The character and future of the current Intifadah, despite its escalation, is marred by a lot of ambiguity. The Intifadah faces immense challenges, led by Palestinian division, but at the same time, is sustained by several factors led by the impasse in the peace process.
The Jerusalem Intifadah has had a profound effect on Israel on all political, security, and economic levels. The Israeli political establishment is concerned about losing control of events, which it fears might lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA), should the Intifadah reach its peak.
However, recent indicators predict the PA is shifting its position, with its security forces implementing serious measures on the ground to halt the Intifadah, thus deepening concerns regarding the future of the current Intifadah.
Regarding the options of the Israeli government for confronting the Intifadah, they range between continuing down the current path, which combines pressure and containment; and seeking to reactivate the path of negotiations with the PA. This is while bearing in mind that the Netanyahu government will not be drawn to the negotiation path until the Intifadah escalates further, and only if the move enjoys support inside his coalition government. Netanyahu may have to amend his coalition lineup to implement this option.
It is unlikely Netanyahu would resort to escalate events in the Gaza Strip (GS), unless the Intifadah escalates in a way that produces insurmountable pressures, and Netanyahu fails to persuade his coalition to reactivate negotiations.
The current Jerusalem Intifadah stands out from previous Palestinian movements in that it is alternating its geographical center of gravity in historical Palestine. The Intifadah began with a relatively strong momentum but was confined geographically, but qualitative escalations soon overtook popular protests and spread into various regions of Palestine. While the pattern of operations has had a varying pace and intensity, the dominant character has been the individual nature of the operations.
Nevertheless, the current Intifadah continues to have an ambiguous character, and its future is marred by uncertainty. It currently faces a number of challenges led by the following:
– Palestinian division and lack of national accord on even the naming of the intifada, let alone its nature and future.
– Hesitance by the symbols of Palestinian factions to participate in its events fearing the occupation’s retaliation, but also internal and political calculations that shape their attitudes, including those of Fatah.
– The fact that the popular movement has been confined to a specific geography, and then the relative decline of the protests because the PA and its security forces changed their stance and are now poised to crackdown on popular confrontations with the occupation.
– Increased security cooperation between the Palestinian security forces and the occupation forces relative to the beginning of the Intifadah, meaning there has been a decision made by the PA to rein it in.
– The preoccupation of the Arab and Muslim nations with their internal affairs and the dominance of regional agendas as the Palestinian issue falls down the list of priority in the region.
– Regional and Western collusion to nip the Intifadah in the bud, and the efforts undertaken by John Kerry in this regard including the accords he brokered with respect to al-Aqsa Mosque.
Second: Factors That Drive the Escalation of the Jerusalem Intifadah
On the other hand, there are several factors that could drive the escalation of the Intifadah, including:
– The impasse in the peace process. Indeed, the failure of the settlement project has weakened the Oslo Accords, and made them devoid of any political substance. The PA now appears like an entity whose sole function is to protect the occupation and disrupt resistance efforts.
– Assaults by settlers against Palestinians, and the rising number of so-called Price Tag attacks by the Israeli right amid complacency and collusion by the Israeli police with the settlers during their attacks on Palestinian villages. These assaults have been de-escalated for the time being under pressure from the Netanyahu government, with a view to contain the current confrontations.
– Despite the reduction of raids by settlers against al-Aqsa Mosque, they continue though in limited numbers by the settlers, the reduction being aimed at containing the Intifadah. No doubt, the raids on the mosque are among the leading causes of the eruption and perhaps the continuation of the current Intifadah.
– The economic hardship has inflamed popular resentment, and this is perhaps one of the leading failures of the Oslo project, which promised prosperity to the Palestinians.
– The weakness of the Palestinian official leadership and its unjustified adherence to the peace process despite its abject failure mainly because of the intransigence of Israeli right-wing governments, and the inability of this leadership to develop other options.
Third: Positions of International, Regional and Local Parties
At the international level: The international agenda is preoccupied with the Syrian crisis, and the ongoing regional conflict in the region, as well as the fight against terrorism. At the moment, the Palestinian issue is not considered a pressing one by the international powers. Perhaps the most notable international engagement in this regard was Kerry’s visit to the region and his accords with Jordan regarding the al-Aqsa Mosque.
At the regional level: The region is living in a state of flux that is unprecedented since World War I, where regional powers are battling amid sectarian and ethnic polarization. The Palestinian issue is absent from the region’s priorities in a very remarkable way. However, some regional powers are coordinating with Israel and the PA to suppress the current Intifadah, because in the event of its escalation, it could adversely impact the counter-revolutions currently dominating regional affairs.
At the local level: Fatah is divided with regard to the Intifadah. Most of its leadership that subscribe to Oslo do not want to escalate the Intifadah, and want only to exploit it to pressure Netanyahu in order to reactivate the negotiations. Others in Fatah want to become involved in and escalate the Intifadah, but this faction does not appear to be influential in Fatah’s internal equation. Meanwhile, Fatah youths are relatively involved in the Intifadah but are hesitant to take part in the popular protests, which have started to recede because of pressure from Palestinian security forces.
Hamas wants to escalate the Intifadah, but appears as though not wanting to shoulder its burden, instead wanting it to take on a general popular direction, perhaps because it cannot lead it alone and does not want to be singled out by the occupation.
The other factions such as Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also have the desire and are working on the ground, within their capabilities, to escalate the Intifadah, albeit to a lesser degree than Hamas.
For its part, the PA was not keen in the beginning to act against the Intifadah on the ground, because the head of the PA aspired to use it as a means to put pressure on Netanyahu to improve his position.
It was leaked that Mahmud ‘Abbas negotiated over ending the Intifadah in return for: having international observers at al-Aqsa Mosque; returning al-Aqsa to pre-2000 status; stopping the settlement building; and releasing the fourth batch of prisoners.
However, current indications on the ground and Israeli security reports suggest there has been a shift in the PA’s position.
This is evident on the ground, where the security forces have started to prevent popular protests from clashing with occupation forces. Meanwhile, security coordination has increased to the extent that it has been praised by Israeli security forces.
Perhaps the explanation for this shift lies in the fact that the PA is averse to the escalation of the Intifadah in a way that it would lose control of it, in parallel with regional and international pressures on the president of the PA to stop it.
Fourth: Factors Necessary for the Escalation of the Intifadah
The current Intifadah requires several catalysts to increase its momentum towards more politically fruitful levels, including: Breaking the state of Palestinian division, apart from the complexities of reconciliation, to unify national action. That is, to isolate mutual contradictions from the battle with the occupation. Otherwise, the Palestinian situation, if it continues in its present path, will continue to enable the occupation to continue its strategy of land grabs, settlement, Judaization of Jerusalem, and the division of al-Aqsa Mosque.
To steer, manage, and politically benefit from the Intifadah, it is important to establish a joint national commission of various Palestinian forces, and rather quickly before the momentum weakens further. Despite the preoccupation of the regional surrounding with internal conflicts, the current Intifadah needs the support of regional powers or some, politically and logistically, even at the minimum levels.
Escalating it on the ground requires expanding it geographically to other areas outside Jerusalem where the Intifadah has weakened, and Hebron which has taken on a great burden, to involve broader segments of the Palestinian people.
Fifth: Messages Issued by the Intifadah
The Jerusalem Intifadah has sent out several messages including the fact that the Oslo generation has risen up and the “new Palestinian” theorized by Dayton never materialized. The Intifadah has cemented in the Palestinian psyche the notion that Palestine remains in the phase of national liberation and has not reached the phase of statehood and its prosperity, as was otherwise claimed by Oslo. Thus, it is obvious there is a need to find other options for Palestine than the failed Oslo path.
The Intifadah’s preliminary political results, led by the foiling of the plan to divide al-Aqsa Mosque, reflect the worthwhileness of the resistance option, even with the available means, no matter how the balance of power with the occupation is skewed and even if the Palestinian issue is being treated with betrayal, locally and regionally.
The Intifadah revealed that the occupation does not want a settlement, but just wants to buy time to achieve its strategy of taking full control of Palestinian territory through settlement, Judaization of Palestine and appropriation of al-Aqsa Mosque.
The most important message that that the current Intifadah sends out is that the Palestinian people are always ahead of their leaders. The young people involved in the Jerusalem Intifadah express an overwhelming Palestinian will to confront the occupation even in the event all options are blocked for the factions, or more precisely, for the leadership of the PA.
Sixth: The Effects of the Intifadah on the Israeli Side and the Attitudes of Israeli Factions
1. In the Political Sphere
The prevailing attitude in Israeli forums was that the current Intifadah would quickly fade given the prevailing conditions in Palestine and the region. However, it has surprised all sides with its continuation. Its relative escalation, and the dominance of the individual character of its operations, have created confusion in Israeli political arena, with sharp differences among the right-wing government members as well as the opposition.
The extremist right wing parties in the government, led by the Jewish Home party, believe there is a need for settlement building to continue and for al-Aqsa Mosque division scheme to be pursued despite the pressure from the Intifadah. Other factions even want an incursion into the West Bank along the lines of Operation Defensive Shield carried out by Sharon during the previous Intifadah. Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, is considered one of the prominent leaders who pressure Netanyahu to take such decisions.
The core of the coalition (i.e., Likud) seems divided vis-à-vis the Intifadah. However, Likud leader Netanyahu is seeking to contain the Intifadah through a low-level confrontation that includes collective punishment, changing the rules of engagement for soldiers who come into contact with Palestinians, and using a divide-and-conquer tactic with Palestinian regions, rewarding calm areas and punishing those areas where activists hold protests.
The Israeli government has also tried to blackmail Palestinian merchants into criticizing the Intifadah and helping suppress it in return for permits to enter Israel (The 1948 Palestinian occupied territories). Israel has also reached out to Palestinian journalists and some elites of the PA to demonize the Intifadah. Netanyahu also made an unprecedented move, banning the Islamic Movement in Israel, while pressuring the PA by way of regional powers to stop in the Intifadah. This is in addition to asking the US government to de-escalate the situation, with the US dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the region. Kerry brokered accords regarding al-Aqsa Mosque with Jordan. Netanyahu also sought some “good will” measures to compel the PA to crackdown on the Intifadah, but did not implement them in the end under pressure from Minister Bennett.
As for the opposition parties, the Zionist Camp party led by Herzog has criticized Netanyahu’s conduct against the Intifadah, calling for a political settlement with regional participation and disengagement with the Palestinians to avoid a binational state. The other main opposition party Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) led by Yair Lapid has accused Netanyahu of being powerless to confront the Intifadah, also calling for reactivating negotiations. As for the Israeli Beiteinu party led by Lieberman, it accused Netanyahu of weakness and called for the resumption of targeted assassinations.
Meanwhile, the direct political effects of the Intifadah include:
-Halting the plans for dividing al-Aqsa Mosque, and preventing ministers and members of Knesset from trespassing the grounds in order to de-escalate tension.
– The Intifadah has undermined the strategy of the Zionist right based on managing the conflict without resolving it. Pressures have increased on Netanyahu to activate the political track from various sides, including the security forces.
– The Intifadah has confused the calculations of Netanyahu’s rightwing government, and created sharp contrasts within the government regarding the best approach to the Palestinian side.
– The Intifadah has deepened the divergence between the political and security establishments regarding how to deal with the Palestinian side. Accusations of incompetence flew between the two sides regarding tackling the Intifadah and the Palestinian issue as a whole.
– The political establishment is studying several options to deal with the Intifadah, including facilitating infrastructure projects in PA areas that have been on hold for a long time.
2. In the Security Sphere
The Netanyahu government ordered Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to summon 13 reserve brigades and deploy them in the West Bank and Israel. The Intifadah, despite its low pace especially in terms of popular protests, represents a major security concern for the security agencies, and the latter has presented repeated assessments to the political establishment recommending not tackling the Intifadah through security means, and recommending a political approach.
Netanyahu, Ya‘alon, and Eizenkot agree on the way to tackle the Intifadah through limited responses without wide-scale campaigns, fearing provoking new segments of the Palestinian people into participating in the Intifadah.
The most prominent themes of the security assessment conveyed to the political establishment regarding the current Intifadah include: the rise in shooting attacks; the decline in popular confrontations which are now briefer and smaller; and the reluctance of Fatah youths to participate. The same estimates indicate lone-wolf stabbing and ramming attacks have decline.
At the level of the PA, Israeli estimates note a drop in mobilization in the PA’s official media, especially in relation to al-Aqsa Mosque, and an increase in security coordination at the highest level as the Palestinian security forces cracked down against confrontations with an increase in arrest of activists especially Hamas members.
At the same time, however, the assessments indicate that despite the “improvement” in the performance of the Palestinian security forces, controlling individual attacks is not possible. The Palestinian security forces are active in fighting resistance cells and networks and popular protests only.
Perhaps among the leading security implications of the Intifadah are:
-The Israeli army command is concerned about being drained as happened in the previous Intifadah, and the obstruction of the five-year plan of the army prepared by Eizenkot at the beginning of his tenure.
-The inclination in Israel to name the Palestinian protests as Intifadah, requiring enhancing and changing the approach to dealing with it, increasing the cost of doing so.
-The security mobilization exhausts the security forces and the army, and their budget.
-Around 77% of Jews in the Israeli occupation state have said they have lost their sense of personal security, which has fallen to alarming levels. At the peak of the unrest, public transport is disrupted, and even education and most levers of the economy as was seen in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
-Fears among the political establishment of the collapse of the PA and the demise of the security coordination, one of the most effective tools for guaranteeing the security of Israel.
– Arab World For Research and Development (AWRAD) firm said in a poll conducted on 10/12/2015 that 86% of Palestinians support armed attacks, while 53% supported armed resistance as a solution to end occupation. This pro-resistance attitude in Palestine worries the Israeli security establishment.
3. In the Economic Sphere
Perhaps one of the clearest repercussions of the Jerusalem Intifadah is the one felt by the Israeli economy, beginning with tourism and not ending with commodities, stock markets, investments, and trade markets. In some areas like West Jerusalem, the impact reached up to 70%.
The Israeli press, and among them the Makor Rishon newspaper, have reported that the losses of the first month of the Intifadah were estimated at NIS 5 billion ($1.3 billion) from the GDP, mostly from the decline in tourism especially in Jerusalem (50% decline). In October and November 2015, the Israeli economy lost up to NIS 10 billion ($2.6 billion).
Among the direct losses is the fact that the Israeli company was forced to transfer NIS 4 billion ($1 billion) to cover additional army expenses at the start of the Intifadah. The government’s tax revenues decreased by about NIS 1.5 billion ($0.4 billion), with a threat of recession looming. Palestinians stopped buying Israeli goods at a rate of 17%, while the shekel’s value against the dollar deteriorated. According to Israeli economist Ayelet Nir, the population’s loss of the sense of security meant that fewer people went out, causing significant losses to the markets. The impact of the Intifadah on the economy has exceeded that of the war on Gaza Strip in 2014.
Seventh: Israel’s Options for Tackling the Jerusalem Intifadah
The course of the Jerusalem Intifadah so far appears uncertain. The most probably scenario is that the Intifadah would sustain its current pace, unless it escalates due to sudden dramatic events.
On the Israeli side, the Israeli government’s next move depends on how much the Intifadah evolves and escalates primarily, and also on interactions within the coalition government, the extent of popular Israeli pressure, and international pressures.
The Israeli government has recourse to the following options vis-à-vis the Intifadah:
First Option: Invading the West Bank or some of its areas, and remaining there for several months to manage the crisis until it blows over. This option:
• Has been pushed by some rightwing forces before they backtracked for its impracticality.
• Is ineffective, for there are no targets to be attacked or controlled.
• Most army and security leaders as well as politicians do not support this option for its ineffectiveness, and also because they fear it could escalate rather than rein in the Intifadah.
Second Option: unilateral withdrawal from some areas of the West Bank and without an agreement with the PA along the lines of Sharon’s plan in Gaza Strip, with the annexation of large settlement blocs, and keeping large areas of Area C under occupation. The most prominent notes on this option:
• Despite the fact that the US will go to elections and become preoccupied away from the area, and that the international and regional environments are also preoccupied away from the Palestinian issue, the implementation of this option will be met with many major obstacles.
• The effects of the Intifadah are not deep enough to the point of forcing the Israeli government to go about this option.
• The annexation option is attractive to rightwing factions in the coalition, but the unilateral withdrawal option is not. Therefore, implementing this option would depend on Netanyahu’s ability to convince his partners.
• This track most likely will inflame the Palestinian situation and escalate it further.
Third Option: Attacking Gaza to distract away from the Intifadah and shift the focus to the Gaza Strip. This option:
• Has high military cost and is not supported by the security and military institutions as of this writing.
• The failure to fill the gaps that emerged in the army in 2014 produced by the war so far, does not encourage this option.
• The discouraging performance of the Israeli economy undermines the odds for this option.
Fourth Option: Bargaining with the PA and reactivating the negotiations to absorb the tension and de-escalate the Intifadah, while encouraging the PA to do more to stop the Intifadah. However:
• Rightwing components of the coalition government are not ready for this track.
• Washington is not convinced of this track in the presence of the current Israeli government.
• The weakness of the PA leadership, and its inability to sell a peace project with a low threshold in line with the needs of the Israeli right.
Fifth Option: Tackling the Intifadah through a mid-level confrontation ranging between pressure, and containment while betting on the ability to rein it in using these tactics.
• All indications on the ground suggest this is the option being pursued at present.
• This track gives Netanyahu the chance to preserve his coalition and deal with the Intifadah at a reasonable cost.
• At the same time, Netanyahu would be able to resist having to activate the political track being called for by some opposition forces and security agencies.
• This option is less costly than other options, both politically and militarily.
Netanyahu’s options according to the existing equation ranges between continuing down the current path, i.e., pressure and containment, and seeking the resumption of negotiations. However, Netanyahu would only pursue this path if the Intifadah escalates to higher levels, and if there is accord within his coalition, which he may have to expand or amend. It is unlikely at the present time for Netanyahu to resort to war on Gaza Strip, unless the Intifadah goes fully out of control and Netanyahu is unable to convince his coalition of negotiations.
1. Deepening national unity to support and strengthen the Intifadah.
2. Calling the PA to end security coordination with Israel and refrain from any measures to weaken, disrupt or contain the Intifadah.
3. Supporting the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their Intifadah against occupation at the Arab, Islamic, and international levels.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. ‘Abdul-Rahman Farhanah for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.