Paul Pillar

The Next Intifada

A piece by Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group calls attention to the possibility that we may be on the verge of a third Palestinian uprising or intifada. The first intifada, between 1987 and 1993, included many forms of nonviolent resistance against Israeli occupation but took a violent turn in the form of stone-throwing and forceful Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian protests. The second intifada, which began in 2000 and petered out in about 2005, was more violent. Casualties in the second round included about 5,500 Palestinians killed and around 1,100 Israelis (Arabs as well as Jews) also dead. A third round would entail the danger of extending this bloody trend.

The circumstances that Thrall argues could lead to a third intifada include Palestinian disillusionment with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's longstanding attempt to use security cooperation with Israel as a way of winning Israeli confidence and, based on that, hoped-for Israeli willingness to move toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However confident Israelis may have gotten about their security, each passing year has shown that this confidence does not translate after all into Israeli willingness to move toward Palestinian statehood. Ironically, notes Thrall, the very success of the security cooperation led on the Palestinian side by Abbas has given many Israelis “the luxury of forgetting that there is an occupation at all.” Many Israelis now evidently believe that they really can enjoy a Jewish democracy and cling to the West Bank, especially if the demographic equation can be altered by hiving off the Gaza Strip.

Against this unpromising current reality, increasing numbers of Palestinians are inclined to perceive effectiveness in some of the violence in the past. Intifada number one, according to this perspective, led Israel to sign the Oslo accords of 1993. Lethal attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon led the Israelis to withdraw from the southern part of that country. And, according to this same perspective, the violence of the second intifada led Ariel Sharon to pull out of Gaza and stimulated such international responses as George W. Bush declaring support for Palestinian statehood. Even if these perspectives are invalid, such reasoning ought to be unsurprising to Israelis who habitually argue that their own adversaries “understand only force.”

The danger of a third intifada is indeed real, even though the timing of one breaking out is unpredictable. Timing would depend on specific events (such as Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount in 2000) providing a spark that would ignite a combustible atmosphere. It also would depend on how much disillusionment sets in not only with Abbas's strategy but also with the effectiveness of the nonviolent protest methods that Palestinians recently have been trying. Contagion effects from Arab Spring unrest elsewhere in the region constitute another source of unpredictability. Perhaps a third intifada would start, somewhat similar to the first intifada, as largely nonviolent forms of resistance but then, amid a spiral of crackdowns and responses, quickly take a much more violent course.

Despite the uncertainties, outside powers need to anticipate a third intifada. It will be ugly, and it will be contrary to the cause of peace in the Middle East. A new intifada would not be the acting out of anyone's plan for obtaining a positive result but instead would be, like the two previous intifadas, mostly an unplanned and destructive outburst of anger and frustration.

Perceptions of supposed past effectiveness of violence against Israel are based on misinterpretations of the events in question. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon holds few lessons for the disposition of territory that many supporters of the current Israeli government consider part of Eretz Israel. Responses by the United States and others to the second intifada involved too many other influences and variables to draw good conclusions. The evacuation of Gaza, regardless of what Sharon's original intentions were, now serves more as a facilitating basis for holding on to the West Bank than as a precedent for giving it up. The first intifada was part of the background to the peace process that began with Madrid conference and the Oslo accords, but so were other factors. One was active engagement of the United States, beginning with the George H.W. Bush administration. The other was inspired leadership by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin's assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process, we have not seen comparable leadership.

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