It is twenty-five years now since the first intifada broke out. At the time, it took the top echelons of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet by surprise. None of the top brass in either organization had anticipated the possibility of a large-scale and violent popular uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, they missed the early signs portending a flare-up. Alas, the parties concerned also failed to learn their lesson, and 13 years later, the IDF and Shin Bet were once again caught off guard when the second intifada, which was by far more violent, erupted in late September 2000.
Now, after another dozen years has passed, it seems that no one will be surprised when the third intifada breaks out. Senior members of the IDF and the Shin Bet are no longer wondering whether another popular uprising will erupt, but rather ask, “When will it happen?" According to their evaluations, if the policy of the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue does not change, and the political stalemate persists, a new round of violence is inevitable.
This is the tragic aspect of the current situation. Contrary to the past — when policy makers in Israel failed to realize where their policy on the territories was bound to lead and were thus in for a surprise — this time around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading Israel, eyes wide open, toward a violent confrontation with the Palestinians. The conflict looming ahead can already be sensed; the foreboding signs are too obvious to be ignored. Anyone walking about in the West Bank these days would immediately notice that the area is seething and sizzling and that nothing more than a single spark is needed to ignite violence. But even if Netanyahu insists on closing his eyes to reality and ignoring what is happening on the ground, he cannot disregard the statements made by Palestinian leaders, including moderates and peace advocates among them, who openly and explicitly warn against the wave of violence liable to flare up and which they would not be able to control.
In recent weeks, the West Bank has experienced a significant increase in the number of disturbances and violent clashes between IDF soldiers and hundreds of Palestinian youths, who are equipped not only with stones but also with Molotov cocktails that they hurl at soldiers. At the same time, an ever-growing number of rallies and demonstrations are being organized by Hamas throughout the West Bank, with participants openly calling for “reviving the resistance” and kindling a third intifada.
Senior members of the Palestinian Authority point out that even though the Palestinian leadership may not be interested in triggering a violent confrontation with Israel, they could lose control over the population. Ahmad Abu-Assad, a Fatah leader in the Tubas district, within whose jurisdiction the village of Tamoun lies, said in a recent interview with the Israeli media, “We have no intention of escalating the situation vis-à-vis Israel; however, what happened in the village of Tamoun [an incident during which IDF soldiers clashed with dozens of Palestinian protesters following the arrest of a suspect by an undercover “Arabized” unit] only goes to show that we cannot control the area and that it may all blow up in our faces any minute. Anything can happen and I am deeply concerned about it.”
Another prominent Palestinian, Hassan Khatib, a former minister of labor in the Palestinian cabinet, also talks about the fear of losing control over the street. In an interview with the French news agency AFP, Khatib said that he did not believe that there was a guiding hand behind the recent round of conflicts and that the latest events in the West Bank were “spontaneous” clashes between Palestinians and settlers and localized incidents of stone throwing and Molotov cocktail tossing at IDF soldiers. “It is building up gradually,” Khatib told AFP. “I think that it should be attributed to the dangerous situation where there is no political horizon, while the [Palestinian] economy is in deep crisis, which leads to increased unemployment and poverty.”
Indeed, senior officials in the Palestinian Authority agree with the pessimistic assessments of the top echelon of the Israeli defense establishment and warn that the Palestinians have lost hope in the peace process, all the more so now, following Operation Pillar of Defense, which is perceived on the Palestinian street as a victory for Hamas. The Palestinian people thus no longer believe in a dialogue with Israel and have given up on diplomacy, putting its trust instead in armaments and resistance.
Another noteworthy development in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense is the revived political activity of Hamas in the West Bank sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority leadership. Thus, on Dec. 13, after long years during which Hamas had been barred from holding rallies in the West Bank, the organization held a rally in Nablus to mark the 25th anniversary of its founding. At that event, leaders of the two Palestinian movements addressed the audience, standing side by side. Amin Maqboul, the Fatah senior official in the West Bank, told those attending, "We are celebrating here together thanks to Hamas, which taught the occupying enemy an unforgettable lesson in the Gaza Strip and achieved a glorious victory."
The radicalization among Palestinians in the West Bank may also be attributed, to a large extent, to Israel's policy, which undermines the standing of Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen and portrays him as an illegitimate partner. So, if even with the most moderate of Palestinian leaders Israel is not ready to enter into negotiations on an arrangement, many argue, then there is apparently no choice but to discard moderation and move on to violent action.
The strengthening of Hamas encourages its West Bank representatives, who have been manifesting ever-growing audacity lately. Thus, the Hamas Jerusalem bureau chief, Ahmed Abu Haliba, called on all Palestinian factions to resume suicide attacks deep inside Israel and launch a third intifada. Referring to the recent series of resolutions passed by Israel to expand construction in Jerusalem and its environs, Abu Haliba added that “we must renew the resistance to occupation in any possible way.”
According to the British Sunday Times, Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas political bureau chief, has recently ordered dormant terrorist cells in the West Bank to prepare for an armed struggle with the view of gaining control over the Palestinian Authority. The continued establishment of settlements outside the settlement blocs, the deadlock in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Israel's decision to take economic measures against the Authority to “punish” it for its bid for a status upgrade at the United Nations are all seen by the Palestinians as part of a policy aimed at toppling it. “Price tag” incidents further fan the flames in the West Bank; there are quite a few who charge that Israel is supporting these actions, citing as proof the fact that virtually none of the settlers responsible for price tag violence have been detained.
Statements to this effect have been made by the Palestinian Authority security forces spokesman, General Adnan Damiri, who claimed that Israel “wishes to see anarchy prevailing in the Palestinian Authority territories and leading to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.” Damiri further charged that the rightist Israeli government “is pushing the region towards explosion by continuing to build in the settlements, by putting the lid on political arrangement and by doing away with the two-state solution."
In the Israeli intelligence community they do not overlook these developments. In fact, senior Shin Bet officials maintain that a dangerous mood has emerged among the Palestinian public that is liable to escalate into a new uprising. Now that the path has been opened to random riots and haphazard violence, which are apparently unrelated, the next step may well be widespread hostile terrorist activity whose buds can already be seen across the West Bank.
In the IDF they note that the number of alerts against terrorist attacks has grown, while the Palestinian Authority's determination to act against Hamas has declined. Since early November, some 130 terrorist attacks have been launched from the West Bank, for the most part spontaneous attacks (initiated by individuals) which in general are more difficult to forestall.
“We are concerned about negative developments that are liable to occur from March onward, when the annual commemoration days of the Palestinians follow one another — the Nakba Day, the Naksa Day and the Palestinian Prisoner Day. It is going to be a critical time window,” says a senior source in the IDF Central Command.
Meanwhile, quite effective collaboration on security matters is being carried out among the IDF, Shin Bet and Palestinian Authority security forces. However, it is feared within the IDF that if another popular uprising, or intifada, breaks out, it will put an end to such cooperation, and the Palestinian security forces will join in actions against the IDF, which is what occurred during the second intifada. In this context, the Dayton battalions should be mentioned — the Palestinian battalions set up with the support of the United States and funded by it. These battalions were trained by American instructors in Jordan, and they constitute a significant military force that has considerable operational capability.
What Shin Bet and IDF senior officials are saying behind closed doors, former high-ranking officers in these two organizations are stating in public. Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz, who served as chief of staff during the second intifada, warned earlier this month, “We are on the verge of a third intifada. The fuel vapor may already be sensed in the air, and the situation today reminds me of the days prior to the eruption of the first intifada and the second one.” Yuval Diskin, until recently head of Shin Bet, gave voice to his fears about the eruption of a third intifada in a January 4 interview with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. According to Diskin, the impasse deliberately brought on in the negotiations with the Palestinians is threatening to lead us now to a third intifada. “I cannot foretell whether the third intifada will be like the second or the first intifada, but there is a high concentration of fuel vapor in the air,” Diskin warned.
What will the third intifada look like if it indeed breaks out? It is difficult to assess. The separation barrier running along and within the West Bank evidently, however, makes it difficult for suicide bombers to infiltrate into Israel, so that the violence will most probably be diverted elsewhere. In the early stages, at least, the third intifada is likely to take the form of a popular uprising essentially involving large-scale violent disturbances.
At the same time, Palestinian militants are liable to attack vehicles on West Bank roads, by hurling Molotov cocktails or firing on them, and they may even try to carry out terrorist attacks against the settlements.
So far, the Israeli government adheres to a policy that is liable to lead to a third intifada. Surprisingly, the issue has not even been raised for discussion in the election campaign taking place these days in Israel.
Reuven Pedatzur is a senior military affairs analyst with Haaretz newspaper and a senior lecturer of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is one of Israel’s leading commentators on missile defense, nuclear and other non-conventional weapons, the IDF’s strategic doctrine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.