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A new intifada? You’re asking the wrong question

Over the last few days, one question has been repeated over and over again: are we witnessing the beginning of a new intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)?

It is understandable that people are asking this: more than 500 Palestinians were injured in confrontations with Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank over 72 hours – a third of whom were shot with live ammunition or rubber-coated metal bullets.

Since last Thursday, four Israelis and four Palestinians have been killed in different incidents in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The latest fatality was a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in Aida refugee camp in northern Bethlehem on Monday.

But debating whether or not the ongoing clashes constitute a third intifada is less useful than an assessment of the facts, an important part of which is the data we have for violence in the OPT, both by Israeli occupation forces and the Palestinians resisting their presence.

In 2015 to date, 30 Palestinians have been killed, and 8 Israelis. A comparison with 2014 figures is not so helpful, because of two major Israeli offensives: ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’ and ‘Operation Protective Edge’. In 2013, however, 38 Palestinians were killed and 4 Israelis.

A database maintained by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, is a useful barometer of the level of Palestinian resistance in the OPT (once you get past the absurdity of Molotov cocktails targeting an occupying army being described as ‘terror attacks’).

Over a 12-month timespan from September 2014 to August 2015 inclusive (see Graph 1), the number of Palestinian attacks in the West Bank does vary, but has tended to range at between 100-150 incidents per month (targeting both occupation forces and settlers). Graph1

Graph 2, meanwhile, shows the number of ‘firebomb’ (i.e. Molotov cocktails) attacks recorded by Shin Bet over the same 12-month period. Again, there is no obvious, steady increase – though in East Jerusalem it is possible to discern a marked uptick in recent months that has been maintained. Graph2

Finally, in Graph 3, we see the number of Israeli raids on Palestinian communities, as well as how many Palestinians have been arrested, and injured. Taken together, these three graphs defy attempts to identify a straightforward trend or pattern. Graph3

The bigger picture, however, shows a clear increase in the number of Palestinian attacks on Israeli occupation forces and settlers. In 2011, Shin Bet recorded 320 such incidents in the West Bank: in 2012, this rose to 578, and in 2013, to 1,271 (including a five-fold increase in the use of firearms).

The relatively small number of Israeli fatalities in recent years – including, in 2012, a year when not a single Israeli was killed in the West Bank – can obscure this increase in Palestinian resistance (note that the vast majority of recorded ‘attacks’ are stone-throwing incidents or Molotov cocktails).

There are a number of factors at play here. The lack of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is part of the story, of course – but more significant is the main reason for this collapse in the peace process: an Israeli government ruled by the right and extreme-right.

Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Ya’alon, Miri Regev, Ayelet Shaked – the Israeli cabinet is packed with politicians whose commitment to Palestinian statehood is suspect or explicitly non-existent – but whose dedication to the colonisation of East Jerusalem and West Bank is a matter of record.

When Yair Lapid is the voice of moderation inside government, and Isaac Herzog is the face of the ‘opposition’, you know things are bad. Many Palestinians gave up on the official ‘peace process’ track a long time ago – now even the die-hard believers are doubting what these talks can achieve.

Meanwhile, the various aspects of Israel’s apartheid regime remain: settlements grow, land is expropriated, Israeli forces kill civilians with impunity, Palestinians languish in Israeli jails, homes are demolished, settler violence continues, and Palestinian freedom of movement is restricted.

On the other hand, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority’s political leadership and security forces are still opposed to a broader uprising. As Amira Hass put it, “Fatah’s shaky political condition precludes the convention of regular conferences, let alone the conducting of a new intifada.”

Writing in August, Mouin Rabbani pointed out how, for “most of the past decade”, the Palestinian Authority (PA) “has been systematically conducting offensive operations…against its own people and precisely in order to obstruct the emergence of a serious challenge to Israel’s occupation.”

It is those areas where PA forces wield less influence or are absent, such as the West Bank refugee camps, Area C, and most notably East Jerusalem, which have seen more consistent and intense confrontations with Israeli forces.

The factors Rabbani identified in the summer “that together conspire against renewed rebellion” have not disappeared. A groundswell of public support for a wider, more sustained and organised uprising, especially coming from Fatah activists, could change this, but it is unclear if this will materialise at the current juncture.

We have been here before. The Israeli media asked “Is this a new intifada?” as early as March 2006, almost a decade ago. A third intifada was described as “inevitable” but “not imminent” in 2011, “inevitable” again in 2012, while in 2013, an Israeli commanderannounced it had already begun.

Is this a new intifada? Simply put, it is too soon to tell, but probably not. However, rather than worrying about definitions or labels, it makes more sense to focus on the reality on the ground. This tells us that a new tide of Palestinian rebellion has been rising for the last few years, for the quite obvious reason that occupation, colonialism, and apartheid produces resistance.

Published first in Middle East Monitor.

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