By Hussein Ibish
October 19, 2009
As the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially East Jerusalem, is balanced on a knife edge and could erupt at any moment into a new explosion of violence or even a third intifada, it is crucial to review what is at stake for all parties should such a catastrophic turn of events occur. Far too many actors and commentators are casually viewing the present extremely dangerous situation, and even welcoming the prospect of a third intifada or the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, or are calling for less dramatic but also extraordinarily dangerous scenarios. So, before this goes any further, let us be clear exactly what is at stake.
A third intifada would undoubtedly follow the pattern established by the relationship of the end of the first intifada to its beginning, and of the second intifada to the first; which is to say, that this process has entailed ever-increasing levels of violence, death and religious fanaticism on both sides. There are fantasists who dream of a return to the long gone era of “people power” which characterized much of the first intifada.
There is absolutely no question that the first intifada, especially in its early stages, was a particularly effective and praiseworthy instance of Palestinian resistance to occupation, probably the most successful mass Palestinian political action in modern history. However, it occurred in a context in which heavily organized political parties, let alone with armed militias, were really not present in the occupied Palestinian territories. The PLO was in exile in Tunis, and Hamas did not exist at all when the first intifada erupted spontaneously. By the end of it, the PLO was back in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood had formed its political and paramilitary wings in Palestine, i.e. Hamas, in an Israeli-encouraged effort to split the Palestinian movement between nationalists and Islamists (a plan that has worked only too well).
The situation now is entirely different: even if a third intifada were to emerge spontaneously as a consequence of popular outrage about one thing or another, it would inevitably and almost immediately be commandeered by existing, well organized and funded political parties with large armed militias. This is what distinguished the second intifada from the first, and as a consequence the second intifada was militarized and much more ideological, especially in terms of religious fanaticism. The consequences of the first intifada were almost entirely positive across the board. The consequences of the second were disastrous for the Palestinian people and national movement.
I think there can be no serious, honest doubt that no matter how much people might wish for a return to the grassroots spontaneity and largely nonviolent character of the first intifada, in reality there is no going back because any such momentum will inevitably be successfully hijacked by a variety of political and armed groups who simply weren’t present in the occupied territories in 1987. Therefore, the only reasonable expectation is that any third intifada will be more militarized, bloody, brutal and disastrous than the second, just as the second was in comparison to the first. I simply cannot see any basis for engineering a reversal of this pattern.
For the Palestinians, this strongly suggests that any third intifada would be even more disastrous than the second. Anyone calling for a third intifada without realizing this is a dangerous fool playing with fire, and anyone calling for it who does realize its actual consequences is a dangerous extremist. One of the most probable outcomes of any third intifada would be the ascendancy for the foreseeable future of Islamist organizations and the recasting of the Palestinian national movement as an Islamist cause, which would almost certainly spell the death of the dreams of Palestine and peace. I doubt that the Palestinian national cause could, as a practical political agenda, survive such a grotesque mutation.
It is clear that many on the Israeli right, and also quite probably in the present Israeli cabinet, might also welcome the emergence of a third intifada, hoping that it would allow them to crush the Palestinian Authority, cancel any prospect for peace negotiations, and reinforce both the occupation and the settlement agenda with a renewed vigour and brutality. This explains the extraordinary and calculated provocations in recent days centred around East Jerusalem that have added so much fuel to the fire.
Such an attitude is at least as dangerous for the future of Israel as it is for the Palestinians. A third intifada would not only be a security calamity for Israel, and undoubtedly be more dangerous than the second; it would probably constitute an end to any prospects of not only peace with the Palestinians, but of reconciliation with the Arab world and ensure that Israel remains in a state of war for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it could well mean that Israel will have squandered the last opportunity to divest itself of the occupation in a rational, workable manner, rendering what will become the de facto Israeli state as neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense and developing and entrenching an apartheid character especially in the occupied territories. In the long run it could prove a blow from which both the Zionist and the Palestinian dreams and projects can never recover.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and author of “What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).