All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
In the last month, unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories has claimed more than 46 lives—39 Palestinian and 7 Israeli. Some Palestinians have called the unrest the beginning of the third intifada, harking back to the iconic Palestinian uprisings that erupted in the late 1980s and again in the early 2000s. The hashtag for many of the pictures and messages about the recent unrest is #الإنتفاضة_مستمرة (#ongoingintifada) or #الإنتفاضة_الثالثة (#thirdintifada). Likewise, Shabakat al-Quds al-Akhbariya, a Palestinian news network, has used the term in their ongoing coverage. But many analysts are skeptical. In his recent Foreign Affairs article, for example, Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued that there is little political endorsement for violence against Israelis, and so “the likelihood of another uprising is roughly the same as it is on any other day in this blood-soaked conflict.”
It is true that there has been little political coordination between the Palestinian Authority (led by Fatah) and the opposition (including, but not limited to, Hamas). But there are factions within each bloc. And even though the Palestinian president has called for non-violence, many within his own party disagree, seeing nonviolence as a way to prolong an unsustainable status quo. In other words, the recent wave of violence could yet erupt into something more, with major consequences for Palestinian politics and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The two previous intifadas did not involve much political coordination. The first erupted at the grassroots level. A unified leadership did eventually coalesce to coordinate the intifada’s objectives, but that came after the fact. Conservatively measured, the first intifada lasted for four years and achieved a major objective at that time: bringing Israel to the negotiating table.
The second intifada erupted as a result of perceived Israeli provocations, but it was never helmed by a unified leadership. Allegations that Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasir Arafat purposely launched the second intifada have proved unfounded; Arafat couldn’t have stopped them even if he had wanted to. Despite fractionalization and lack of coordination, the second intifada lasted for close to five years.
There are, of course, differences between the two cases in terms of character and of outcome. The first intifada was mostly nonviolent and eventually came to be highly coordinated. The second featured an upsurge in violent methods, including suicide bombings. In retrospect, it also achieved fewer political gains for the Palestinians. Those differences say little about the possibilities for a third intifada, yet they do show that Palestinian uprisings can happen with our without a strong leadership.
This is not to say that a third intifada is inevitable. The duration of the latest unrest really depends on the effectiveness of the Israeli response.
The mobilization pattern during this latest wave of unrest has been markedly different from that of the previous few years. The Oslo agreements of 1994 and 1995 were intended to inhibit violence and insulate Israel from the Palestinian population by providing some limited form of self-rule. Over time, this paradigm has increasingly fragmented the Palestinian territories. And so, particularly following the second intifada, the PA and Israel have been able to stave off major unrest, with mobilization limited to certain areas (such as Jerusalem and other hotspots of international activism). Meanwhile, the West Bank stayed relatively quiet. For instance, although political activists called for a major mobilization in response to Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014, few Palestinians heeded the call in a sustained manner.
But in the latest wave of unrest, Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, and even within Israel are protesting in large numbers for the first time in years. Although attacks on Israeli soldiers have occurred only along the fault lines, protests and clashes have been reported across the territories. Judging from the pattern of mobilization, in other words, this may be something more than just another day in the conflict.
The Oslo paradigm might have insulated Israel, but it created conditions that are unlivable for many Palestinian citizens. The stalled final negotiations following Oslo have given pro-settler Israeli groups time and space to increase their activity. This has led to friction between the two populations. Increased vigilantism on the part of the settlers and the seemingly futile political wrangling of the Palestinian parties have led to a crucial moment: Palestinians are fed up. They see no hope in politics as usual. Despite lack of leadership, they will no longer be deterred from large-scale protests.
This is not to say that a third intifada is inevitable. The duration of the latest unrest really depends on the effectiveness of the Israeli response. But a Palestinian intifada is definitely not dead in the water.