Is there a Third Intifada around the corner?

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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As the airplane of Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, he received two striking reminders as to why his efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are so essential. First, a planning committee, in an almost customary Israeli ‘welcome’ for such visits, has approved a plan to build an additional 69 housing units in the controversial East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. Second, the Israeli commander of the Central Command Major-General Nitzan Alon, warned that as the stalemate in the political process continues, an outbreak of violence in the occupied West Bank is increasingly likely and could potentially lead to a third Intifada.

Very few would argue that expanding the settlements in the West Bank does not present an obstacle to peace both practically and symbolically. A very small territory of less than 6000 square kilometers is home to more than 2.5 million people. Thus, any Israeli settlement expansion gobbles up more territory, which harms the viability of a contiguous Palestinian state. Moreover, it undermines whatever trust remains among Palestinians that the Israeli government is genuine in its intention to make territorial concessions for peace. Hope for political settlement is disappearing rapidly together with the visible loss of land.

Kerry must at times have similar doubts as to whether Netanyahu’s recent declarations of support for a two-state solution are not merely a charade to appease the U.S. and the rest of the international community.

If and when a third Intifada should outbreak, it would not be solely as a result of the Israeli occupation, but also due to the dire economic situation, the lack of progress in reaching a political solution, and the incompetence and mismanagement of Palestinian affairs by its own leadership.

Yossi Mekelberg

Alternatively, one might argue that Israel is conducting its affairs in mysterious and contradictory ways with no long term strategy. Part of the answer to this is that Netanyahu, despite what some of his right wing critics in Israel say, has not changed ideologically, but negotiates for a two state solution on the basis of two main fears, the fear of international isolation and the fear of a bi-national state. He is fighting between his instinct and rationale. Instinctively he distrusts the Palestinian leadership, and everyone else for that matter, and he yearns to keep the West Bank under Israeli control both for historical and security reasons. His head tells him that the occupation is unsustainable in the long term, hence maintaining the occupation is not only compromising Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, but inevitably will lead to a new generation of disenchanted Palestinians to take to the streets.

If and when a third Intifada should outbreak, it would not be solely as a result of the Israeli occupation, but also due to the dire economic situation, the lack of progress in reaching a political solution, and the incompetence and mismanagement of Palestinian affairs by its own leadership. Nonetheless, the overarching context for militant resistance would no doubt be the oppressive Israeli occupation, as was the case in the first two Intifadas.

The deep resentment for a divided Palestinian leadership, which falls short of delivering political or economic achievements provides an additional impetus for an uprising. In a recent public poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah, Palestinians expressed a widespread malaise regarding the conditions both in Gaza and the West Bank. Perception of corruption among the Palestinian leadership is prevalent in both the West Bank and Gaza – 77 percent perceive PA institutions as corrupt and 61 percent perceived public institutions of Hamas in Gaza as corrupt. Many express their dissatisfaction with the absence of reconciliation between the PA and Hamas.

The polls show how deep the despair is with 42 percent of the population in Gaza and 27 percent of the population in the West Bank wanting to immigrate to other countries. Yet, despite the fact that the poverty, unemployment and disunity are regarded as the most serious problems that Palestinians face, the vast majority see ending the occupation and addressing the refugee issues as their most significant national priority. To be sure, it is not surprisingly that under these circumstances different surveys show an increased support among the Palestinians in the renewal of the armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Israel faced two very different Palestinian uprisings and did not necessarily always learn the right lessons from either of them. The First Intifada was the result of a genuine popular uprising, which for the first time involved large segments of the society in violent, though not indiscriminate killings. Consequently, the uprising enjoyed international support, while also pushing many Israelis to rethink the character of and the logic behind the occupation. It left the Israelis portrayed as the Goliaths and the Palestinians as the Davids of the conflict.

This was not a comfortable position for a country that thrived on the perception of itself as eternal underdogs and victims. The Second Intifada, in contrast, was extremely violent and indiscriminate in nature, resulting in a very harsh response by the Israeli security forces. The suicide campaign had not only a devastating impact in terms of casualties, but also led to long term psychological fear and distrust. In nearly five years more than 3000 Palestinian and more than 1000 Israelis lost their lives, with many injuries on both sides, in a horrendous cycle of violence. If the suicide bombing destroyed any trust on the Israeli side, the harsh measures taken by the Israelis, including mass arrests, demolition of houses, siege and curfews, left no trust on the Palestinian side either. Whatever sympathy the Palestinians received from the First Intifada, they lost in the second because of the nature of suicide bombing. The peace process was left in tatters and has never really recovered since. Even if a third Intifada looks increasingly likely, what form it would take and who would lead it remains an enigma.

Collective denial

The relative calm of the last few years, with the occasional outburst of deadly violence in Gaza, lulled many Israelis into a false sense of security that the measures taken, including building the security barrier, guarantees their safety. However, what they fail to see is that their security comes at the expense of the basic human rights of other people, who live a stone’s throw away from them. On the part of the Palestinians there was a conscious decision that suicide bombings were strategically counterproductive. Part of this collective denial in Israel is based also on the assumption that fatigue among the Palestinians combined with an Arab World in a state of flux, leaves Israel safe from a third intifada.

This Israeli complacency and misperception of the situation is bound to lead to further procrastination in advancing a comprehensive peace agreement, which in turn will increase the frustration among Palestinians. Nevertheless, returning to the armed struggle and resorting to violence could prove to be a double edged sword. On one hand it could break the deadlock and lead to a political process, but it might also usher in another era of bloodshed. The second option is especially likely if more extreme ideological elements take over, and could result in the obliteration of any peace process for many years to come.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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