A third intifada is inevitable unless Israel changes course

Ibrahim Fraihat writes about tensions in Palestine

US president Barack Obama neglected to even mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his address at the UN in September. (Abbas Momani / AFP)
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A friend of mine wrote on his Facebook page recently that if you “read the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam you will notice that the current escalation of events in Palestine is given a variety of names including intifada, limited uprising (Habba), revolution, or even war”.

Certainly, recent events in Jerusalem and the West Bank have demonstrated, without a doubt, four important conclusions: Al Aqsa mosque is a red line for Palestinians, the PA-led negotiations strategy has fundamentally failed, the Israeli government cannot manage the conflict and Barack Obama's decision to leave the Palestinian issue out of his UN speech in September was a huge mistake.

The conditions that gave birth to the Second Intifada in 2000 are very similar to the circumstances that have led to the current unrest. Perhaps most obvious is the central role of Al Aqsa compound. The Second Intifada erupted when Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader, defiantly visited the compound to assert Israeli sovereignty over the site. As many cautioned at the time, the act proved inflammatory. The current wave of protests started in mid-September with three straight days of clashes at the compound between Israeli police and Palestinians. The doubling of Jewish visitors to the compound in recent years has once again inflamed tensions.

Another parallel to the Second Intifada is the recent collapse of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In September 2000, the failure of the Camp David negotiations had left Palestinians without any hope on the horizon. While Israelis resumed their normal lives after the negotiations, Palestinians returned to the struggle of living under the occupation with no end in sight.

Today, following the failure of another round of negotiations, Palestinians once again feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. By rising up, Palestinians are announcing that the PA and its strategy of pursuing endless, fruitless negotiations with the Israeli government, is bankrupt. Mahmoud Abbas’s commitment to such negotiations has brought only frustration to his people. A September poll showed that 65 per cent of Palestinians believe that it is time for Mr Abbas to go.

The Israeli government has also been exposed. Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of managing the conflict by pursuing “economic peace” with Palestinians, while still expanding settlements and changing the facts on the ground in Jerusalem, has not preserved calm.

Palestinians will not be placated by jobs and development projects when settlers continue to seize more land and the occupation persists. They have learnt that Mr Netanyahu’s promise to reward “good behaviour” was a lie.

Quiescence has only enabled many Israelis to ignore the Palestinian issue. In contrast, the uprising has pushed Mr Netanyahu to the extreme of blaming the Holocaust on the Palestinians.

The gloomy political horizon for Palestinians was reinforced when Mr Obama neglected to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his address at the UN in September, a glaring omission for any president in that venue.

To Palestinians, it sent a very clear message: if you’re quiet, you’re forgotten, so you have to force yourself onto the agenda. Now that the Palestinians have done so, it is little surprise that US secretary of state John Kerry has quickly attempted to forge a meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. Exposed for their miserable management of the conflict, it is too late for Mr Kerry and Mr Netanyahu to calm the situation again.

Importantly for US foreign policy in the region, the new “intifada” has shattered the myth that the Middle East has too many other problems to worry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The intrinsic nature of the Palestinian issue gives it the potential to become a priority at any time. The people of the Middle East may disagree on the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, but never on Palestine. As Tunisian blogger and activist Ezzeddine Abdelmoula put it: “All the compasses of Arab battles can lose their orientation, except for the compass of Palestine ... It always points in the right direction.”

This round of violence may continue for months or end tomorrow, but regardless, the situation has already changed forever.

A Palestinian project of resistance has overtaken the traditional PA-led negotiations project. Even if the escalation ends now, it will not be over. Unless something substantive is done to address the plight of Palestinians, yet another intifada will surely erupt soon.

Dr Ibrahim Fraihat is a senior foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and adjunct professor in international conflict resolution at Georgetown University

On Twitter: @i_fraihat