Is a third Palestinian intifada coming?

Someday, something is going to have to give in the cold peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But that's been true for years.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
A Palestinian man throws a stone towards Israeli soldiers after the funeral of Arafat Jaradat in the West Bank of Hebron, Monday. Thousands have attended the funeral procession of a 30-year-old Palestinian man who died under disputed circumstances in Israeli custody.

The status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is, as is so frequently uttered, "intolerable." But rhetorically intolerable things are often tolerated for long periods of time.

So while the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" has been dead in all but name for years now, with Israeli settlement expansion continuing apace in the West Bank, a Palestinian Authority leadership that is incapable of making any concessions of its own in the face of that, and a frustrated and angry Palestinian public, the status quo has nevertheless trundled along. 

Predicting a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, has been a mug's game for years – since practically the moment the second one petered out in 2005. Those predictions have increased in frequency as the prospect of an independent Palestinian state, the promise of 1993's Oslo Accords, have once again receded. But so far, they've consistently failed to be born out by events on the ground.

This week, there's been intifada talk once again, following the death in an Israeli prison of young Palestinian man Arafat Jaradat over the weekend. Early Israeli reports said the cause of Mr. Jaradat's death could not be determined, but Palestinian groups insist he was tortured in custody and furious protests erupted around the West Bank yesterday during his funeral. Israel arrested Jaradat earlier in February, on allegations that he'd thrown rocks at settlers last November, during Israel's confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Anger was particularly high in Sair, Jaradat's village near Hebron where he was buried. Christa Case Bryant was there and described the scene:

People filled every rooftop, balcony, and open patch of grass surrounding the village square as Mr. Jaradat’s coffin was carried through the crowd, sparking fierce whistling and a few gunshots...

At the funeral today for Jaradat in Sair, just outside of Hebron, supporters of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Brigades chanted, “Let the olive branch fall and let the weapon always lead to victory…. Let Tel Aviv be set on fire.”

Even as a rival cluster of Hamas supporters tried to out-chant the group, others insisted Palestinians were united in their fight against Israel. “Besides Fatah, besides Hamas, we the people of Palestine are all united in challenging the occupation,” said Rami Hijjah, a business student and student council member at Polytechnic University in Hebron who says he hopes “we all will follow [Jaradat] as martyrs.”

There are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli detention, and activists said roughly 3,000 prisoners participated in a hunger strike over the weekend to protest Jaradat's death. While from the outside his death could be taken as a simple tragedy – an angry young man throws a rock, is arrested for assault, and then unfortunately falls ill while under arrest – that's not at all how any Palestinian would see it.

The settlement Jaradat was protesting, Kiryat Arba, is a town of about 7,000 just east of the Palestinian city of Hebron and about 18 miles south of Jerusalem, deep in the West Bank that is supposed to eventually form the core of a Palestinian state.

Israel Defense Forces control most of the roads in the area, with only restricted access for Palestinians. There is also a small settlement of committed religious Zionists protected by the IDF in the middle of Hebron, a city of roughly 100,000 Palestinians that nevertheless the religious right in Israel insists be eventually annexed into the state, since it's home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, where both religious Muslims and Jews believe Abraham is buried.

The local settlements and IDF presence are a constant reminder to Palestinians in the area that they aren't exercising any real sovereignty. Palestinian-settler relations in the area are particularly poisonous, even by the standards of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It was in Hebron that settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians praying at the cave's attached Ibrahim Mosque in 1994, and minor confrontations are common.

So whatever the facts of Jaradat's death – abuse in detention? None at all? – it's a symbol of the root of Palestinian frustration. The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have failed to halt settlement expansion, let alone bring about a state.

Yousef Munayyer, an executive director of The Jerusalem Fund, a DC-based nonprofit that advocates for Palestinians, says that while another uprising is possible, it isn't likely any time soon. But he also cautions that doesn't mean more of the same is sustainable.

"I don’t think we’re going to see a resumption of the kind of armed resistance that we had seen in the past, at that level, any time soon. The control that the PA has over the guns is far tighter now than I think that it’s ever been before, particularly in the West Bank," he says. "With the PA's very sustainability being based on whether Israel or the United States permit funding to get through to them [that] indicates they’re not going to let that happen. That’s not to say the current PA framework couldn’t collapse; and with each passing day we get closer to that." 

He says that Jaradat's death is, to Palestinians, the latest illustration of the PA's lack of power vis-a-vis Israel, even though it's authority is pretty much unchallenged among Palestinians in the West Bank. "The crux of the problem is this PA catch 22, where you have this entity that is supposed to advance Palestinian national goals, which of course include self-determination and ending the occupation ... but at the same time it doesn’t have the ability to advance those goals because it exists because Israel and the US permit it to exist and its funding comes either from those sources or because those sources allow that to come through." 

That comment is a reference to the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords, which calls for the PA's taxes to be collected by Israel, and then transferred. Israel routinely delays transfer of the money as a form of control over the PA. After the Palestinians were successful in obtaining observer status at the UN in November, something Israel stridently opposed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered tax transfers withheld. With those taxes making up about 2/3 of the PA's revenue, it has pushed the nascent West Bank government to the brink of a fiscal crisis.

Salaries have gone unpaid (the PA is the West Bank's largest employer) and that's been a crucial factor in the uglier, more chaotic mood in the area. In response to the unrest over the weekend, Israel decided to release at least some of the tax revenue, apparently at the urging of senior officers.

“We believe there is a connection between the PA’s stability and the ability of its security apparatuses to function and the financial issue,” Haaretz quoted an anonymous senior officer from the IDF's Central Command as saying. “Our position is consistent: Salaries should be paid.”

In a way, that decision, which could cool tensions in the short term, points to the long term dangers of the status quo. Absent unrest, it's very hard for Palestinians to extract concessions from Israelis.

Mr. Munayyer says that's one reason he often grows frustrated with speculation about whether an uprising is at hand. "By asking the question in the way that we do, 'are we on the cusp of the next intifada?,' we’re identifying that as crisis mode. But in the absence of an intifada, which is what we have now, there is still the military occupation of millions of people. So we’re contributing to that idea that this human rights crisis is tolerable."

"But why [would Israel] end it? The benefits are high, the costs are low, so until that equation changes they won’t change their approach. It’s unreasonable for us to think otherwise, and it’s dangerous for that myth to lie at the foundation of policy prescriptions because it ends up leading to policy statements like 'well, if we get the parties back to the negotiating table maybe they’ll work things out."

Munayyer's organization takes issue with the reporting of this paper and many others today that a rocket fired at Israel broke the uneasy truce that averted a full scale war in Gaza last November and argues that Israel has repeatedly violated its side of the deal.

At any rate, the status quo is holding for now, with a calmer situation today than yesterday. The intolerable, it seems, will be tolerated for a while longer.

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