Not a third intifada… yet

Op-Ed: Abbas’s PA is a key factor in preventing isolated terror attacks like Thursday’s from erupting into mass violence. But its capacities and its credibility are fading

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Thursday night’s terror attack in which Naama and Eitam Henkin were gunned down in their car, with their four children watching, has again raised the question of whether we are witnessing the start of a third intifada. It was on this same date, October 1, in 2000 that serious riots erupted in the Israeli Arab sector, in the early days of the Second Intifada, and there are several similar characteristics between that period and this one: disturbances surrounding the Temple Mount, opposition to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a deadlocked diplomatic process, and more.

Nonetheless, this is far from the kind of uprising we saw 15 years ago, or that we endured in the First Intifada that began in late 1987. First of all, despite their frustration and despair with the political situation, the Palestinian masses are at home, not taking to the streets. This may reflect Palestinian public apathy, but also may stem from a desire to avoid a return to an era when the streets were in flame and machine-guns blazed widely and wildly. For now, at least, we are witnessing lone-wolf terror attacks, without the critical mass of a genuine uprising.

Secondly, Mahmoud Abbas’s 2015 PA is very different from the Yasser Arafat-led model of 2000. The Palestinian security forces behave differently. In the Al-Aqsa Intifada, as the second uprising was known among Palestinians, the armed PA forces were quick to join the clashes and the attacks, and the president did nothing to stop them. Indeed, Arafat urged the masses into the streets. Abbas, less popular and less charismatic, makes plain incessantly that he opposes intifada, terror and violence. His forces disperse anti-Israel demonstrations and arrest suspected terror-planners. Right-wing politicians were quick to blame Abbas for Thursday night’s terror attack, and to cite his speech Wednesday at the United Nations, but his forces have thwarted dozens of attacks, including many targeting soldiers and settlers.

And yet the despair is still the same despair of past years, especially in the Palestinian refugee camps. This reporter on Wednesday was at three refugee camps in the Ramallah area, and heard numerous youths warning that the third uprising is indeed beginning, mainly because of the economic situation. And while that sentiment is not matched among the masses in the big cities, it is certainly possible to envisage more and more youngsters being prepared to carry out attacks, on their own initiative or within an organized framework. There is no shortage of guns, or of motivation.

The PA is currently one of the key factors in preventing that motivation from turning into action. But the PA is coming under growing criticism, and Abbas’s leadership is seen as less and less credible, particularly in light of the diplomatic deadlock. It may be that the PA’s capacity to prevent attacks is eroding. It may be that we are in for more attacks like Thursday’s.

Paradoxically, despite the bitter accusations traded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas over who is to blame for the frozen negotiating process, Netanyahu’s capacity to maintain relative calm in the West Bank depends to a large extent on Abbas’s good will and capabilities. And Abbas’s capacity to survive politically depends in good part on Netanyahu’s readiness to make political and economic gestures to the PA. That may be why Netanyahu barely targeted Abbas in his UN speech earlier Thursday, and why Abbas somewhat toned down his intended “bombshell” speech the day before.

However, quiet will not be restored by changes of tone and the absence of harsher rhetoric. What’s needed is constructive action.

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