The murder of Palestinian infant Ali Dawabsheh by Israeli settlers, together with the killing of at least two other Palestinians and wounding of others in the occupied territories on Friday has revived the perennial question about whether a third Palestinian intifada is at hand. But even while Israel’s occupation appears entrenched for the foreseeable future, the state of Palestinian politics likely precludes a new uprising.
Warnings of a new Palestinian rebellion have accompanied every breakdown in the diplomatic process, each new expansion of the illegal settlement project, and each new Israeli outrage against Palestinian life and limb. Those making such predictions often note that conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories today are considerably worse — and prospects for relief more remote — than those that had prevailed at the outbreak of the 1987 and 2000 uprisings.
But even if conditions and prospects of the Palestinians today appear more dire than they did on the eve of previous intifadas, that’s not enough to trigger a sustained rebellion. Spontaneous eruptions of anger tend to be short-lived, comprising uncoordinated demonstrations, riots and armed attacks. That, in fact, is the scenario most likely to unfold in the West Bank and perhaps elsewhere in the coming days in response to the killing of little Ali Dawabsheh — mass expressions of outrage, a reprisal here and there, and then back to business as usual.
The 1987 and 2000 Intifadas are often remembered, today, as if they were triggered by single incidents: In December 1987, an Israeli military jeep rammed a Palestinian car at the entrance to Gaza, killing four of its occupants and sparking mass demonstrations in Gaza’s Jabaliyya refugee camp, that then quickly spread to every town, village and refugee camp throughout the occupied territories. The 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada began with the protests triggered by Ariel Sharon’s provocative incursion into the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, against the backdrop of diplomatic failure at Camp David.
But behind those “trigger” events lay dynamics that had unfolded over years. Before the 1987 uprising, the component organizations of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian movements had conducted intensive grassroots political work, establishing an organizational infrastructure that was able to sustain a rebellion despite Israel’s ferocious efforts to pacify the Occupied Territories.
The 2000 Intifada saw spontaneous demonstrations and initially random armed attacks quickly channeled into a more organized campaign by the leadership of Yasser Arafat in the hope of using it as diplomatic leverage in his dealings with Israel and the United States. Fatah’s newly-formed Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades drew upon the movement’s organizational infrastructure and Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces to transform protest actions into an armed insurgency.
The Palestinian leadership situation today could not be more different than it had been in 1987 and 2000.
The profound schism within the Palestinian national movement has become a major obstacle in the way of any challenge to Israel, with some analysts concluding that neither the PA leadership in Ramallah nor the Hamas leadership in Gaza will tolerate an uprising against Israel for fear it could be used by their Palestinian rivals to undermine their own control. Palestinian society has also been fractured to a degree that militates against mass collective action.
Today, the PLO exists in name only, while Fatah – traditionally its spinal cord – has been decimated over the past decade, less as a result of pressure from Israel or Hamas than from internal disintegration as a result of running a Palestinian Authority that, in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians, functions to secure the status quo of Israeli occupation rather than to end it.
Nor is Hamas any more capable of claiming the mantle of national leadership given divisions over its rule in Gaza. Hamas has in practice committed to conducting only operations it deems defensive except in the most extreme of circumstances, while the PA in Ramallah has deployed its arms against its own people to suppress any serious challenge to Israel’s occupation. The two premier national organizations of the Palestinians are, each for their own reasons, essentially averse to mobilizing their people against Israel’s occupation.
Despite the fact that many Palestinians believe their society is enduring its worst period since the mass displacement by Israel in 1948, political factors make a renewed rebellion unlikely — at least, for as long as it takes to transform Palestinian politics.