Have the Palestinians finally embarked upon their long-heralded third intifada? That depends upon how one defines the term, and can therefore easily lead to semantic rather than substantive debate. The more pertinent questions concern how sustainable and effective the current revolt is likely to be.
An instructive comparison can be drawn with the first intifada of 1987-93. It too erupted amid growing regional and international indifference. In the mid-1980s, the Arab states were preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq War, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its leadership languishing in Tunisia, was bereft of influence and ideas. At the November 1987 summit of the Arab League, Palestine was for the first time in the organization’s history absent from the agenda. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, none other than current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could barely conceal his glee, telling the UN General Assembly that “the Arab leaders” have “put the Palestinian” issue “on the back burner.” That was December 2. One week later, the occupied territories erupted in a mass nonviolent civil revolt that planted Palestine firmly atop the international agenda, transformed international perceptions of the conflict, and paralyzed Israeli society.
The first intifada caught the PLO by surprise, but the leadership rapidly made a strategic decision to support it, and in the process channeled large amounts of money to the occupied territories to that end. No such strategic decision has been made today by a leadership eager to end the unrest and restore calm, but this, ironically, could be a net benefit. Reliance on PLO largesse helped subordinate the first intifada to the PLO’s political direction, which led it down a painful dead end. The money helped sustain the struggle, but also undermined it.
In other respects, internal conditions are today much worse. The Palestinian national movement in practice no longer exists, and what remains of the Palestinian political system is deeply divided politically and also territorially. At the popular level the Palestinian people are fragmented in ways that would have been difficult to imagine prior to the 1987 uprising; in the intervening decades key communities in Kuwait, Iraq, and now Syria have been functionally eliminated, the diaspora as a whole has been effectively removed from decision-making structures, and the occupied territories transformed into a series of encircled bantustans.
It’s a serious question whether the infrastructure required to sustain the revolt can develop before it is crushed. In Egypt, activists and revolutionaries saw the fruits of their efforts snatched by the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, and then the Muslim Brotherhood watched helplessly as its electoral victory was snatched by the machinations of the much more experienced ancien régime.
None of these aspects are yet present in the current uprising. The “lone wolf” attackers are mainly young people from East Jerusalem; and while there have also been demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank, most sectors of the population remain passive, if sympathetic, observers. The uprising’s signature weapon has been the knife. The first intifada also featured a wave of knife attacks in Jerusalem and southern Israel, but this occurred in 1990-91, when the intifada was already weakened. What was then a tactic of despair, a reflection of the intifada’s exhaustion, has today been adopted from the outset.
The more the stabbings come to characterize the uprising as a whole, the harder it will become for Palestinians to pursue an alternative strategy. This is particularly so given prevailing political conditions. During the second intifada, when there was merely competition and rivalry between Fatah and Hamas rather than the formal schism that exists today, Hamas carried out suicide attacks as an expression of what it considered to be the most effective strategy. Fatah then followed suit, but primarily on the basis of internal political considerations: it didn’t want Hamas stealing its thunder. In the context of the division between Fatah and Hamas, political pressures tend toward escalation because violence is still seen as the touchstone of genuine resistance. In the absence of a unified national movement, pulling back from the stabbings and embarking on a potentially more effective, nonviolent course will prove difficult.
If, notwithstanding formidable obstacles, Palestinians are able to unite existing power structures, or effectively act independently of them, there is a real prospect that significant gains might be won.
As so often, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip have shown the way. Sizable demonstrations have been taking place daily outside the perimeter fence. The scale of the marches remains small, but they already have Israeli officials in a panic. “The sight of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians marching toward the border fence,” reports veteran Israeli journalist Ben Caspit, “is the cause of many a nightmare for the Israeli leadership.” “Attempts to break through the fence,” another senior Israeli analyst observes, “are [the] nightmare scenario for the defense establishment”:
What will happen if thousands of Palestinians march on the fence, knock it down and continue their march into Israel? Will Israel respond with gunfire that will lead to a massacre?
One could similarly point to persistent if generally localized popular mobilizations at key junctures of the West Bank Wall, where demonstrations have been held on a weekly basis for years and could form the basis for broader challenges to the occupation.
The question for Palestinians is, how to make Israel’s “nightmare scenario” materialize. As the fears of Israeli officials testify, mass marches on the Gaza fence have enormous potential—but they cannot succeed on their own. Nonviolence ultimately worked in the American South because it embarrassed the federal government, not least before the international community, and touched the liberal sensibilities—arguably hypocritical, but that’s beside the point—of white public opinion in the North, as black people demanded no less, but also no more, than implementation of laws already in the statute books. Had nonviolent resistance remained confined to the South, local enforcers could have simply killed everyone who was resisting. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that popular mobilization will succeed in Palestine unless these conditions are fulfilled:
If Israel were confronted with mass nonviolent marches on the Gaza fence, the West Bank Wall (ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice) and occupied East Jerusalem, coordinated with large-scale direct action abroad, united under the banner of international legitimacy and determined to end the illegal siege and occupation—if all these conditions held, truly this would be Israel’s nightmare and Palestinian hopes made real.
Decisive defeat has been the fate of many, perhaps most, political movements. Nevertheless, over the past half century, regional and international regressions have repeatedly inspired a revival and reassertion of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. In their darkest moments, Palestinians have mustered the courage, the strength, and the will to keep the torch aflame. If present conditions demand sobriety about the obstacles confronting the struggle for justice in Palestine, the Palestinians’ own record of determination in the face of adversity means the prospects of overcoming these obstacles can by no means be ruled out. If we in the West do our part, this new round of resistance might yet yield a dividend for justice.
And not just for Palestinians. Israel stands at a precipice, with a deranged head of state who thrives on orchestrating national hysteria, barging in on the US Congress and directing bug-eyed stares at the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu in many ways personifies the reality that the occupation has only exacerbated the most egregious features of Israeli society.
The late Edward W. Said liked to quote the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire as saying, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” A victory for nonviolent mass civil disobedience aimed at ending the illegal occupation would be one not only for the Palestinian people and the international community, but also one for Israeli society, placing it on the path to normalcy.