Gearing up for a Third Intifada, or Has it Started Already? (Hard Questions Tough Answers- December 5th, 2022)

Q. The First Intifada transpired from late 1987 to 1993-94. The Second, 2000-2005. Is there some law of nature, or of the conflict, that dictates a Third Intifada now?

A. No law of nature, but lots of worrisome signs and developments. These begin with the weakening of Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ages, and conclude with the fascist, racist nature of Israel’s emerging new government, particularly where West Bank settlement and Jewish ‘values’ are concerned.

In between, there are lots of less compelling signs that, taken together, also become compelling. Gaza-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are concentrating their energies, with Iranian backing, on cultivating violence against Israelis on the West Bank while maintaining relative quiet in the Strip. They have ostensibly overriding economic and social reasons for quiet in Gaza: the income and stability generated by the employment of nearly 20,000 Gazan day-laborers in Israel. Remarkably, senior Hamas official Mahmoud a-Zahar stated in October, “I am against conducting periodic wars in Gaza [against Israel], but there must be periodic wars in the West Bank.”

Even without encouragement and bankrolling from Hamas and PIJ, or possibly with their behind-the-scenes backing, we are witnessing spontaneous efforts among young Palestinians on the West Bank to create new, ostensibly ‘unaffiliated’ paramilitary and terrorist units: first the ‘Lions’ Den’ in Nablus, and more recently the “Jenin Brigade’.

Not surprisingly, the level of violence has risen sharply; the IDF has killed more Palestinians on the West Bank in the past year than since 2016; 12 over the past week alone. The year 2022 has thus far witnessed a tripling of live fire incidents on the West Bank compared to 2021, with the vast majority involving attacks on the Israeli military, not civilians.

Sixty-five percent of IDF combat units have seen service in the West Bank since the current ‘Breaking the Waves’ campaign began in March of this year in response to a wave of lethal attacks inside Israel. Small wonder the IDF is planning to call up more cohorts of reserves in the months ahead, for deployment on the West Bank.

Apropos those young West Bank Palestinian men who are signing up to mysterious new ‘independent’ para-military units, note that most are too young to recall the Second Intifada, hence are not directly deterred by memories of the punishment the IDF inflicted on Palestinians back then in response to suicide bombings. Indeed, the young Palestinians are almost certainly energized and encouraged by the popular displays of support for the Palestinian cause and the enmity toward Israel that Israeli soccer fans have encountered on the streets of Doha over the past two weeks. Gulf governments may be prepared to work with Israel, but the soccer World Cup has been a reminder that the Arab ‘street’ remains loudly pro-Palestinian.

Q. How central are issues of morale and ideology to a new intifada?

A. On the Israeli side, not a few IDF troops in the West Bank are apparently inspired by prospective finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and prospective ‘national security’ minister Itamar Ben Gvir to adopt a more militant attitude toward Palestinians. And the ‘hill youth’ who populate the settlement outposts that are about to be legalized are also more likely now to adopt militia-like behavior. Their challenge? With official or semi-official backing, to expel Palestinians and take their land.

On the Palestinian side, the anger this inspires is bolstered by a generally militant attitude among youth who are increasingly despairing of the goal of a two-state solution. Here it is useful to recall Palestinian attitudes during the First Intifada, which caught the IDF completely by surprise after 20 years of ostensibly peaceful occupation.

At the time, I was drafted to adopt a non-Israeli journalist persona and interview newly-jailed Palestinian demonstrators, rock-throwers and their leaders. My mission? Find out how they describe their goals and demands to an ostensibly non-partisan outside observer. My finding? To a man, they all demanded a two-state solution. Nothing more.

Back then, Hamas was just emerging and PIJ was nonexistent. Both oppose a two-state solution and advocate Israel’s disappearance. Today, after 55 years of occupation and two intifadas, I have no doubt that a similar exercise would produce far more extreme demands from Palestinian youth.

Q. How are Abu Mazen’s age and weakening grip making matters worse?

Palestinian Authority security forces, which normally cooperate with the IDF and the Shin Bet in maintaining order in the West Bank, are losing both motivation and confidence in Abu Mazen’s capacity to back them up. They have to a large extent lost control over the northern West Bank where Jenin and Nablus are located, in favor of Hamas, PIJ and ostensibly independent armed Palestinian militias. This helps explain why the IDF needs so many reserve reinforcements.

Then too, thanks to the Abraham Accords the PA is no longer readily able to call upon Arab leaders to back up its demands vis-à-vis Israel. The Palestinian powers-that-be in Ramallah duly noted the message sent by the warm reception for Ben Gvir at the UAE ambassador’s annual independence day reception. That was a message to Washington, too: in view of your perceived withdrawal from the region, we may just have to live with the Israelis as they are: warts (of occupation and messianism) and all; we need them as insurance against Iran.

Q. Lets move to the anticipated effect of the incoming Israeli government on Palestinian readiness to escalate to a full-fledged intifada. What are the trigger issues?

A. Two widely anticipated actions likely to be undertaken at an early stage by the fascist-racist wing of the new Netanyahu government should be understood as serious provocations in Palestinian eyes: legalizing some 70 already violent outposts, and escalating the Jewish presence, presumably for prayer, on the Temple Mount.

Incoming minister of finance (with responsibility for settlements) Smotrich is planning to legalize the outposts, all in Area C (60 percent) of the West Bank. This will energize the settler movement to create additional outposts, and will energize the outpost settlers to project even greater violence against their Arab neighbors. That is one almost certain provocation.

As for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, a move trumpeted by Ben Gvir, Palestinians are already gearing up to oppose it violently. Note that the Temple Mount is understood, esplanade and all, by the Palestinians as constituting in its entirety a mosque--al-Aqsa Mosque--and that Jewish prayer in this, the third holiest site of Islam, even in open areas, is understood as a virtual casus belli. Here is Akrama Sabri, chief preacher of the al-Aqsa Mosque and former mufti of Jerusalem, declaring that the Palestinian people will not allow Israel “to violate the sanctity of the mosque”. Recall that it was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount esplanade alone in September 2000 that triggered the Second Intifada.

Then too, opposition to Netanyahu’s new government on the part of that half of the Israeli public which did not vote for it, could be a factor contributing to escalation of a new intifada. Incoming prime minister Netanyahu is well aware that his extreme right-wing coalition partners plan to change not only the West Bank, but Israeli civil society as well: the education system, LGBTQ rights, Jewish pluralism, the right of return for Diaspora Jews, etc. Indeed, it is these demands by Ben Gvir, Smotrich and their allies that generate the most anger among secular, traditional and moderate Orthodox Israelis.

Accordingly, Netanyahu is reassuring Israel and the world that in these areas he will restrain his coalition partners. So where will he give Ben Gvir and Smotrich a freer hand? In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Israelis opposing Netanyahu rarely tread. If violence there escalates to an intifada, many Israelis won’t feel the difference: only reservists being called up, along with the contractors building the West Bank security fence ever higher and stronger in the hope of keeping growing Palestinian violence out of the Israeli heartland.

Q. Bottom line?

A. A new intifada will not be about a two-state solution. No one in either the West Bank or Israel expects the incoming government to in any way get involved in a new political process directed at ‘solving’ the conflict. No one in Washington expects a new peace process. Nor will any Palestinian officially declare an intifada. It will just evolve. It has probably already begun.

The First Intifada relied primarily on demonstrations and rock-throwing. The Second, on vicious suicide bombings among civilians deep inside Israel. What weapons will a Third Intifada employ? So far, Palestinian militants are mainly shooting at settlers and IDF soldiers, almost entirely within the confines of the West Bank. Food for thought.

Washington still possesses a lot of heavy levers of influence that it can potentially use against an Israel seemingly bent on causing a serious deterioration in its relations with the Palestinians. US Ambassador Tom Nides was cautious and circumspect in a recent interview with Israel TV Channel 12. Clearly it is too early to predict American reactions to Israeli fascist ministers and their decisions when the ministers have not yet even taken office.

Then too, the US reaction will be determined to no small extent by both the next round of elections in America and the reaction to an intifada by the Arab world.