For the past year, Palestinian, Israeli, US, and UN officials have been warning of the possibility of another Intifada. Perhaps a sign that this is unlikely is that the 14th anniversary of the last uprising – which has literally and figuratively changed the landscape ever since – went by largely unnoticed a few days ago.
That is not to say the warnings are unfounded. There is a very real and growing sense of Palestinian exasperation with their continuously deteriorating situation. They endure daily colonisation, dispossession, apartheid, violence, blockade, and occupation – the longest in modern history.
Every aspect of their lives is controlled by a foreign power that is determined to deny them their individual and national rights. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rules out a Palestinian state and denies the very existence of the occupation, most recently this week at the UN.
Palestinian anger has markedly increased amid the recent Israeli onslaught against Gaza and previously, against the West Bank. However, the current conditions – while intolerable – are not ripe for another uprising, particularly compared with those that existed 14 years ago.
An Intifada would require a level of national unity that simply does not exist today. The reconciliation deal between the main Palestinian factions may have ended years of outright hostility on paper, but on the ground, the process has been shaky ever since it was signed several months ago, amid reciprocal accusations and Israeli sabotage.
No closer to statehood
Whereas previous Intifadas have been directed solely at Israel, another one may well also target the Palestinian Authority. There is widespread public frustration at its failure to improve the daily lives of its people, or to bring them any closer to statehood despite more than 20 years of negotiations.
There is also rising anger at the PA’s refusal so far to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, or to endorse the increasingly effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attracted public outrage with his statement in May that security coordination with Israel was “sacred”. This has cemented the widely held view that his role, and that of the PA, is to manage the occupation rather than end it.
So if previous uprisings directed solely at Israel were unable to win the Palestinians their legitimate rights, success is even less likely if popular efforts have to be split between two antagonists working together.
Also, the Palestinian geographic split is more marked than ever. During previous Intifadas, Gaza had a reputation for being particularly unruly (no doubt a consideration in Israel’s withdrawal from the territory). Now, as Gaza is hermetically sealed off and under Israeli blockade, its people are physically unable to challenge Israeli authority. This excludes half the population of the occupied territories from any cohesive national struggle, allowing Israel to focus on crushing opposition in the West Bank.
But it gets worse. Previous Intifadas were supported by Palestinian leaders (not controlled by them, as Israeli propaganda would have people believe). Another one not only looks likely to lack the PA’s support, but it seems the Authority would actively oppose it. Foreign Minister Riad Malki has made a grotesque assurance that as long as Abbas is in charge, “there will be no third Intifada”. Perhaps this is an implicit acknowledgement by the PA that it would be targeted along with Israel.
For all its bluster, Hamas is in no position currently to take part in an uprising. It suffered heavy losses in Gaza, and has been driven underground in the West Bank by Israel and the PA. The national unity deal stipulates a formal return of Hamas to the West Bank (a far larger territory than Gaza), so the faction may not want to jeopardise this, particularly with opinion polls showing that it would win presidential and parliamentary elections, which are the end goal of the deal.
Even if Hamas backed an Intifada, it would favour a militarised one, despite such an approach already having failed against a much stronger foe. Such an uprising would be far more difficult this time round because the PA has disarmed militants in the West Bank.
Lack of unified strategy
Having said that, it is hard to see how non-violent resistance on the ground would be more effective, as years of peaceful protests and civil disobedience have been crushed by Israel and ignored by the international community. As such, Palestinians lack a coherent, unified strategy for a successful uprising, as neither approach has delivered.
Whatever strategies they use would be far more difficult to implement than before, given that the West Bank is more geographically fragmented than ever. It is sliced up by Israel’s barrier (which did not exist during the previous uprisings), checkpoints and settlements infrastructure (which is more entrenched than ever). As such, it would be a challenge for Palestinians from different locations to physically come together, let alone confront the Israelis, who have pursued a classic divide-and-rule policy.
Another Intifada would likely see fewer acts of overt solidarity, such as demonstrations, from Israel’s sizable minority of Palestinian citizens, who were shot dead and rounded up for doing so last time. Their status in Israel – which has never been better than second-class – is more beleaguered and uncertain than ever.
They live amid an increasingly right-wing society and polity that is eager to encourage their departure or forcibly expel them. Overtly supporting their occupied kin would provide a convenient excuse. In addition, the Israeli peace camp and left wing, which may sympathise with Palestinian aspirations, have dwindled to near-insignificance over the years.
Resisting Israel is difficult enough without the PA’s connivance and the lack of national unity that liberation would require. The price paid previously has been enormous – under current circumstances, it would be much higher.
Amid rising Palestinian anger, the anniversary of their last uprising may have been expected to galvanise calls for another one. That has not come to pass, but complacency over their worsening plight would be a grave mistake. Odds and consequences mean little when a people have nothing left to lose.