Yasser Gdeeh / Reuters

Too soon to claim third intifada, Palestinian thinkers say

Analysis: Lack of political leadership may hurt long-term viability of youth-led movement against Israeli occupation

Protests in the last few weeks are a clear sign that a new generation of Palestinians is rising up against Israel’s occupation, Palestinian activists, politicians and scholars said this week — but they added that it’s too early to tell if the movement can be sustained.

“This phase of popular resistance broke out spontaneously, in reaction to months of fascist-leaning policies of the most racist, settler-dominated and far-right government in Israel’s history,” Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, told Al Jazeera in an email.

Whether this new uprising will be sustained or fizzle out depends on whether the various groups involved can develop a unifying vision and political leadership, said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“It’s too early to say this is the third intifada, because we don’t yet see an organized political leadership that can coordinate the various Palestinian pieces of this and can articulate political demands,” Elgindy said. He was referring to a third uprising of popular resistance, or intifada, against Israel's occupation. The first erupted in 1987 and ended in 1991, and the second began in 2000 and ended in 2005.

“We have to keep a very close eye on Palestinian political leaders and how they respond because that will be the first clue as to how this might unfold,” Elgindy added.

Israeli analysts with sources in the country's defense establishment are also unsure whether the current wave of Palestinian actions will be sustained, but many see the latest upsurge as a symptom of political failure by their own government and the Palestinian Authority. The challenge facing both is to give the young people who are now turning to violence a different option, wrote veteran security columnist Nahum Barnea. "We need to give them a good reason to live," he wrote. "On this matter, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have failed. Both have offered the masses of youths who have grown up in Gaza and the West Bank only one option: Despair. Things have reached an apex in recent years: No expectations, no future, no hope."

Barnea saw the root of the problem lying in Israel's refusal to make a choice to either live as equals with the Palestinians, or to disengage from its occupation over them. He warned that Israeli ministers are pursuing a dangerous course in opting for escalating collective punishment of Palestinian communities. "They believe that despair can be beaten with more despair, that mutinies can be quashed by punishment, taxes and draconian fines," suggesting that military chiefs believe the key to stopping the current wave of violence lies in Israel easing up its restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.

The latest round of protests and violence began in mid-September, when Israel started imposing entry restrictions on Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa, a frequent flashpoint. Israeli authorities say they imposed the new rules to allow far-right Israeli groups, who also consider the site holy, to visit — a gesture deemed by Palestinians to signal a plan to change the delicate status quo at the site deemed holy by both Jews and Muslims. 

The recent restrictions at Al-Aqsa, Bargouti said, are seen by some as part of a strategy by Israel to change the demographics of occupied East Jerusalem through Jewish settlement and Palestinian displacement, especially in the Old City, where Al-Aqsa is located.

But that isn’t the only issue for young Palestinians, said Mustafa Barghouthi, general-secretary of secular political party Al-Mubadara. They are also fed up with poverty, unemployment and the fear of being killed by Israeli security forces, he said. 

Unemployment in Gaza is among the highest in the world at 43 percent — about double that of the West Bank — and youth unemployment in Gaza was over 60 percent at the end of 2014, according to the World Bank.

"Palestinian youth are proving to be just as loving of freedom and as indignant about injustice as anyone is, said Barghouti of BDS. 

So far, West Bank leadership in the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has been “missing in action,” Barghouti said. Far from supporting the protesters, the PA routinely disperses Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation as its mandate is to maintain security in the occupied territories. Abbas last week ordered his forces to prevent protests from escalating.

Bargouti said there are also concerns that the PA is “working behind the scenes to thwart and undermine the widespread protests."

The PA’s mandate to maintain security was meant to protect the peace process — which Abbas declared dead last month at the United Nations in New York — and ultimately an emergent Palestinian state.

"We tell them [the Israelis] that we do not want either military or security escalation," Abbas said last week at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is comprised of groups, individuals and political parties involved in resistance to the occupation. "All our instructions to our [security] agencies, our factions and our youth have been that we do not want escalation."

The lack of organized political support from the main political parties — Fatah and Hamas — raises questions about the long-term viability of the nascent protest movement, Elgindy said. “The fact that almost all of the traditional Palestinian political parties are well behind the popular resistance on the ground presents a serious challenge to the prospects of sustainability,” Barghouti said.

If existing groups do not succeed in coordinating youth efforts, an "organic" form of leadership may emerge within the movement, Elgindy said.

Civil society could also play a more important role, observers said. “It is taking care of the injured at this moment, through organizations like Palestinian Medical Relief Society,” said Barghouthi of Al-Mubadara. “It is civil society that is reminding the world about human rights, and it is civil society that will guarantee you can go to a democratic transition later.”

Additionally, there are concerns that Israeli leaders may attempt to redirect the violence away from Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank toward Gaza to shift the fighting away from its citizens.

That would allow Israel to shift the narrative away from the occupation to “Hamas terror,” Elgindy said.

At least six Palestinians were killed Friday when Israeli soldiers opened fire on a crowd from across the border, an incident followed by the firing of a rocket at Israel by armed groups in Gaza. Israel then carried out airstrikes on the territory, killing a pregnant Palestinian woman and her child.

“Israel would rather sort of redirect the violence … toward Gaza, which is much more in their interest,” Elgindy said. “It plays into the standard narrative of Hamas terror and others attacking Israel as opposed to the problem in the West Bank, which is the occupation.”

And until Israel faces greater international and domestic pressure to end that occupation, Barghouti said, Palestinian youth will continue to rise up against it.


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