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The Third Intifada

Will Palestinian leaders again turn to violence to shore up domestic support?

The Palestinian territories are descending into chaos, but many in Washington seem unconcerned. The Palestinians in the West Bank have too much to lose from a new uprising, some are arguing, given the recent moderate improvements in their daily lives. Others assert that the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, trained under American supervision, will prevent the Palestinians from making the mistakes of 1987 and 2000. Yet the dynamics of Palestinian politics indicate that a third intifada is likely to erupt in the near future. If history is any guide, the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank--whether it includes Mahmoud Abbas or not--may again look to a violence to improve its sagging domestic popularity.

Throughout contemporary Palestinian history, spilling Israeli blood has often been the best way for competing political factions to burnish their nationalist credentials. Consider, for example, the founding of Hamas. In the 1980s, Islamic Jihad became popular among Palestinians because of their attacks on Israelis--to the extent that they began siphoning off supporters from the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In order to compete, the Brotherhood formed the Islamic Resistance Movement (better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas). By most measures, the strategy worked: Hamas is now a mass movement that controls the Gaza Strip and enjoys deep support in the West Bank. To be sure, the group also uses social services, education, and health care as mechanisms for political mobilization. Yet what has enabled Hamas to remain more popular than other Palestinian factions is--as the middle word of its name suggests--its violent resistance to Israeli occupation.

Around the same time that Hamas emerged, a car accident outside the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza sparked the first intifada. The uprising surprised almost everyone, but it soon became abundantly clear that the fight was not just between stone throwing Palestinian kids and the Israel Defense Forces. The more important conflict for the Palestinians was yet another internecine battle: the PLO “old guard” in Tunis versus a new group of West Bank and Gazan elites. No one recognized the danger of this situation for the Palestinian leadership better than Yasser Arafat. Had the first intifada been left to the “new guard,” the PLO and Arafat’s dominant faction, Fatah, would have surely withered and eventually died. As a result, Arafat quickly sought to leverage the violence directed at Israelis to his political advantage, turning the intifada into a resistance project of his Tunis-based leadership.

There is no clearer example of this strategic use of violence than the second intifada, which began in September 2000. Suffering politically because he almost made a deal with Israel at Camp David that summer, then-President Arafat used violence to re-establish his credibility with the many Palestinians who not only regarded him as corrupt and ineffective, but also complicit with Israel and the United States in undermining Palestinian aspirations of statehood. Moreover, like the emergence of Hamas in the 1980s, Arafat’s Fatah, which had been negotiating peace with the Israelis for the better part of the previous decade, was forced to match the violence of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad with a new militant arm, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The political dynamics at work that led to Hamas, two intifadas, and the creation of al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have not suddenly disappeared today. Indeed, the warning signs are just beneath the surface. After a modest uptick in Mahmoud Abbas’s popularity through the spring and summer, Palestinian confidence in him has plummeted. His willingness to delay consideration of the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict--the Goldstone Report--left the Palestinian president open to withering attacks from within his own party and Hamas. The Islamists have consistently sought to portray Abbas as a stooge of Israel and the United States, and the controversy over the Goldstone Report provided ample opportunity for Hamas to hammer away at his leadership and commitment to the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the recent exchange of 20 female Palestinian prisoners for a videotape of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for three years, was a political victory for Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority’s newfound toughness on the issue of settlements, which was never before a precondition for negotiations, indicates that the West Bank leadership is feeling the political heat from Hamas. The Islamists have long argued that the PA’s commitment to negotiations is tantamount to capitulation to the Israelis who, Hamas concludes, have no intention of ceding any territory to the Palestinians. As the Israelis continue to build in Jerusalem and beyond, Hamas’s narrative will likely make sense to more and more Palestinians. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s description of Israeli proposals to temporarily limit settlement construction as “unprecedented” further damaged Abbas, who had placed enormous faith in the Obama administration to bring the Israelis to heel.

In a December 2004 interview with the pan Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat, Abbas affirmed the right of Palestinians to resist occupation, but at the same time stated, “Using the weapons was harmful and has got to stop.” Abbas was making the statement from a position of strength as the presumptive winner of Palestinian presidential elections with no real competitors. Almost five years later, things are looking very different for Abbas and his associates. Given their deteriorating political fortunes--The New York Times recently warned of potential PA collapse--Palestinian leaders may well conclude that an intifada can be useful for their short-term domestic political benefit.

To be sure, an intifada would wreck the significant progress that Palestinians in the West Bank have made over the last year to rebuild their shattered economy and establish state institutions. Yet society’s interests often come at the expense of personal political expediency, especially if the survival of political leaders is at stake. An intifada would allow Abbas and his partners to shake off the lingering notions among Palestinians that the PA has become a mere servant of Israel and its American masters.

Faith in the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which have received U.S. supervised training in Jordan, seems misguided. Although the Palestinian police have received high marks from the Israelis, it remains an open question whether the rank and file would intervene to prevent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. They prevented West Bank anger from turning violent during last winter’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. But it may be difficult for the Palestinian forces to maintain security in a fraught political environment, with the PA’s future in doubt and Hamas engaging in psychological warfare to convince Palestinians that these forces are little more than a branch of the Israeli military.

For Washington, which is working hard to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the Middle East impasse is about to get a lot worse. When the violence finally erupts, no one should be terribly surprised.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.