Could there be a third intifada?
WORLD VIEW:Palestinians and commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frequently ask whether a third Palestinian intifada is likely given the high levels of Israeli settlements and occupation provocations in the West Bank, the impasse in political negotiations and the changing external context of the Arab uprisings.
Recent polls show a sharp increase in Palestinian support for renewed military or violent action. Many believe it will be triggered by prisoners’ hunger strikes, settler violence or attacks on holy places.
The first intifada (literally meaning “shaking off” in Arabic, but usually translated as uprising or violent resistance) from December 1987 to 1993 led to the Oslo talks. The second, from 2000 to 2005, began when those talks collapsed and ended with Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.
How realistic is the growing popular belief that another round of violence would force Israel to reach an agreement? The intifadas were incredibly violent periods involving deaths, stonings, torture, huge numbers of adult and child injuries, destruction of houses and farms, army raids, arbitrary imprisonments, rocket attacks and suicide bombings.
The second intifada left Palestinians badly scarred in terms of lives lost, jailings and injuries and bitterly divided between the Palestinian Authority ruled by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas dominant in Gaza.
The seven years of relative peace since then convinced most Palestinians the price of a renewed intifada was too high in human terms and that non-violent means of protest had more potential to succeed.
But the relentless consolidation and expansion of Israeli settlements, and the right-wing drift of Israeli politics towards indefinite occupation of the West Bank and harsh containment of Gaza, have shifted attitudes.
Added to this is the perceived complacency towards renewed negotiations of the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, alongside a Palestinian leadership regarded as incapable and ineffective.
The uprisings in the Arab world seemed to pass Palestinians by, while they reinforced official Israel’s siege mentality.
The creeping apartheid revealed by this week’s announcement of a separate bus service for Palestinian workers coming to Israel from the West Bank confirms these trends.
Two polls taken in December last and another published this week express the Palestinian frustration. Support for or expectation of armed resistance grows 20 to 30 points to 50 to 60 per cent in the polls, partly reflecting the last round of rocket exchanges between Gaza and Israel, which Hamas is regarded as having won. Support for its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, grows substantially compared to that for Abbas.
And yet the picture is more complex. Most Palestinians still prefer a negotiated two- state agreement based on a halt to settlements and non- violence. They support the reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas. There would be roughly even support for the two in elections, though Fatah still has the edge.
Triggers that could catalyse an explosion are plainly there in hunger strikes among the 4,800 Palestinian prisoners, in the death of one of them, Arafat Jaradat, in custody after alleged torture, and in the escalating violence of occupation repression and settler activism.
But although these have attracted widespread attention, well-informed reporters such as Ha’aretz’s Amira Hass say the levels of protest do not yet approach those of 1987 or 2000. The question is not why there has not been another intifada, Hass argues, but why there is still not enough Palestinian support for one.
There are signs these dangers are increasingly appreciated among Israeli, Palestinian and external leaders. Netanyahu has included relative doves in his forthcoming coalition, acknowledging the centrist shift in January’s elections.
He is exploring recognising the Palestinians as a non-member state of the United Nations, as accepted by the General Assembly last year, in return for their acceptance of the settlements. This would boost his standing with US president Barack Obama, who visits Israel next month, and with European governments impatient for resumed talks. It could attract Abbas’s support if linked to more regular flows of tax revenue, which Israel has been withholding.
Behind-the-scenes talks – between Israeli and Egyptian army officers on keeping their peace treaty in place; between the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and Hamas over Gaza borders; and between Fatah and Hamas on reconciliation – show they all appreciate the volatility of the setting. Events in Syria, Iran and Jordan bear this out.
Whether their efforts can resurrect such a damaged and discredited peace process remains an open question.