As violence between Israel and Hamas escalates and violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel spreads, many observers are starting to ask whether we are witnessing the beginning of a third Palestinian intifada. Comparing the conditions today to those that produced the two previous Palestinian uprisings reveals both some striking similarities and some significant differences.
Intifada, which means “shaking off” in Arabic, is the term Palestinians use to describe two seminal events in the history of their long national struggle. The first intifada was a largely unarmed mass uprising by Palestinians that began in the Gaza Strip in December 1987 and quickly spread across the West Bank, much to the surprise of Israel’s political and military leadership. Many Palestinian men, women, and children took part in a wide variety of acts of protest, including street demonstrations, rioting, general strikes, boycotts of Israeli products, and refusals to pay taxes. This continued for years, gradually petering out in the early 1990s. By the time it was over, approximately 2,000 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli army, and many more injured and imprisoned, while 180 Israeli civilians and 80 Israeli soldiers had been killed by Palestinians.
The second intifada, which started in September 2000 and continued until 2005, was much bloodier than the first. Between 3,000 and 3,300 Palestinians were killed and approximately 1,000 Israelis. Unlike the first, the second intifada was essentially an armed rebellion carried out by an assortment of Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Fatah. Their weapon of choice was the suicide bomber, typically young men and women strapped with explosives who detonated themselves in the midst of Israeli civilians. In response to these terrorist attacks, Israel assassinated many of the leaders of these militant groups (killing many innocent Palestinians in the process), and the Israeli army invaded and reoccupied Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank, which it had previously withdrawn from during the Oslo peace process.
Despite the differences, both intifadas emerged from some common causes. They were both started by local Palestinian activists, mostly from a younger generation who had grown up in the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli rule. These activists desperately wanted to end the military occupation they lived under, and the restrictions, humiliations, and daily frustrations that went with it, and they saw the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements and the growing number of Jewish settlers as a pressing threat to their collective rights and national aspirations.
Both intifadas were initially driven by popular frustration with the Palestinian leadership at the time. Palestinian protesters in the first intifada had lost patience with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ineffectual armed struggle against Israel, and many felt that the PLO’s leadership, then based in distant Tunisia, was disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Palestinians and unable to help them, so they took matters into their own hands. Palestinian militants in the second intifada (many of whom had taken part in the first uprising) were also disappointed with Palestinian leaders, who now led the Palestinian Authority, cooperating with Israel to manage the day-to-day affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Feeling alienated from their aging, autocratic leadership, and angered by widespread corruption, cronyism, and nepotism by PA officials, young militants decided to seize the initiative and take up arms against Israel.
The chain of events that led to the current spiral of Israeli-Palestinian violence is specific—starting with cellphone videos of Palestinian youth assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews, then a provocative march through the streets of Jerusalem by far-right Jewish extremists accompanied by attacks against Palestinians, then growing demonstrations in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem against the attempt by Jewish settlers (backed by a discriminatory Israeli law) to evict local Palestinian families from their homes, then the heavy-handed and violent response of Israeli security forces to Palestinian protests, and especially their forced entry into the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
While the specifics may differ from the previous intifadas, the collective grievances that propelled the first and second intifadas are, sadly, still very salient today. Then and now, Palestinians have been protesting and challenging their forced displacement and dispossession, political disenfranchisement, economic deprivation, and the administrative and legal discrimination they face under Israeli occupation, which has now continued for more than five decades (since Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war).
The conditions Palestinians live under in the occupied territories have not fundamentally changed, despite the fact that Gaza is now ruled by Hamas (Israel still controls it from the outside). The decadeslong persistence of these conditions is what fuels Palestinian anger and despair, protests and violence. One notable thing that has changed, however, is their weaponry, which has evolved from slingshots in the first intifada, to the explosive vests in the second, to the rockets currently being fired into Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In recent weeks, another generation of young Palestinians has come out to protest, to fight, and to confront Israeli security forces, just as their predecessors did when the first and second intifadas began. They too are fed up with the failures of a Palestinian leadership—politically divided and geographically fragmented—that is now widely perceived as ineffectual and even illegitimate.
Does all this mean, then, that we are at the brink of another intifada, as some may hope and others fear? The short answer is no. The large protests that have taken place in Jerusalem in recent weeks, the rockets that are currently raining down on Israel, and the rioting by some Palestinian youth in cities and towns across Israel are all very serious, interconnected developments, but they do not amount to a collective uprising against Israel. For that to occur, there would need to be massive protests and/or major violence sustained over many months, if not years. A third intifada is highly unlikely simply because the Palestinian leadership will not allow it or support it. Although both previous intifadas began spontaneously, they continued because they had the support of the Palestinian leadership at the time. The PLO played an essential role in supporting and sustaining the first uprising, and the PA (under Yasser Arafat’s leadership) actively supported the second.
Nowadays, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes violence against Israel because, unlike his predecessor, he firmly believes that it doesn’t serve Palestinian interests (Abbas viewed the second intifada as a disaster for Palestinians). PA security forces in the West Bank continue to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts to prevent attacks against Israelis and arrest those suspected of planning or carrying out such attacks. That’s why there have still been relatively few attacks against Israelis in the West Bank, although there has been an uptick in recent weeks. The PA not only tries to stop Palestinians in the West Bank from engaging in violence against Israel, it also works to counter popular nonviolent resistance against Israel because Abbas and his associates are very wary of any mass mobilization by Palestinians in the West Bank. They fear, with good reason, that the PA itself could become the target of any mass protests. A popular Palestinian uprising—whether peaceful or violent—is the last thing they want considering how authoritarian and unpopular the PA has become in recent years.
The Hamas regime in Gaza, on the other hand, is only too happy to encourage Palestinians in the West Bank to rebel against Israel and the PA. If it could initiate and support a popular uprising there, it surely would, but its ability to do so is limited. Within Gaza itself, Hamas is no less authoritarian than the PA. It wants to lead, if not control, any form of “resistance” against Israel (which is why Hamas quickly took control of the “Great March of Return” and the mass demonstrations at the de facto border with Israel in 2018–19).
Hamas’ leadership clearly decided to get involved in the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which started in Jerusalem, primarily because it serves Hamas’ interests—in particular, by presenting themselves and not their more secular rivals in the West Bank as the true defender of Palestinians and of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Having already achieved that PR coup, and drawn renewed international attention to the plight of Gazans living under Israeli blockade (for the past 14 years), Hamas has reportedly been seeking a cease-fire with Israel. Once Israel accepts a cease-fire—after its decision-makers believe that Hamas has been hit hard enough to restore Israeli deterrence—Hamas will resume its previous role of policing other militants in Gaza, and generally preventing them from firing rockets into Israel. A prolonged violent confrontation with Israel is not in Hamas’ interests because it could ultimately jeopardize Hamas rule in Gaza. This calculus will only change if the Israeli army reoccupies Gaza and overthrows Hamas’ regime, which is improbable because Israel has no desire to directly rule over the densely populated territory and its impoverished inhabitants.
With the PA governing most Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas governing Palestinians in Gaza—both repressively—there is little prospect for a popular uprising in either area. It’s no coincidence that the Palestinians who have mobilized the most in recent weeks are those not under PA or Hamas control, but Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Neither group, however, will be able to mount, let alone sustain, an uprising against Israel by themselves.
Geographically fragmented, and with a divided and undemocratic leadership intent on maintaining their own power and prerogatives, Palestinians are in no position to wage another intifada against Israel. Though their collective aspirations and individual needs remain as unfulfilled as they were when the first and second intifadas broke out, there is little chance that a third one will take place anytime soon.