Regardless of what label we should use to describe what is happening in Palestine, be it an uprising, an Intifadah, or a protest movement, what is certain is that the people have overcome the state of paralysis of the Palestinian leadership.
They rose up to give the occupation a message that al-Aqsa Mosque is a red line that cannot be crossed. The Israeli provocations and repeated incursions into al-Aqsa were now allowed to pass without a response, as the Palestinian youths came out to defend their holy sites and their lands.
The current clashes between unarmed Palestinian youths and heavily armed Israeli forces could follow three possible scenarios, each with its own set of determinants:
First scenario: the uprising is put down through security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, in return for some marginal gains.
Second scenario: Stagnation, where popular protests escalate then de-escalate, without evolving into a fully blown Intifadah because of several conflicting factors.
Third scenario: The confrontations escalate and expand in the direction of a real Intifadah, by ensuring the continuity of its events and the evolution of attacks, through an active field leadership, and a clear political vision and program.
Some have wondered why Palestinian youths have taken the initiative without guidance from faction leaders and engaged in clashes with the Israeli forces with a view to repel the threat to al-Aqsa Mosque, and attempts to Judaize it or divide it. Some have speculated that despair and frustration is behind the clashes of the youth with Israeli forces, but events have proven that most youths taking part are not depressed or desperate. Rather, most of them are educated and mature young people who have made their decisions with awareness and calculation. Furthermore, the Intifadah has been socially broad-based; for example, Dalia Nassar is a young Palestinian woman with a Christian background, and was one of the first who came out into the streets. She is a graduate student of societal psychology, and despite having been hit with a bullet now lodged near her heart, she is still determined to confront the occupation.
Settlements and Israeli Incursions into al-Aqsa Mosque
The Palestinian issue over the course of the Arab Spring has suffered decline and retreat. The Arab world has been preoccupied with revolutions and counter-revolutions, something that Israel has exploited to expedite the Judaization of the West Bank (WB) in general and Jerusalem in particular. In 2014 alone, the WB settlement activity increased by 40% compared to the outgoing period, particularly in Jerusalem. Settlement building permits in Jerusalem under Netanyahu’s third government exceeded the figure under his second government, being 4,255 and 3,699 permits respectively.
In brief, Israel is seriously planning to alter the features of the city, in preparation for implementing its plan to build the so-called “Temple.” The most dangerous manifestations of this appeared through the attempts to temporally divide the mosque between Muslims and Jews. The number of settlers who raided al-Aqsa Mosque rose from 8,528 in 2013 to 10,926 in 2014.
Clashes also increased between settlers and al-Aqsa Mosque defenders. This culminated with the Israeli Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel trespassing into al-Aqsa Mosque compound in September 2015. In 2013, Ariel had called for building the “Jewish Third Temple” after removing al-Aqsa Noble Sanctuary. Furthermore, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely made remarks saying “It’s my dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount.” Although she claimed this was a personal opinion, given her political position, this reflects the ambitions of the Israeli political establishment in one way or another.
Leadership Crisis and the Disruption of the Peace Process
It has become evident to the majority of Palestinians that the leaderships of the PA and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are unable to fulfill Palestinian aspirations. Over two decades, there was a complete failure to reach any final peace settlement, while Israeli efforts to alter the WB geographic and demographic reality to eliminate any hope for establishing a Palestinian state are very clear. In a public opinion polling conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, more than 65% wanted Mahmud ‘Abbas, who has been president for ten years, to resign. Abbas’s approval ratings have declined from 44% three months earlier to 38% at present. The Fatah movement is also facing an internal crisis, with near-complete breakdown in communication between its leaders and activists on the ground, according to some observers. This was the explanation some have given for why the Seventh Conference of Fatah has been postponed, out of fear the organizational gap could be aggravated both in the Palestinian interior and the diaspora.
Against the path of the peace process, the Palestinian resistance endures. The resistance has demonstrated its ability to confront Israeli occupation, if it enjoys Arab and Islamic cover, and if self-capabilities and the internal nurturing environment are available. This much was clear during Operation the Eaten Straw (al-‘Asf al-Ma᾿kul) or what the Israeli dubbed Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014. However, despite this, the changes that took place in Egypt after the military coup there, and the sustained escalation against the resistance, in addition to the PA’s continued crackdown on the resistance in WB, and security collaboration with Israel, have obstructed the path of resistance.
According to a report by the Committee of the Families of the Detainees in the West Bank, the PA in September alone detained 82 people, including 52 former detainees. The PA continued to summon and detain youths and “instigators” engaged in the uprising in parallel with the escalation of the Intifadah itself. All this has contributed to disrupting the Palestinian resistance, leaving the choice of popular uprising and Intifadah the only available option to confront the Israeli occupation.
• Continuity: It is clear that the Palestinian youths who launched the Jerusalem Intifadah are now the most important player when it comes to determining its course. The escalation of confrontations, and overcoming the bottleneck phase in terms of continuity and proliferation, are the most important factors in the evolution of the uprising into an Intifadah throughout Palestine, which could spread also beyond the WB and Gaza Strip (GS) to reach the 1948 occupied Palestinian territories. It is clear that the 1948 occupied Palestinian territories are no less enthusiastic in confronting the Israeli occupation. There are estimates that around 80% of attacks on Israeli forces and settlers came so far from East Jerusalem, including the attack in Negev on 19/10/2015. In this regard, some experts suggest that the participation of Palestinians from the lands of 1948 in such operations could be easier, given that they carry Israeli identification papers, which makes it simpler for them to move and choose their targets. However, the nature of their involvement and the repercussions must be carefully studied.
• Organization: Based on the above, it is imperative to move from spontaneous attacks to an organized Intifadah, under an effective leadership and political program. This may require establishing an undeclared leadership of the uprising. Here, we must stress that all Palestinian factions must rise above narrow interests, and live up to the aspirations of the Palestinian street. They must develop an interim goal commensurate with the escalation of the Intifadah and the sacrifices and aspirations of the Palestinian people. At the bare minimum, the goal must be to halt the schemes of temporal and spatial division of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Judaization of Jerusalem, then expand towards the goal of defeating the occupation and the settlers. The Palestinian forces must build a unified media structure for popular mobilization and confronting distortion and counter-propaganda.
• The Palestinian Authority Security Forces: The most serious threat to the current uprising would be a crackdown by the PA security forces in WB, through security or political understandings with Israel. The security forces continue to this moment collaborating with Israel. Interestingly, following the commando attack by group thought to be part of Hamas near the settlement of Itamar close to the city of Nablus in early October, the security forces interrogated one of the members of the group who was hit during the operation. Hours later, he was apprehended by the Israeli forces along with the rest of the members of the group, with the Palestinian security forces accused of facilitating it. Moreover, Mahmud ‘Abbas issued orders to military commanders in the security forces on October 5 to “thwart” Israeli plans to escalate the situation and instigate violence. There were also contacts from PA leaders with Palestinian forces and parties in the territories occupied in 1948, calling on them to help de-escalate the situation.
• Peaceful or Militarized Intifadah: There is an ongoing debate among Palestinian elites regarding whether the Intifadah should be militarized or whether it should be peaceful. The question here is mainly about the boundary between “militarization” and “peacefulness”. Indeed, do throwing stones, Molotov cocktails, and knife attacks constitute militarization? The party that can estimate the need to develop and shape the Intifadah are the active leaders in the Intifadah, in order to sustain it and achieve its goals.
• The Arab, Islamic and International Support Base: No one disagrees that there is a clear difference in the interaction with the Palestinian issue between the grassroots level and the official level in the Arab, Muslim and western countries. At a time when we see the Arab street – albeit timidly – interacting with the Intifadah, it has overtaken the official response. Moreover, the popular interaction in Muslim and western countries is growing broader and larger. Here, we must stress the importance of securing popular support and restoring the cracks resulting from the Arab crises, from Egypt to Syria and elsewhere. There is a need to restore cohesion between resistance forces on one hand and pro-Palestinian Arab, Muslim and international activists on the other hand, on the basis of a clear orientation, namely the cause of Palestine.
• Israeli Reaction: The decisions of the Israeli inner cabinet on October 5 pushed in one way or another in the direction of the continuation of the confrontations. The cabinet authorized the police to impose curfews, approved the demolition of the homes of attackers and other harsh measures, and encouraged Israeli settlers to bear arms. According to Israeli daily Haaretz, “gun-and-ammo shops are being swamped by customers and the number of applications has jumped more than 50-fold to 8,000 a day since Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced he was easing the rules for getting a license.” So the extreme Israeli reaction in dealing with the confrontations will inflame public anger and increase the intensity of the Intifadah.
On the other hand, the Israeli awareness of the seriousness of the escalation of the Intifadah prompted the government to implement some measures to reduce the tensions and de-escalate the uprising. For example, Israel agreed to open al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims of all age groups for the Friday prayers on 23/10/2015. In addition, Israel made understandings with Jordan regarding al-Aqsa Mosque.
• US Diplomacy and Israeli-Jordanian Understandings: After the WB developments, US Secretary of State John Kerry launched diplomatic efforts, meeting with Jordanian leaders and Mahmud ‘Abbas in Amman, and then later with Benjamin Netanyahu. These meetings resulted in a series of understandings regarding al-Aqsa Mosque including: maintaining the status quo, where non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not to pray; placing surveillance cameras in the compound; and Israel pledging to respect the Jordanian role in overseeing the mosque in accordance to the peace treaty between Amman and Tel Aviv. Although some of these understandings could strengthen Israeli control over al-Aqsa Mosque, easing some of the restrictions on the mosque and preventing settlers from storming it could influence the pace and course of the Intifadah.
First: Suppressing the Intifadah Before it Spreads: Here we must stress that it would be difficult to achieve this without involving the PA security forces in WB. This direction could be reinforced by reviving the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and giving the PA some marginal gains, for example by releasing prisoners or giving it more control in some areas of direct contact to ensure clashes take place between Palestinians themselves.
Second: Stagnation Between Escalation and De-escalation: The Palestinian resistance forces would be unable to develop and guide the course of the Intifadah, rendering it a limited popular uprising lacking a clear strategy and a leadership able to protect it and secure an Arab, Islamic and International support base for it. Therefore, the masses would continue to interact with the events as they escalate and de-escalate accordingly.
Third: Confrontations Expand in Scope: What reinforces this scenario is the rising pace of the attacks and their diversity, and the realization by the Palestinian forces that the Intifadah is the ideal way to get out of the stalemate. However, the biggest challenge remains the ability to expand the scope of confrontations to include all WB areas, and impose a fait accompli on the PA security forces to disrupt their ability to suppress the Intifadah or intervene in the clashes between protesters and Israeli forces.
In general, it is difficult to say which scenario is most likely. At present, all three seem to have equal odds. However, if the Intifadah endures, continues, and spreads, the third scenario will be the most likely to take place.
• Forming a leadership framework on the ground that would include all the spectra of the Palestinian people, including independents and youth.
• Developing a political vision that includes fulfilling immediate demands, such as preventing settlers from entering al-Aqsa Mosque, stopping settlement building, removing Israeli checkpoints in WB, and lifting the GS siege as well as freeing prisoners, ahead of developing a sustained liberation project.
• Steering clear of narrow partisan interests, and securing the Intifadah and preventing its exploitation for negotiations-related calculations.
• Building an Arab, Islamic and international popular and official support base.
• Galvanizing external popular support, including fundraising and staging protests and events in Arab, Muslim, and Western nations.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Wael Sa‘ad for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based. .