Intifadas, our history teaches us, aren’t declared; they just happen. And the rapidly unfolding events of the past few days feel very much like the start of a third Palestinian uprising.
It was a car accident in Gaza that sparked the first intifada in December 1987. Four Palestinian laborers were killed in a collision with an Israeli truck south of the Erez crossing. But rumors quickly spread that the deaths were caused intentionally, to avenge the stabbing of Shlomo Sakal two days earlier in Gaza’s central market. The riots following the men’s funeral quickly spread from the refugee camps in the Strip to the West Bank, and to Jerusalem.
The official casus belli for the Second Intifada in September 2000 — which began with sporadic rioting across the West Bank and quickly degenerated into a gruesome series of suicide bombings across Israel — was the televised visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. Tensions were already high following the collapse of the Camp David peace talks two months earlier.
Palestinian uprisings never happen in a void. There are always political and social circumstances which serve as the proverbial powder keg when the spark is ignited. But this time there is reason to believe the uprising won’t transform into a full-fledged intifada.
The body of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was found scorched in a west Jerusalem forest just hours after gangs of inflamed teenagers roamed the center of Jerusalem chanting racist slogans, searching for Arabs to assault. The funerals of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah were underway in Modiin, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the memory of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom citing national poet Haim Nahman Bialik: “Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden hath yet to be wrought by Satan.”
Palestinian uprisings never happen in a void. There are always political and social circumstances which serve as the proverbial powder keg when the spark is ignited
Hours after the teens’ bodies were discovered on Monday, Noam Perel, the head of World Bnei Akiva, Israel’s largest national-religious youth movement, gave voice to the public’s cry for retribution for the three deaths when he wrote on Facebook: “The travesty will be atoned for with the enemy’s blood, not with our tears. A whole nation and thousands of years of history demands revenge,” a post he later deleted and apologized for.
In the midst of all of this, posturing politicians have been playing a destructive role, with many on both sides fanning the flames of anger rather than calling for cool heads to prevail.
“In Kalanswa and the Triangle [in central Israel] they are enacting a selection, attacking Jews’ cars,” wrote Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), using the term for the Nazis’ dividing of Jews sent to extermination from those classified fit for forced labor. “In Gaza, Hamas is ignoring the ultimatum, firing rockets at Beersheba and placing conditions for a ceasefire. One thing is tied to the other; weakness invites aggression. As a government minister I oppose the policy of restraint and I will fight for my position in public and in governmental forums. I hope I can convince.”
MK Ibrahim Sarsour (Ra’am-Ta’al), meanwhile, said the “Israeli escalation” was nothing but a premeditated attempt to divert public opinion from Israel’s economic woes.
“The criminal Israeli aggression against Palestine is not surprising,” wrote the Israeli parliamentarian in an Arabic newsletter Friday. “The chief of staff and a large number of ministers close to Netanyahu have threatened such a war for months. They did not need an excuse; Netanyahu-Liberman-Bennett’s need for a war raises their shares in Israeli public opinion, deflecting the compass of interest from the burning economic and social issues from which Israel suffers.”
“Arab audacity in Jerusalem,” commented MK Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Home) on his Facebook page Sunday morning, following a tour of the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. “Because of Arab rioting, burning of [tram] stops and craziness, they have blocked the ability of 66,000 residents [of Pisgat Zeev] to move. It should be the exact opposite. I have promised to work with the police and Transportation Ministry to strike at the rioters and release the city’s transportation.”
Around the same time, MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) shared a video of Jews shouting “Death to the Arabs” on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street last Thursday, posted on a Facebook page titled “Photos of the Third Intifada.”
Zoom out for a moment, and consider the diplomatic climate. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations having collapsed in April, American brokers are now engaged in a postmortem, releasing statements of desperation and dismay. With no prospect of renewed talks on the horizon, mistrust between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders is at an all-time high. In that regard, the current conjuncture is frighteningly reminiscent of September 2000.
There are two main differences, however. The first, and more important, is the man at the Palestinian helm. Mahmoud Abbas, unlike his predecessor Yasser Arafat, is unabashedly and outspokenly opposed to a new violent intifada. True, he has remained worryingly mum in the last few days as violence has begun to spin out of control, but he will not give the political or logistical support for violence the likes of which Israel witnessed in the early years of the previous decade.
Secondly, Palestinian society is still unprepared for a full-fledged intifada requiring both perseverance and a capable military leadership, both of which it currently lacks. As Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarar told a Hamas daily last October, the excellent security cooperation between Israel and the PA, coupled with the lack of Palestinian field command (most of which was arrested or killed during the second intifada), make the likelihood of a new protracted uprising unlikely.
Meanwhile, some leaders are trying to calm spirits and prevent further escalation.
“We need to regain the quiet, but the government cannot conduct itself like a talkbacker,” wrote Finance Minister Yair Lapid on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon. “Our role is to extinguish the flames, not fan them … we can’t allow the extremists, be they Jews or Arabs, to run the State of Israel.”
Dov Khenin, the only Jewish member of Knesset in the socialist Hadash party, posted a photo of himself on Facebook during a joint Jewish-Arab demonstration in Haifa holding up a sign reading “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
“If we do not stand together against this vile wave of incitement and hatred, it may drown us all,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, MK Ahmad Tibi, the outspoken chairman of the Ra’am-Ta’al party, made a somewhat lopsided attempt to call for restraint.
“It is our right to be angry and shout. Protest is allowed and wanted, but anarchy and the destruction of public buildings in our towns and villages are unacceptable, for they are ours and the not the fascists’,” wrote Tibi on his Facebook page. “Let us not fall into the trap of [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman and his ilk.”