To date, Palestinians’ Jerusalem protests are a case of ‘intifada lite’
AnalysisPrime Israeli concern is over terrorism

To date, Palestinians’ Jerusalem protests are a case of ‘intifada lite’

Fatah and Hamas have been relentlessly urging people to the streets, but only a few thousand have responded. An unpleasant surprise, though, can change that in an instant

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.

A Palestinian protester hurls a rock at Israeli forces during clashes near the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City on December 9, 2017, following US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
A Palestinian protester hurls a rock at Israeli forces during clashes near the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City on December 9, 2017, following US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Although Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh has enthusiastically described the Palestinians’ violent protests against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a “blessed intifada,” what has actually been taking place on the ground in the territories is nothing like the outbreak of the first intifada 30 years ago. It also does not remotely resemble the first days of the second intifada, in the wake of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

At most, the two days of protests might be called “intifada lite,” and even that would be a bit of an exaggeration. Only a few thousand people have taken to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza.

The IDF has reported 3,000 Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Even if that number is a low estimate, you could double it and still it would not compare to the early days of the first and second intifadas.

The past two days of protests, furthermore, are not a case of a spontaneous, unplanned, popular eruption of anger. They are, rather, the consequence of an intensive effort by the Palestinian Authority to mobilize the Palestinian public — an effort unprecedented since the days of Yasser Arafat. Fatah and Hamas have relentlessly urged the people into the streets, and yet only a few thousand answered the call.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Gaza border on December 8, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Thus far, therefore, the prime Israeli concern is not over protests in the streets. The main worry is over terrorism in and from the West Bank, and a deterioration into wide-scale confrontation with Hamas-run Gaza.

Hamas, which is doing everything it can to stir up the West Bank, doesn’t want another Israel-Gaza war right now. It continues to try to prevent a major escalation from Gaza, but with less rigor in the past few days. Somebody in the Hamas leadership has evidently loosened some of the restrictions on terror groups and activists, with the consequent launch of several rockets into Israel. Such rockets attacks raise the prospect of a wider confrontation — which Israel doesn’t want either.

Haniyeh and the Hamas Gaza chief Yihya Sinwar are well aware of that, and are also well aware of the cost to Hamas and Gaza of another major round of conflict. And yet the rulers of Gaza are plainly not acting with sufficient determination to prevent the border from heating up.

The very fact that they have allowed thousands of Gazans to get close to the border to stage protests, knowing full well that this will lead to clashes with Israel and consequent bloodshed, underlines the extent to which they are playing with fire.

In the West Bank, it would appear that the protests will gradually die down — if, that is, there are no surprises. And surprises are, of course, always possible.

A screen capture of the video showing the Muhammad al-Dura incident.
A screen capture of the video showing the Muhammad al-Dura incident. (YouTube)

It has to be hoped that another incident such as the death at Netzarim junction in Gaza of Mohammed al-Dura, which prompted the Palestinian masses to inflame the second intifada in 2000, does not occur. (A French TV report claimed Israeli troops shot the 12-year-old and he became a symbol of Palestinian outrage and protest. An official Israeli government report concluded that al-Dura was not harmed by Israeli forces.)

In the absence of any such new symbolic rallying point, the Palestinians of the West Bank are unlikely to abandon their daily routines and flood the streets.

Furthermore, while urging demonstrations, the Palestinian Authority itself has not, to date at least, abandoned all restraint. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he won’t back down over Jerusalem, and won’t negotiate with the US because Trump, he says, has given up the role of honest broker.

But the PA is, for now, being somewhat cautious in terms of direct confrontation with Israel on the ground. Unlike the leaders of other, rival groups, most notably Hamas, it has not sent the message to its activists to “open the gates of hell.”

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