A wave of Palestinian attacks has left Israelis shaken — and wondering: Is this the start of a third intifada? Two Connecticut professors weigh in.
By Cindy Mindell
First it was clashes on the Temple Mount. Then a mother and father, both in their 30s, were shot before the eyes of their four young children.
Next, two rabbis were killed in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City.
More attacks followed: a Jewish teenager was wounded in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City; a soldier was stabbed in the southern city of Kiryat Gat; a man was stabbed in Jerusalem’s Old City; a woman was at-tacked with stones as she drove to the West Bank settlement of Tekoa; a man was stabbed in the central city of Petah Tikva.
And so it goes.
The ominous events of the past several weeks have dominated the news, leaving Israelis fearing the outbreak of broader Palestinian violence.
“We’re at the opening of a third intifada,” wrote Israeli Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog on his Facebook page, referring to the first two violent Palestinian uprisings in the late 1980s and early 2000s that left thousands of Israelis and Palestinians dead. A third intifada would destroy the relative calm that Israelis have become accustomed to since the second intifada ended a decade ago.
But previous bouts of violence have made Israelis concerned about an intifada, only to wane after a few weeks. Last year saw a string of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem that did not spark wider unrest. And a wave of riots across the West Bank, prompted by the death of a Palestinian detainee in Israeli custody, led to the same fears in 2013, but the protests fizzled.
So, is a third intifada truly on its way?
Late last week, the Ledger asked two Connecticut professors — both experts on the the subject — to place the recent rash of terror attacks in Israel within the context of concerns over a third intifada.
Dr. Donna Robinson Divine (DD) is Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College. An expert on Middle East politics and cultures, Divine is the author of three books, including Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine.
She has held visiting appointments at Yale, Harvard and Hebrew University, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and several Fulbright grants. She is a resident of West Hartford.
Dr. Ronald Kiener (RK) is a professor of religion at Trinity College and currently chair of its Department of Religion.
He served as founding director of Trinity’s Jewish Studies Program, which he led for its first decade, and founding coordinator of Trinity’s major in Middle Eastern studies. He teaches an annual course en-titled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Kiener is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mellon Fellowship in Medieval Studies. He has also written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs for the Washington Post/L.A. Times wire service.
On Twitter, he is @bingoprof.
He lives in West Hartford.
JL: Let’s start with the big question: Are we looking at the start of the third intifada?
DD: For several reasons, I do not think the increase in violence and disturbances can be called the third intifada, though some people from the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Popular Front have called for the third intifada.
What we’re seeing now is just more of the kind of violence that has been occurring in Israel, the territories, and Jerusalem for the past couple of years — although there has been an increase driven, I think, by the lies spread, the attempt to enflame passion over the Al Aqsa mosque with rumors that the Jews are going to take it over. That’s always a flashpoint for arousing anger. So, in general, while this is certainly a challenging and serious situation, I don’t think it’s an intifada. My hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that, in the Arabic press – both print and TV or radio – are using words for what is happening that translate roughly as “outbursts,” “outbursts of violence,” or “disturbances,” coming more from presumed anger and frustration; the way you would have people who are so angry and upset and have nowhere to turn just lashing out. I think that’s more appropriately what the Arabs and Palestinians see as what’s going on.
RK: The Israeli daily paper, Yediot Ahronot, announced the week before in big headlines, “This is the Third Intifada.” The Guardian had a piece around the same time. Everyone seems to be talking about it. This is maybe the third or fourth time that people are predicting the third intifada and it seems to me that this is more a matter of journalistic click-bait than it is a matter of descending into a new round of what could be described as the third intifada. I don’t buy it yet. We’ve certainly had a very bad week. But there have been bad weeks before; there are very weak governments on both sides who aren’t interested in peace-processing, but at the same time they’re not interested in seeing the West Bank descend into chaos and mayhem. I would say that that’s evident on both sides – the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.
So, I understand that it’s very photogenic and that it feeds into a lot of gnawing anxieties that participants and observers have over the lack of any kind of diplomatic forward movement — and we all know that, in the ab-sence of diplomatic forward movement, violence is the usual response. But none of that means, for me at this moment, that we’re entering a third intifada. In any event, should my guess be wrong and we are, in fact, at the beginning of the third intifada, it will be very different than the first two.
JL: Different how?
DD: Unlike the first or second intifada, there doesn’t seem to be any committee or central organization. The first intifada was set off by groups of intellectuals on the West Bank who wanted to shake off the occupation. They realized that there was a tremendous imbalance of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So, they were cautioning the Palestinians at the beginning to confront the Israelis in a less violent way – not with guns or knives but with stones – to protect themselves, they thought, from fire that would be returned and kill the Palestinians. In the course of the first intifada, that was changed: when the Palestinians became sort of a symbol of resistance against Israel and other Palestinian organizations like the PLO and Hamas saw that it was a very popular movement, they made it more violent and took control over it. In its last several years, the first intifada became more violent and the more violent it became on the part of the Palestinians, the more casualties they had.
The second intifada was very well organized and the organization came from the top – from Arafat or his close associates. You had it not only heavily and centrally managed, but also funded. You had financing that was going to be sustainable over more than a day or two or three weeks. For example, with the suicide bombing attacks, it was almost like a little industry: you had people who were involved in the transportation, you had people who were involved in the making of the bombs, you had people who were involved in the scouting – in addition to people who blew themselves up. So you had an organizational structure that was well funded from outside.
Given what’s going on in the Middle East, it’s hard to imagine that lots of money would fund this. Even after the last meeting of international donors after Operation Protective Edge, the last Gaza war, you had more promises than deliveries of money. Even if Iran has a big windfall after the sanctions are lifted, they’re going to support Russian attacks in Syria and possibly in Iraq; they’ve got bigger fish to fry. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority know that if they lose power and just dissolve, they lose all outside sources of aid and they risk losing any influence to Hamas on the West Bank; there are little signs that ISIS affiliates are growing. So they know that their power and economic resources are on the line too.
RK: This is different mainly because, during and after the second intifada, Israel created a number of new security features that would make the possibility of regular suicide bombings in Israel proper very unlikely, as is the possibility that the Arab-Israelis would join – which was a feature of the second intifada, at least for a time. I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Arab-Israeli population is inclined to descend into the chaos that seems to be building, particularly in the northern part of the West Bank.
Just last week, I heard on Israeli TV that there’s absolutely no evidence of any kind of uniform instruction or command. What we’re seeing are the typical flash points: East Jerusalem, checkpoints, and northern West Bank – Jenin and Nablus. I think that we would have to see a much higher casualty rate – I hate to say it – and we would have to see the Israelis resorting, to a degree they haven’t engaged in yet, in using live ammunition. It’s a horrible thing to say but, preceding the second intifada, there were lots of stabbings and isolated incidents that then morphed into a kind of Gaza and West Bank uprising.
The Gaza Strip seems to be, for the moment, completely out of this, except for an occasional rocket fired from organizations that are acting in defiance of Hamas. Hamas has its own problems; the Palestinian Authority understands that if this situation unravels in the West Bank, they would likely see the unraveling of their bureaucracy and their quasi-government.
The competition on the West Bank is sort of between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas cells committing, on a fairly regular basis, attacks on Israeli citizens living in what they call Judea and Samaria. The Palestinian Authority is very much interested in maintaining all of its options and to do so, it has to remain the governing authority. And it doesn’t really play very well into Benjamin Netanyahu’s political environment to have an intifada break out in the West Bank.
Q: Is it or isn’t it in the interest of the Palestinians to initiate a new intifada?
DD: At this point, the Palestinians are not in a position financially to really launch any kind of sustained intifada that would require the kind of funds that they could mobilize like in 2000, during the second intifada. There are still plenty of Palestinians who remember the crackdowns and consequences of the second intifada, and as traumatic and awful that the second intifada was for Jewish Israelis – and it was incredibly traumatic – it was even harsher and more traumatic for Palestinians who had the West Bank essentially traversed and divided through checkpoints and an army that reoccupied large parts of the West Bank. Some of the consequences are still left in the West Bank – the building of the wall and all kinds of things that may make economic development and the kinds of ties you want in a community much more difficult. And while a lot of what was put in place to stop the violence of the second intifada has been lifted and moderated, there’s a heavy percentage of Palestinians who remember what it was like and how damaging that was to the economy and society. So most Palestinians, while they may in some ways be pleased when Israelis are killed or hurt or when the society is damaged, are not actively supporting the kind of violence that has erupted.
That is not to say that these kinds of lone wolf, more sporadic, less centrally organized attacks are not challenging to the army, police, and society; but they don’t require that the Israeli army reoccupy the West Bank: there’s still substantial security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and the Israelis. So, while it is challenging, it’s not the same kind of massive and lethal attacks that were typical or characteristic certainly of the second intifada.
Q: What would you consider the clear signs of a new intifada?
RK: I’d say that one has to see a much higher level of casualties and a much greater mobilization of the Israeli army in order to suppress whatever it feels is a situation growing out of control. But as long as there is continued Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation – which, despite Mahmoud Abbas’s pronouncement last week at the United Nations General Assembly, there is — it doesn’t seem that it’s on the horizon. Without a breakdown in that security cooperation, I can’t imagine a third intifada breaking out. So, that’s what we have to look for: a breakdown in the security cooperation and a sharp increase in casualties, particularly on the Palestinian side.
Q: What do you think of the recent responses to the spate of violence from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas?
RK: Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming to Washington in about a month to meet with Obama at the White House. He did cancel the summit that he was planning to hold in Berlin last week because he’s got a security crisis right now. But I just don’t think we’re looking at a third intifada and the recent trend-lines seem to suggest that things are not getting worse but are in fact calming down — although I would never know for sure unless I were sitting at the intelligence desk in the IDF and had a big picture. Any single incident could spiral; that’s the tinderbox. But right now, there’s enough water being sprinkled on the tinderbox to keep it under control.
DD: Netanyahu is a great example of somebody who talks as if he’s the most extreme right-wing person, and he certainly sounded that way, in terms of the rhetoric he used in the last days of the election campaign. But his policies are probably very close to the kinds of policies [that would be instituted] should a Labor/Zionist Union – a Bougie Herzog or any of the centrists to even the centrist-left who are leading political parties in Israel — ever gain power. They probably would pursue the same cautious kinds of policies, which is why Netanyahu is getting a lot of criticism from the parties and leaders to his right, who want to respond to this violence by building more settlements. Netanyahu doesn’t want to do that. Netanyahu is aware of how the international community views settlements; I won’t say he’s a centrist in his policies, but he’s a lot more pragmatic in his policies toward Israeli Arab citizens; he promotes affirmative action – there are lots of good things that he does practically that get lost in his rhetoric.
I think Abbas himself is in the 10th or 11th year of his four-year term; he’s way past his shelf life. He’s holding onto power partly through a lot of corruption and payoffs; a lot of the payoffs have gone to his family. He knows what happened in Egypt, to Mubarak’s sons, after Mubarak was over-thrown, so I think he’s a bit fearful of that. He doesn’t have the power to broker a compromise even if he wanted to. Both entities have to decide what they can and what they cannot compromise on. Even with the most left-wing [Israeli] government you could imagine, Abbas has shown no sign of being able to compromise on the issue of the ‘right of return’ and some of the border issues. He doesn’t seem to have the power and the capacity to be able to do that. And so what the Palestinians end up doing is trying to pursue policies that hurt Israel and damage Israel’s reputation. They now have a flag at the UN and a virtual state, but how useful is a virtual state to the lives of people?
Q: Would you say that there is more reason to hope than to hand-wring?
DD: It’s always very hopeful, partly because Israel – for all its flaws and for all the problems and challenges – has a state that can function, particularly when it comes to security issues. And even when they make mistakes, they don’t just simply say, “Oh, that’s a problem that can’t be solved;” they go back to the drawing board and say, “Okay, we did it wrong last time; how do we do it right?” They have no choice, but that’s inculcated into the political culture of the entire state.
JTA contributed to this report.