present in the current uprising. The “lone wolf” attackers are mainly young people from East Jerusalem; and while there have also been demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank, most sectors of the population remain passive, if sympathetic, observers. The uprising’s signature weapon has been the knife. The first intifada also featured a wave of knife attacks in Jerusalem and southern Israel, but this occurred in 1990–91, when the intifada was already weakened. What was then a tactic of despair, a reflection of the intifada’s exhaustion, has today been adopted from the outset.
Setting aside, for argument’s sake, moral considerations, there are two important tactical issues with the stabbings. First, an uprising centered on knifings precludes most of the population from participating. This sort of violence rarely unhinges an entire society and is therefore unlikely to amount to more than a nuisance for Israel. As of now, reports Haaretz’s defense correspondent, the Israeli army “does not see the need” for drastic measures. Its escalatory responses primarily derive from the political realm, particularly Netanyahu’s need to validate his security credentials and his contention that the status quo can be indefinitely sustained.
Second, the knifings play into Israel’s hands internationally. Whereas the iconic image of the first intifada was the stone versus the Uzi, a juxtaposition that inspired sympathy with and admiration for the Palestinians, the iconic image of the present uprising risks becoming CCTV footage of an Israeli civilian being stabbed in the street and his assailant summarily executed. This has little prospect of generating similarly widespread, unambiguous international public sympathy. It is notable that the major Israeli assaults on Gaza (Cast Lead, Protective Edge) evoked a much harsher international reaction than has Israeli repression in the wake of the stabbings. The Middle East Quartet (the UN, the EU, the United States, and Russia) recently acquiesced in Netanyahu’s request to call off a planned visit, effectively granting Israel a blank check in its dealings with the Palestinians; while US Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly affirmed—as if its survival hangs in the balance—Israel’s “right to defend its existence.”
The more the stabbings come to characterize the uprising as a whole, the harder it will become for Palestinians to pursue an alternative strategy. This is particularly so given prevailing political conditions. During the second intifada, when there was merely competition and rivalry between Fatah and Hamas rather than the formal schism that exists today, Hamas carried out suicide attacks as an expression of what it considered to be the most effective strategy. Fatah then followed suit, but primarily on the basis of internal political considerations: it didn’t want Hamas stealing its thunder. In the context of the division between Fatah and Hamas, political pressures tend toward escalation because violence is still seen as the touchstone of genuine resistance. In the absence of a unified national movement, pulling back from the stabbings and embarking on a potentially more effective, nonviolent course will prove difficult.
Yet, the possibility that the uprising could either compel existing movements toward that unification, or establish new organizations able to exert effective control over events, should not be dismissed out of hand. Over the past several years, President Mahmoud Abbas has been transforming into a Ben Ali rather than a Mubarak: someone whose rule is increasingly personalized, concentrated in a very small group of people rather than a broad sector of the elite. His brazen power grabs—most recently, an unconstitutional attempt to replace the PLO Executive Committee, and ongoing efforts to call a new Fatah General Conference, the sole purpose of which would be to expel loyalists of political rival Mohammed Dahlan—have alienated powerful constituencies. These fissures within the Palestinian elite may lead some of its factions to lend opportunistic support to popular forces in order to expose their rivals in the court of Palestinian public opinion.
If, notwithstanding formidable obstacles, Palestinians are able to unite existing power structures, or effectively act independently of them, there is a real prospect that significant gains might be won.
As so often, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip have shown the way. Sizable demonstrations have been taking place daily outside the perimeter fence. The scale of the marches remains small, but they already have Israeli officials in a panic. “The sight of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians marching toward the border fence,” reports veteran Israeli journalist Ben Caspit, “is the cause of many a nightmare for the Israeli leadership.” “Attempts to break through the fence,” another senior Israeli analyst observes, “are [the] nightmare scenario for the defense establishment”:
What will happen if thousands of Palestinians march on the fence, knock it down and continue their march into Israel? Will Israel respond with gunfire that will lead to a massacre?
One could similarly point to persistent if generally localized popular mobilizations at key junctures of the West Bank Wall, where demonstrations have been held on a weekly basis for years and could form the basis for broader challenges to the occupation.
The question for Palestinians is, how to make Israel’s “nightmare scenario” materialize. As the fears of Israeli officials testify, mass marches on the Gaza fence have enormous potential—but they cannot succeed on their own. Nonviolence ultimately worked in the American South because it embarrassed the federal government, not least before the international community, and touched the liberal sensibilities—arguably hypocritical, but that’s beside the point—of white public opinion in the North, as black people demanded no less, but also no more, than implementation of laws already in the statute books. Had nonviolent resistance remained confined to the South, local enforcers could have simply killed everyone who was resisting. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that popular mobilization will succeed in Palestine unless these conditions are fulfilled:
- Independent organization. Thus far, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have hit upon the strategy of mass nonviolent marches despite Hamas, which has largely restricted its support to calling for escalation everywhere else. This is, paradoxically, a good thing: fairly or unfairly, the marches will command significantly greater global support, particularly in the West, if they are viewed as an authentic resort to mass nonviolent resistance by the people themselves.
- International legitimacy. The UN Human Rights Council has demanded that Israel “lift, immediately and unconditionally, the blockade on Gaza”; while international human rights organizations agree that the Gaza siege “constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of…international humanitarian law” (International Committee of the Red Cross) and “must be lifted immediately” (Amnesty International). These declarations can be authoritatively wielded by protesters to defend their campaigns, and form the explicit political basis for an expanded popular campaign against the blockade.
- International solidarity. The marches cannot succeed without coordination and synchronization with the solidarity movement in the West. Israel’s defenders will present the demonstrations as terrorist hordes attempting to overrun Israel and proclaim ad nauseam Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Insofar as this propaganda takes hold, Israeli forces will be free to carry out a massacre. Mass demonstrations in Gaza will therefore require the solidarity movement to explain and defend the legitimacy of their goals; they will also represent a historic opportunity for the solidarity movement to escalate its commitment by, for example, taking direct action to shut down the United Nations headquarters in New York and Geneva, or that of the European Union in Brussels. Such organizations cannot continue with business as usual until they adopt measures to enforce the unambiguous positions of their own institutions that the Gaza siege is illegal and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally.
If Israel were confronted with mass nonviolent marches on the Gaza fence, the West Bank Wall (ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice) and occupied East Jerusalem, coordinated with large-scale direct action abroad, united under the banner of international legitimacy and determined to end the illegal siege and occupation—if all these conditions held, truly this would be Israel’s nightmare and Palestinian hopes made real.
Decisive defeat has been the fate of many, perhaps most, political movements. Nevertheless, over the past half century, regional and international regressions have repeatedly inspired a revival and reassertion of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. In their darkest moments, Palestinians have mustered the courage, the strength, and the will to keep the torch aflame. If present conditions demand sobriety about the obstacles confronting the struggle for justice in Palestine, the Palestinians’ own record of determination in the face of adversity means the prospects of overcoming these obstacles can by no means be ruled out. If we in the West do our part, this new round of resistance might yet yield a dividend for justice.
And not just for Palestinians. Israel stands at a precipice, with a deranged head of state who thrives on orchestrating national hysteria, barging in on the US Congress and directing bug-eyed stares at the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu in many ways personifies the reality that the occupation has only exacerbated the most egregious features of Israeli society.
The late Edward W. Said liked to quote the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire as saying, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” A victory for nonviolent mass civil disobedience aimed at ending the illegal occupation would be one not only for the Palestinian people and the international community, but also one for Israeli society, placing it on the path to normalcy.