/ 8 October 2015

This unrest evokes a third intifada

Palestinian and Israeli violence is seeing civilians stabbing one another in Jerusalem’s Old City
Palestinian and Israeli violence is seeing civilians stabbing one another in Jerusalem’s Old City

A weekend of febrile violence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem has led to growing fears of a third Palestinian intifada. One of the latest victims was a 13-year-old boy killed by Israeli forces – the second youth to be killed in 24 hours. Four Israelis were killed by Palestinians last weekend.

There is concern among diplomats and analysts that the escalating violence could turn into a new intifada.

That Sunday, the front page of one mass-circulation newspaper said simply: “The Third Intifada.” Elsewhere in the Israeli media, columnists were more circumspect. Some asked whether the latest events fitted the pattern of the two previous intifadas, in 1987 and 2000, and if not, how things could be curbed before becoming one.

Not only in the Israeli media has the question been asked. Speaking to Palestinian Radio last Sunday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, said he was reminded of the first days of the second intifada. He said: “Experience shows us that Israel cannot prevent Palestinian freedom by forceful measures.”

The issue was raised in public by diplomats, including the German foreign ministry, before a visit to Berlin by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “What possibly awaits us here is something like a new intifada,” said foreign ministry spokesperson, Martin Schäfer. “That can’t be in anyone’s interest – it can’t be something anyone in Israel wants, or which any responsible Palestinian politician wants.”

Jerusalem’s Old City was under an unprecedented two-day closure to Palestinians not resident in it. On the West Bank’s roads, Jewish settlers and Palestinians were stoning cars. At the entrance to the northern West Bank city of Nablus last Monday, Israeli soldiers milled at a checkpoint.

But none of this answers whether an intifada has begun or may be coming. Part of the problem is definitional. The second intifada saw the co-option of Palestinian security forces into the violence and widespread endorsement by rival political factions, something yet to occur this time. This intifada differed in many ways from the first, meaning past intifadas are not reliable indicators of what the next might look like.

What can be said – as political scientist Khalil Shikaki argued after the release last month of the most recent survey by his organisation, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research – is there appears to be the same dissatisfaction in Palestinian society in evidence at the second intifada’s outbreak.

The poll found 42% of respondents believe only an armed struggle would lead to Palestinian statehood; two-thirds want Mahmoud Abbas to step down as president.

It also indicated that the majority of Palestinians no longer believe a two-state solution is realistic: 57% say they support a return to an armed intifada in the absence of peace negotiations, up from 49% three months ago.

“If a spark comes along, there is absolutely no doubt that the Palestinian situation today is very, very fertile for a major eruption,” Shikaki said.

But it is not yet clear whether Palestinian society – which paid a huge price in the last intifada for little gain – is united in a desire for another prolonged period of unrest.

Unlike the last uprising, triggered by a visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, to the flashpoint Jerusalem religious site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, recent violence is still largely sporadic, characterised not by suicide bombings but by “lone wolf” attacks.

The violence has yet to reach the level of that intifada, in which more than 40 Palestinians were killed and almost 2?000 injured in the first days. But how a pattern of lethal violence, funerals, clashes and revenge appears to be building into a cycle is familiar.

Writing in Ha’aretz, columnist Anshel Pfeffer said this worried him: not that the violence was unique, but that it had begun to merge into some kind of constant. “When the spikes come fast and furious, and so close to each other that the lulls in between are barely noticeable, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the shift has already happened and maybe the third intifada has already been going on for a year or so?”

He said another reason a third intifada could differ had to with a spike in Jewish extremism. “Another characteristic of the next (or current) intifada could certainly be the increasing prevalence of Jewish ‘price tag’ operations, such as the arson attack that murdered three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma two months ago.”

This unrest hasn’t been limited to the West Bank; it’s also been present in east Jerusalem, since last summer.

In the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm, mourners gathering for the funeral of 18-year-old Huthayfa Othman Suleiman – killed by Israeli forces during a clash on Sunday evening – pondered the same issue: whether an intifada was coming and, if it was, what it would mean.

As Suleiman was buried, speakers referred to their anger that Palestinian security forces had held back popular protest. They referred to recent tensions at al-Aqsa mosque, in the Noble Sanctuary, which have driven the escalating violence.

Among the mourners was Hassan Qureishi, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

“Up to this point I don’t believe it is an intifada. An angry uprising, yes,” he said. “What it does not have is a political decision to back it and political cover. That is not in our hands but those of Abu Mazen [the popular name for Abbas]. Under pressure, he might have to make that decision.”

Qureishi said that would require Abbas to end the Palestinian Authority’s continuing security co-operation with Israel, a point at which he could see an intifada beginning in earnest.

Qureishi, like others, also points to a generational split: those Palestinians in their early 20s and younger, who have grown up since the Oslo peace accords, appear more likely to feel they have reaped no benefit from the moribund peace process.

At the cemetery, Ibrahim Hamdan (50) was more pessimistic. The owner of an electrical supply business, he said he suffered a huge financial loss in the second intifada but he would be willing to pay that price again.

“There won’t be a change [in the Israeli attitude] so it will get worse and worse. There are already signs that say a third intifada will occur. What do you expect? We have nothing left to lose. It is not pessimism; it is just reality. Something different needs to happen.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015