Whenever the Occupied Palestinian Territories flare up, predictions of a new Palestinian intifada generally follow. But with memories of the second intifada from 2000-2005 still raw, Palestinians have demonstrated no appetite for large-scale social upheaval. Even when Israel triggers serious confrontations, the status quo has prevailed. Each conflict has remained isolated and ultimately short-lived. Despite three conflicts with Hamas in Gaza, recent years have witnessed relatively low levels of Palestinian violence.
The current state of affairs will not last indefinitely. It would be wrong to think that a new generation of Palestinians will continue to tolerate Israel’s policy of dispossession and humiliation. The use of indiscriminate force once again against Gaza’s civilians has already caused an uptick in violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. With the Palestinian Authority’s credibility at an all time low, many fear that an uncontrollable explosion of popular anger could snowball into an uprising against both Israel and the PA.
Identifying the precise trigger for a new intifada would require considerable divination. On previous occasions, these have been black swan events. In 1987, an Israeli army truck crashed at the Erez Crossing; in 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Haram Al-Sharif. As with most historical events, the beginning of an uprising is not a clearly defined moment. Rather tensions gradually erupt as part of a deeper popular mobilization against the occupation.
Looking at the situation in the Palestinian territories, the conditions for another uprising are clearly present. Israel’s offensive against Gaza is occurring against the backdrop of riots in East Jerusalem, in response to the torture and killing of Mohammed Abu Khudair. This summer, Israeli forces also killed several Palestinians during the largest protests in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada. Further escalations include Israeli settlers’ killing of two Palestinians in the village of Huwwara, anti-Arab lynch mobs in Israel, and Palestinian lone-wolf attacks. The atmosphere is very volatile.
Israeli/Palestinian security cooperation is one reason that the West Bank has remained relatively calm. The Palestinian Authority has clamped down on large-scale protests. During recent attempts to march on Israeli settlements, PA security forces have disbanded demonstrations before they have the chance to build up critical momentum.
For Palestinians, this is a period of frustration over the status quo, limited political horizons, and the hollowing out of Palestinian democratic institutions. Anger toward the Palestinian Authority is growing. In response, President Mahmoud Abbas has attempted to prop up his nationalist credentials by playing a more prominent role in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Yet the PA has been complicit in Israel’s crackdown on Hamas operatives and infrastructure in the West Bank. The PA is loath to hand out a victory that could be used against it, especially if the Islamist group is able to claim a win for standing up to Israel and easing the siege on Gaza.
In light of the inability of the U.S.-led peace process to deliver a viable state, Palestinians are now confronted with two choices: Should they resume armed resistance or instead adopt a campaign similar to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement? What’s more, the ultimate objective will have to be defined: should they stick to demanding two states or should they call for equality within a binational state?
There is every reason to hope that Palestinians will choose the path of nonviolence. Many privately acknowledge that the second intifada achieved very little besides squandering the international good will earned during the first uprising.
For clashes and protests to translate into anything meaningful they will need to be driven by more thanemotion and impulse. A new liberation strategy requires a strong and vibrant Palestinian civil society. The twenty years since the Oslo Accords have, however, witnessed its fracturing by the PLO and Israel, both of which saw it as a rival to their own hegemony. Western donor policies have contributed to further demobilization and de-politicization. As a result, Palestinian civil society is currently unable to mobilize Palestinians behind a common vision.
Israel has always found it easier to respond to violence with violence. In this domain, Israel enjoys a military advantage, international impunity, and, thus, the upper hand. That’s why the most effective strategy for challenging Israel’s occupation is a nonviolent Palestinian civil rights-based initiative that couldg alvanize international support by modeling itself on the ANC’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Such a campaign should leverage the growing success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement among European publics. Ultimately, Palestinians will require a new liberation strategy based on national consensus to challenge the Oslo negotiation paradigm.
Hugh Lovatt is Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations.