In the town of Qalandia, hundreds of Palestinians gathered to mark the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba “catastrophe”.
|The ‘Iron Dome’ system, which attempts to intercept rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, lines the territorial border – but such sporadic attacks are unlikely to lead to an all-out popular uprising [GALLO/GETTY]|
As one country after another has been added to the list of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, efforts to apply a standard formula to explain the remarkable series of events over the past few months have largely fallen short. Even one of the more durable narratives – that a tech-savvy generation used social media to topple once-unshakeable regimes – has proven imperfect, at least according to a recent Pew poll in post-Mubarak Egypt that found that “two-thirds of the population (65 per cent) doesn’t use the internet or email”.
Protests marking the anniversary of the Nakba in Palestine are the latest to be explained by the “Arab Spring” phenomenon. There have even been repeated media references to the beginning of a third intifada. To be sure, hard-won concessions afforded to protest movements throughout the Arab World – particularly in Egypt – have opened space for the Palestinians, including the pending re-opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
However, if the “Arab Spring” formula has failed to adequately explain the outbreak of uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain, it is even less helpful in the case of Palestine. Barring a dramatic reappraisal and redress of the core issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict, another Palestinian intifada is inevitable. It is not, however, imminent.
There are a number of obstacles to overcome before another broad-based popular uprising is likely to occur. Chief among those obstacles is an “intifada fatigue”; a malaise in the body politic which is a natural response to years of upheaval. Palestinians paid a terrible price during the al-Aqsa intifada, which was met with a devastating military response from the first day. Beyond the near-constant violence of military incursions, curfew enforcement and home demolitions, the fundamentals of daily life were also under sustained attack: peoples’ ability to work, or go to school.
The intifada also saw a methodical campaign of arrest and assassination by Israel of the mid-level leadership of all Palestinian political factions, as well as the near-total elimination of the senior-most leadership (40,000 arrests between 2000 and 2006; upwards of 300 assassinations). This assault has left significant holes in the Palestinian national movement, and it takes time to regenerate that human capacity. It’s also one reason why the current leadership of the factions, particularly Hamas and Fatafh, have no appetite for an uprising at the present moment. The uprising can erupt as a popular movement, but it is imperative for the political parties to participate in order to sustain a longer-term campaign.
For Fatah, the party is in disarray: its organising ability has been severely weakened and its militia largely disarmed. The appointed president and prime minister of the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad respectively, both have far more to lose than to gain from an intifada. Indeed, the most significant achievement of the post-intifada period in Palestine has been the creation of a Palestinian Authority security force that Abbas and Fayyad have used to crack down on political opponents and dissent in the West Bank.
Far from supporting an intifada, the PA is the often the sharp end of the occupation’s spear; they are expressly trained and tasked to confront such an uprising. Unlike the first generation security forces established by Arafat and the CIA during the 1990s – and staffed largely with Fatah partisans – this latest iteration, formed under the auspices of US General Keith Dayton, has been subjected to person by person vetting by Israel to ensure there are no political affiliations in their ranks.
When General Dayton addressed the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy in his only public policy speech on the mission to train Palestinian forces, his “take away” message for the Israeli and US policymakers in attendance was on the effectiveness in quelling protests in the West Bank against Israel’s Cast Lead offensive in Gaza in December 2008. “Before the ground invasion, my IDF colleagues warned in confidence that massive civil unrest in the West Bank was coming. Some even predicted a third intifada,” said Dayton. “None of these predictions were true.”
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “a good portion of the Israeli army went off to Gaza from the West Bank – think about that for a minute – and the commander was absent for eight straight days.” Such is the level of cooperation between the IDF and PA forces.
Furthermore, it would seem that if Hamas were going to rise up against the PA security forces, it would have done so during the three-year campaign that devastated its social welfare apparatus, imprisoned thousands of its members and drove the movement, which handily won elections in the West Bank in 2006, underground. But after the June 2007 Fatah-Hamas battle in Gaza, there is no tolerance among Palestinians for internal, factional conflict.
For their part, Hamas is taking the long-view; they are being patient, waiting on developments in Egypt that have the possibility to alter the Palestinian relationship vis-a-vis Israel more than any indigenous uprising could hope for – including the end of the siege on Gaza. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal made the organisation’s position clear when they asked Nakba Day protesters in Egypt not to march on the Gaza border: “As a Palestinian resistance movement, we cannot expose Egypt to the burden or to more than it can handle now.”
Hamas appears willing to accept the status quo in the West Bank in exchange for the freedom to continue developing its authority in Gaza and a release of prisoners held by the PA. But unlike the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas is rebuilding and expanding its military capacity in preparation for the next inevitable confrontation, taking advantage of turmoil in Egypt to increase weapons imports through the tunnels into Gaza, according to Israeli intelligence assessments.
Interceptions and blockades
It takes time to learn to use these new weapons, and as events in Cairo continue to unfold, when the intifada does come, though it may feature a strong non-violent aspect in places like Jerusalem, it could well be that the military dimension is much more significant. As a recent STRATFOR intelligence analysis pointed out, an anti-Israel, pro-Hamas Cairo could lead to a significant base of operations in Gaza, “a bayonet pointed at Tel Aviv”.
A marked increase in the capacity of the rocket programme in Gaza, with access to the outside world through the Sinai ports, with allies in Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, presents a very different military posture than the Palestinians versus the world isolation of the al-Aqsa intifada. Israel is certainly planning for that, as evidenced by the deployment last month of the billion dollar “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, designed to intercept rockets in the air.
A final consideration: all of these obstacles and dynamics are taking place inside what is perhaps the most important challenge to an uprising – the eight metre-high, 700 km separation barrier that has enclosed Palestinians in the West Bank into isolated ghettos. Put another way, the wall has sought to create in the West Bank a series of Gaza Strips, with all the tactical and strategic consequences in struggle that are faced by people in Gaza.
The uprisings that began in Tunisia in December and spread throughout the region share some common attributes and have been no doubt inspiring to Palestinians, as they have been to peoples all over the world. Yet efforts to view Palestinian protests in light of the Arab uprisings, or to suggest they herald a third intifada fall short in explaining the current atmosphere in the occupied territories.
Jon Elmer is a Canadian journalist based in Bethlehem who has been covering the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank since 2003. His work has also appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, The Progressive, and IPS news.