The ‘Third Intifada’ in historical perspective: the resurgence of the cross-generational Palestinian struggle?

By: Aurelie Buytaert

Palestinian boy wears a Hamas headband during an anti-Israel rally, in the central Gaza Strip, Oct. 23, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Palestinian boy wears a Hamas headband during an anti-Israel rally, in the central Gaza Strip, Oct. 23, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Word of a Third Intifada is spreading in Israel, the Palestinian territories and in medias around the world – relayed by some, denied by others. Politicians and activists have focused regional and global attention on the conflict through this term as it resonates in history, and easily started eclipsing other discourses on the evolution of the conflict. On October 20, Ban-Ki Moon traveled to Jerusalem and spoke of the urgent need of restoring ‘a political horizon’ for the future. For the UN Secretary General, only there resides the hope ‘to overcome today’s despair’. Is the use of the term Intifada useful in analysing the present situation and what is its discursive impact on the hopes for a political horizon? Deconstructing what the label ‘intifada’ has come to convey, this article will argue that comparing today’s surge with the last intifada can expose the continuity in the underlying causes of violence, but that the differences in the agency and leadership today are too important to refer to the violence as an Intifada. Weighing these observations, it will assess if the use of the word intifada today speaks of political hope or only prolongs Palestinian despair.

Intifada’s historical meaning

December 1987. The word Intifada, originating in the Arabic root ‘shake’, ‘shake something’, or yet ‘break free’, is first applied to the Palestinian struggle. Developing through this first uprising, Palestinian remembrance and the Second Intifada, the term’s resonance in Palestine and the world is comparable to few others. It positions itself between Low Intensity Warfare and Ghandi-like civil disobedience,[i] and emerged out of the evolution of the 1987 Intifada, from a largely unarmed rebellion, to an increasingly lethal and armed insurgency in the 2000s. One of the fundamental idea of the Intifada is that of a ‘window of opportunity’,[ii] enabled by young generations of Palestinians; a vehicle for the social reproduction of the principles of Palestinian nationhood, whose (re)occurrence bridges political gaps between generations by bringing young actors to the forefront of Palestinian politics[iii]. Its identification as political warfare through national remembrance endows the term with the power to make martyrs out of individuals and shape a political message out of personal indignation. The rise of suicide Intifada participants, especially in 2000, gave the word an even more powerful resonance in linking the personal to the political by reinforcing the religious dimension of ‘[transforming] potentially senseless death into a redemptive self-sacrifice for the nation’[iv]. 

Learning from the past: the cross-generational causes of violence

At first glance, one could view the current wave of violence as the start of an Intifada, as it is mirroring the events at the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. Both surges in violence have been triggered by the perception that Israel had altered the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif. In 2000 it was the heavily policed visit to the Temple Mount by the then right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon that unleashed a wave of Palestinian upheaval. Today, rumours that the Israeli government desires to alter the status quo arrangement by allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount have inflamed tensions and spurred the current wave of violence, so much so that Israeli Prime Minister had to accept the American backed initiative of installing surveillance cameras to refute the incendiary claim and prove that his government is in fact committed to preserving the status quo arrangement.

But as with the analysis of the underlying causes of the al-Aqsa Intifada[v], understanding the current wave of violence necessitates looking beyond the inflamed rhetoric surrounding Jerusalem’s holy sites, and understanding the deep-rooted issues that have compelled some Palestinians to turn to violence. In 2000 for instance, the most widely acknowledged cause of the uprising was the failure of the Camp David talks[vi], themselves crumbling due to the PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat’s unwillingness to accept Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s politically courageous offers of a territorial compromise. The failure of Camp David should not be considered in a political vacuum though; the Palestinian frustration, ingrained in national and religious sentiments of ownership of Sites in Jerusalem, in the enduring issue of the right of return, poor economic opportunities and in a lack of faith in the peace process, were underpinning high Palestinian politics and laying the grounds for mass uproar[vii]. This retrospective analysis should enlighten the analysis one can make of the grounds for shaking off today, as these Palestinian concerns and frustrations have, rather than been addressed, worsened: in 2013, polls showed that 47% of Palestinians thought a peace agreement would never be reached, 63% thought the right of return was a precondition for peace and unemployment in Gaza was deemed the Global worst in 2015.

The analogy between 2000 and 2015 leads to a two-fold conclusion. First, it highlights the importance of maintaining and monitoring the status quo over the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif, as tensions over this Site is a recurrent trigger of violence. But secondly, and most importantly, the analogy displays the intrinsic insufficiency, in preventing the resurgence of violence, of maintaining peace at Jerusalem’s Holy Sites in absence of a genuine peace process. Putting up surveillance cameras on Temple Mount and building additional walls to keep “terrorists” in check will by no means suffice to decrease the underlying causes of violence.  

Learning from the past: the evolution of agency and leadership in the violence

Causes of violence in 2015 may reflect those of 2000 but for so much, the insurgency is neither carried out by the same actors, nor directed with the same political purposefulness and organization. During the Second Intifada, the violence spread from the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza, with a relative degree of organization and the cooperation of the Palestinian Security Forces. Today, acts of violence are carried out by individuals throughout the occupied territories and newly so, in high proportion, from Arab-Israeli (Israeli of Palestinian descent) living in East Jerusalem. These actors, holding Israeli ID Card and falling outside the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction, have for the most part not experienced the al-Aqsa Intifada. The Palestinian Security Forces have neither participated in sparking the insurgency, nor have they joined it. Hence, while the Al-Aqsa Intifada started with a large, collective protest and soon held a clear, organized and national political message calling for change in Israeli policy, the lone knife-attackers that have occupied so much of the scene of this year’s violence have acted in isolation and without so much of a specific collective political message on Israeli policies –rather a desperate, suicidal statement of indignation.

But the most profound difference between the last Intifada and the present surge in violence might reside, not in the identity and mind-set of insurgents, but in the associated issue of the declining control of the Palestinian leadership –be they Fatah, Hamas or the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In 2000, the uprising was, as many argue, galvanized by Arafat and channeled by the PLO to obtain a better bargaining position in the negotiation process [viii]. Today, it is questionable as to which leader, between Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh or the PLO’s Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, if any, is able to exert control on the violence. An aggravating circumstance to the political rivalry in Palestine is indeed the fact that no elections have been held in almost a decade.  Thus far, most of the perpetrators of violence have declared Abbas and the PLO ‘irrelevant’, and few have a distinct allegiance to Hamas. Some commentators point to personal and desperate acts of violence, not to a political and organized Intifada. This historically new kind of Palestinian insurgency, experienced neither in 1987 nor 2000, will likely be of a more volatile nature, becoming a non-negotiable, and even less controllable surge of violence, which would provoke an even more brutal Israeli response.

The use of the word “Intifada” today

The use of the word “intifada” to describe the current situation reflects for the mot part two attitudes: wishful thinking on the part of some elements of the Palestinian society and sympathizers to the Palestinian cause – as the term cloaks the lack of leadership and profound change of the agency’s mind-set – or sensationalism on part of commentators willing to utilize it as a buzz word.  Both may aim to convey hope rather than portray despair, but mislead the debate in the mystification of the past rather than using the latter to enlighten the analysis of the realities of 2015.

Looking back on the past exposes that the complexity of the causes of Palestinian indignation renders it either hypocritical or delusional to attempt to solve them if not holistically – that is, by addressing Palestinian concerns much beyond the Holy Sites’ status quo. In this, the Intifada analogy is useful. But if history is to be put to good use, one must admit that today’s acts of violence are not part of a single pattern of uprising, crossing Palestinian generations and communities. The present lack of responsible leadership and the changes in agency of these violence makes of today’s “martyrs” and protesters, rather than brothers in arms in a cross-generational and purposeful Intifada, powerless voices, accessories to the political impasse. As hope for a peace process is already mired in right-wing Israeli politics and in the Palestinian leadership’s shortcomings, observers and parties to the conflict should refrain from loading the present violence with misused historical constructs. Far from creating a ‘window of opportunity’, this only leads the debate towards more inflammatory rhetoric and further away from the much needed hope to create a new political horizon.

[i] Ron Schleifer, Psychological Warfare in the Intifada (UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2006) p.48

[ii] John Collins, Occupied by Memory (New York: NYU Press, 2004) p. I

[iii] Ron Schleifer, Psychological Warfare in the Intifada (UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2006) p.17

[iv] Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 140

[v] Aaron Bregman, Israel’s wars: a history since 1947 (London: Routeledge, 2002), p.207

[vi] Noam Chomsky, Middle East Illusions (U.S: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003

[vii] Jacob Shamir, Khalil Shikaki, Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion: The Public Imperative in the Second Intifada (USA: Indiana University Press, 2010) p. 61-62

[viii] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims (New York: Vintage Books, 2001) p. 662

Aurelie Buytaert, a Belgian national and Geneva native, is completing her final year of undergraduate studies at King’s War Studies Department, reading International Relations and specializing in the EU ‘s external action. She is European editor at the KCL Politics Society’s Dialogue and has worked with international and national refugee NGOs in both Switzerland and the UK.

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