Palestinian protesters run for cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 11, 2015. Four Israelis and 23 Palestinians have died in 12 days of bloodshed fueled in part by Muslim anger over increasing Jewish access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. Violence has spread from the holy city and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to Israel's interior and Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

­Masked gunmen affiliated with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction marched through the streets of Ramallah in early October, firing automatic weapons into the air as crowds gathered to film the procession. The imagery harked back to the days of the second intifada, when the Palestinian leadership openly coordinated violence against Israel. Since then, lone-wolf stabbings, rocket attacks, and clashes with Israelis have left scores dead in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Yet for all the talk of a third intifada, the likelihood of another uprising is roughly the same as it is on any other day in this blood-soaked conflict.

Historically, an intifada occurs when the Palestinian leadership openly endorses and coordinates widespread resistance, as the local committees (and later the Palestine Liberation Organization) did during the first intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s and as Abbas’ predecessor, Yasir Arafat, did during the second intifada of the last decade. Abbas’ rise marked the end of the second uprising, as he worked to rein in the terror cells of his own Fatah movement and of its rival, Hamas, in the West Bank. As he made clear in a meeting of senior officials last Tuesday, the Palestinians will use “peaceful means and nothing else” in their conflict with Israel.

That doesn’t mean Abbas isn’t preparing for a fight; it just means his fight isn’t with the Israelis. It is, instead, with Hamas. In the West Bank, it is Hamas that is looking to provoke further instability and anti-Abbas sentiment. As Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has sought to diffuse tensions with Israel, Hamas has openly incited public protests and terror attacks across the West Bank in the hopes that further unrest will push an already vulnerable Abbas out of power.

AN ONGOING CYCLE

The current cycle of violence began in July, when Israeli settlers firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank, killing an 18-month-old child and his parents. Hamas officials called for protests, with one official declaring that every Israeli was a “legitimate target” for retaliation. In September, tensions on Jerusalem’s contested al Aqsa compound led Hamas to declare a “day of rage” in the West Bank, where several Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israelis. A week later, two Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron were killed after confrontations with Israeli soldiers, and at their funerals, Hamas again called for violent protests against Israel.

The violence escalated last week when gunmen killed an Israeli couple driving with their four children in the West Bank. Initial reports suggested that the group behind the attack was the Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni Brigades—a fringe terror group within Fatah that mostly operates out of Gaza. However, Israel’s defense minister announced days later that a Hamas cell was behind the attack and that the culprits had been arrested. Hamas officials praised the perpetrators, calling the attack “a natural reaction to Israeli crimes” and urging for continued “struggle against the occupation.” Within days, multiple stabbings left several Israelis dead in East Jerusalem, and the Old City was cordoned off to all Palestinians except those who live there.

Yet for all the talk of a third intifada, the likelihood of another uprising is roughly the same as it is on any other day in this blood-soaked conflict.
Beyond Jerusalem, however, violence continued last week. Palestinian lone-wolf assailants stabbed Israelis in several cities across the country. Two Gazans died after protests at the Erez crossing with Israel. A 17-year-old was killed during a protest in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. A 13-year-old Palestinian was also killed in the West Bank city of Bethlehem after clashes with the Israeli army. In response, Fatah called for a general strike in the city last Tuesday. The boy’s funeral triggered clashes with Israeli forces that injured dozens.

The differences between Fatah and Hamas have driven the current unrest. Tensions between the two have run high since 2006, when Hamas won legislative elections and subsequently fought a brief civil war that left the Islamist group in control of the Gaza Strip but kept its Fatah rivals as the dominant force in the West Bank. Normally, their rivalry is limited to rhetorical barbs. But since the two parties formed a unity government last year, their competition has escalated into a political arms race in the West Bank. The collapse of that unity government this summer has fueled the recent spate of violence across the West Bank and Israel.

Mourners carry the body of 13-year-old Palestinian boy Abdel-Rahman Abeidallah, who was shot by Israeli troops
Mourners carry the body of 13-year-old Palestinian boy Abdel-Rahman Abeidallah, who was shot by Israeli troops, in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, October 2015. 
Mussa Qawasma / Reuters

The U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2013 and 2014 were put on life support when Abbas decided to join several dozen international organizations in April of last year, defying U.S. and Israeli warnings that such moves would undermine the peace process. The negotiations’ death knell, however, came a few weeks later with the surprise announcement of a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas.

Nonetheless, no sooner had the government formed in June 2014 than a Hamas cell in the West Bank kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. Abbas, feeling duped by his newfound Hamas partners, gave Israel carte blanche to arrest the organization’s cells in the ensuing manhunt. Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza in response, ultimately leading to a devastating 50-day summer war with Israel.

Abbas and Israel will avoid another intifada largely because Abbas and Hamas will not agree on one.
Hamas emerged from the war riding a wave of mass public support, whereas Abbas looked ineffectual and distant. He had been tricked by Hamas and now found himself in the unenviable position of having to raise funds for Gaza’s reconstruction. The slow rate of that reconstruction, moreover, led many Palestinians to believe he simply didn’t care about Gazans. Abbas attempted to regain the momentum from Hamas with a diplomatic counteroffensive at the UN General Assembly, where he accused Israel of committing “genocide” and threatened to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN Security Council. In December, he put the Palestinians on the path to joining the International Criminal Court.

But weeks after finally acceding to the ICC in April 2015, Hamas reemerged with a major victory in the student elections at the West Bank’s largest university. It was Hamas’ first triumph over Fatah at Birzeit University since the civil war between the two parties in 2007. Since the last elections were in 2006, many Palestinian observers saw the student elections as the only accurate barometer of public opinion. Abbas’ allies must have thought the same. Two other student elections at Palestinian universities were postponed indefinitely, while Fatah’s Saeb Erekat lamented: “We lost big . . . my house feels suffocated.”

The unity government was essentially dead at that point. Abbas’ security forces raided a Hamas cell in Hebron that May, and Hamas responded by calling for an investigation of Abbas’ top adviser. In July, Abbas dismantled the unity government with Hamas and reassembled the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet with loyalists. Hamas blasted the move as “unconstitutional” and called it a “coup” against the government. Within weeks, the attack at Duma would plunge the West Bank into a maelstrom.

ABBAS' NEXT MOVE

As Hamas escalates its actions in the West Bank, Abbas has few options. His Fatah party is arguably weaker now than at any point in the Oslo period. The group’s nationalist, pro-diplomacy brand may be losing its appeal among Palestinians: a recent poll found that Fatah’s popularity has plunged in the West Bank as Hamas’ has risen. Rumors are swirling that the group is facing a serious financial crisis. The party is divided along not only a generational gap, but a growing rift between Abbas loyalists and reformers. Those in the latter category are attempting to force a successor on the 80-year-old leader, who has so far refused to appoint a deputy. With no successor, strategy, or way to combat Hamas’ growing appeal, Fatah is on unsteady ground.

Yet for all the talk of a third intifada, the likelihood of another uprising is roughly the same as it is on any other day in this blood-soaked conflict.

That tenuous standing is why Abbas desperately wants to maintain calm with the Israelis. He may warn the UN about annulling the Oslo Accords, but his dud of a “bombshell” was less about threatening Israel than it was a desperate appeal to maintain relevance at home. His competition with Hamas has painted him into a corner, and the only means he has to challenge the group’s “resistance” bona fides is his international campaign against Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas holds a Palestinian flag at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, September 2015.
Mahmoud Abbas holds a Palestinian flag at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, September 2015.
Andrew Kelly / Reuters

But Palestinians may not be buying it anymore. As one teenager in a West Bank refugee camp told a reporter: “Nobody here cares about Abu Mazen’s speech.” Palestinians know his threats to cut ties with Israel are hollow: at a time when the Israelis are uncovering Hamas coups against Abbas, the Palestinian leader’s continued cooperation with them is a matter of self-preservation.

So Abbas will attempt to consolidate control wherever he has power left. After reshuffling the Palestinian Authority to his liking in July, he fired a longtime antagonist as his number two in the PLO in favor of a loyalist, Saeb Erekat. He then attempted to organize a mass resignation of the PLO’s highest decision-making body, the Executive Committee, in order to reshuffle the deck there as well. Yet his rivals in the PLO rebuffed his move, and Abbas will have to wait until the PLO convenes its parliament later this year to pick new leadership. In the meantime, Abbas will focus on the Fatah conference next month, where the party will also hold internal elections. At the last conference in 2009, Abbas forced out rivals while rewarding his allies with senior positions. The conference galvanized the base and led to an upsurge in support for Fatah across the West Bank. No doubt Abbas is looking for a similar outcome amid an escalating battle with Hamas.

It is clear Abbas lacks full control over Palestinian politics in the West Bank, and so long as Hamas can orchestrate attacks against Israelis, the group can continue to undermine any prospect for lasting quiet. Abbas and Israel will avoid another intifada largely because Abbas and Hamas will not agree on one.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now