No third intifada – yet

By: Jacob Høgilt, Fafo.

I am in the middle of comparing the 2011 situation in Palestine with 1987 and 2000 (the first and second intifadas, respectively), and thought I would share some yet unfinished thoughts about the nature of Palestinian protest in light of the momentous events that are still unfolding in the Arab world.

While on a research trip to Palestine in December 2011, I find myself in the middle of a small demonstration against normalization (taṭbīʿ) with Israel that takes place outside the Ambassador Hotel in the Shaykh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.

The reason why the demonstration takes place here is that inside, there is a conference between Israelis and Palestinians about coexistence and confederation as a possible solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of the Palestinian sponsors of the conference is Sari Nusaybah, head of al-Quds University. The demonstrators are not many, about 30-40 all in all, but they are very energetic. They have lined up like a choir on the steps in front of the hotel, and the press people install themselves in front of them to get good pictures. The demonstrators switch between rhythmic chants and short, impassioned speeches. Directing their chanting against Nusaybah, they shout: “Academic, but an ass” (akadīmī bass ḥimār). Coexistence is dismissed out of hand. One of the speakers shouts out loud: “We don’t want to coexist with you [Israelis]. We want to kick out the occupation!” Sari Nusaybah is not there, but another participant, an elderly man in a suit, comes out to discuss with the demonstrators. He receives a verbal thrashing, and one of the most active protesters, a veiled woman in her 30s, rips the pin with the conference emblem off his suit, throws it on the ground, tramples on it and screams in his face: “This is shit!”

Spirited demonstrations like this take place quite often in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and they are closely connected to the Stop the Wall campaign and the many weekly marches and demonstrations that occur in villages around the West Bank to protest against Israeli land confiscation, settlement expansion and the separation wall – one example among many can be found here. These demonstrations have three things in common: They are part of a non-violent resistance movement that has gained more and more attention recently, they have been sustained for several years, and they have failed to ignite a wider non-violent wave of anti-occupation protest, even as revolutions have rocked other Arab countries recently. Instead, the Palestinian version of the Arab Spring was a movement to end the split between the West Bank and Gaza, which has so far resulted in little more than words and protracted negotiations between Fatah and Hamas.

It is obviously too much for a blog post to ask why there was no third intifada. Instead, let me simply juxtapose the gloomy analyses of many Palestinians with current developments and aspects of the situation right before the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987.

It is common to hear both young and old(er) in Palestine say that people are so thoroughly disillusioned with the political process that apathy dominates. Instead of talking and doing politics, people, not least youth, want to get on with their lives, secure decent jobs and establish families. As for students, according to one Bir Zeit professor I spoke with, they escape political realities by concentrating on love affairs, parties and Facebook socialization. There are perfectly sound reasons for this: the factionalism that infests Palestinian politics is one, and the negative experiences of parents, brothers and sisters from 1987 and 2000 is another. According to observers and political actors, youth politics is dead or suffers from sclerosis, and the outlook for the future is essentially bleak.

Looking at surveys of political attitudes and levels of trust in political institutions among Palestinians, one can be forgiven for describing the situation in less than enthusiastic terms. However, the existence of the weekly demonstrations against the wall in villages like Ni’lin, Bi’in, and Nabi Salih, and the many small demonstrations in East Jerusalem and elsewhere against settlements, are part of something that is seemingly growing: a collective realization that armed resistance and negotiations on elite level have repeatedly failed to deliver, and that change must come from concrete action on the grassroots level.

Bearing this development in mind, let us jump to a description of the situation immediately before the 1987 intifada erupted. In her The Path to Mass Rebellion (Oxford: Lexington Books 2004) Ruth M. Beitler writes that in 1987 “Palestinian awareness that the PLO’s tactic of armed struggle against Israel was not moving them closer to a long-term solution, coupled with continued Israeli settlement in the territories, forced many Palestinians to face a very disturbing actuality. The area in which the planned to realize their nationhood was rapidly shrinking with the continued “facts” created by the Jewish settlements.” (96) Add “negotiations” to “armed struggle”, and we have a picture that should be recognized by most observers of today’s situation.

Beitler also lists what she considers to be the causes of the outbreak of the intifada in this context: Israeli stick without carrots policy, a long period of occupation without fundamentally new strategies or policies on Israel’s side, a reduced fear and awe effect as the result of the wars of 1973 and 1982, internal divisions and dissent within Israel that was followed closely by Palestinians, failed diplomatic measures (the Reagan plan of 1982) and not least intensive settlement building in the 1980s. All these characteristics of the pre-1987 situation can be found today, with slight modifications. Israeli repression without positive incentives towards the Palestinians is arguable more visible today than at any time previously; witness the Gaza war of 2008/09 and the economic punishment for the PA’s statehood bid in 2011. There has been no easing of the occupation, while successive Israeli governments have failed to deliver a vision or plan for the occupied territories for many years. Hizbullah has effectively reduced the fear and awe effect further, and it is notable that in May 2011, Palestinians broke through the border fence between Syria and Israel and entered the Israeli side without fear. As for the issue of internal dissent and divisions, they are less focused on the occupation than in 1987, but they are definitely present: witness the massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv in 2011 against government’s social and economic policies, from which the settler community was conspicuously absent. When it comes to failed diplomatic measures and settlement building, the path of the political process the last few years have been strewn with failed plans and expansions of settlements.

Lastly, the 1987 intifada started as “routine” “disturbances” in the territories, specifically in Jabaliyya refugee camp in Gaza, and it took Israelis, PLO officials and international observers some time to realize that something qualitatively new had in fact happened to Palestinian contention.

This is nothing more than impressionistic speculation, obviously, but in the light of the current small, but still energetic non-violent resistance movement in the West Bank, the political future in Palestine is perhaps more exciting than it would seem on the surface.