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Anticipating Intifada

Across the West Bank, rallies are planned to support the Palestinian bid for statehood. Israelis fear what will happen if they turn violent.

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
September 19, 2011
Palestinian activists and Israeli security forces at the Kalandia Checkpoint in June.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian activists and Israeli security forces at the Kalandia Checkpoint in June.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

The Kalandia Checkpoint, on the border between Israel and the West Bank, is where the Third Intifada could start on Wednesday. A few miles north of Jerusalem and south of Ramallah, the checkpoint, by far the most crowded operating today, is considered one of the oldest and ugliest symbols of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Most days, it’s packed with people trying to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem, young children selling bootleg CDs and small Qurans to the drivers stuck in huge traffic jams, and drug dealers. But on Wednesday, all of that might vanish if hundreds or thousands of Palestinians try to storm the checkpoint in an act of protest against the Israeli occupation. They will be there to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations.

If the strategy goes according to plan, Palestinians will hold mass demonstrations all over the West Bank on that day. The Palestinian leadership has announced that they prefer for these demonstrations to take place in the heart of the Palestinian cities—not close to Israeli checkpoints or settlements. But the problem is that while the generation that fought in the Second Intifada has tired of violent confrontation with Israel, no official, not even President Mahmoud Abbas, can control the young Palestinians in Ramallah and elsewhere who may want to directly confront Israeli soldiers.

On the other side of the checkpoint, hundreds of Israeli soldiers and border policemen will be waiting for the demonstrators. Hoping to prevent any casualties, they’ll be armed with nonlethal weapons: tear gas, guns with rubber bullets, and the latest—a big truck that sprays disgusting-smelling liquid to disperse crowds. Yet Israelis fear that if thousands of unarmed Palestinians try to walk toward the checkpoint, tear gas or rubber bullets might not manage to deter them—and that the IDF will then be forced to use live ammunition in order to stop the crowds from getting inside Jerusalem.

In that worst case, they fear, the confrontation could ignite a Third Intifada.


On the Separation Fence across from the Kalandia Checkpoint are graffiti portraits of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Fatah’s current leader, Marwan Bargouti. As the leader of Fatah’s militia, the Tanzim, Bargouti is considered the man responsible for the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Arafat was the president who didn’t want to stop it. Arafat died in November 2004. Bargouti, who was arrested by Israel in April 2002 and is serving five consecutive life sentences, still exerts major political influence from behind bars. He now admits that one of the major mistakes made by the Palestinians was to take up arms against Israel.

Today, Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad emphasize that they are not in favor of militarizing the struggle. Just last week, Abbas reiterated that the demonstrations around the statehood bid must remain peaceful. But in the case of Wednesday’s planned protests, no one can guarantee that militants affiliated with Hamas or Fatah won’t start shooting at Israeli forces, and, in doing so, transform the intended popular struggle into a very bloody one.

Yet that word—intifada—is nearly absent from the vocabulary of the people who live in the Kalandia refugee camp and, for that matter, in other villages throughout the West Bank. The common feeling among Palestinians is that chances for a Third Intifada are very slim. “People are too tired, too exhausted,” one hears again and again. “We had enough fighting; we just want to make a living.”

At the beginning of August, on the first day of Ramadan, two young Palestinians who live in the Kalandia refugee camp were shot and killed by Israeli troops while the IDF was attempting to arrest one of their neighbors. The boys were not armed. Their posters hang on the walls of houses near the checkpoint, but their deaths did not lead to further confrontations. Even their family members said they didn’t want a violent intifada against the Jewish state. “Forget it,” they told us. “We just want to live.”

A very similar attitude was expressed to us by a group of former gunmen, previously considered wanted terrorists by Israel, in Nablus’ Old City. During the last years of the Second Intifada, these men were part of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah. In 2007 they formed a break-off militia known as Fursan Al-Leil, or the Horsemen of the Night, which attacked Israeli soldiers and settlers.

M., their leader, met with us a weeks ago. He now makes his living selling toys for children. M. was given amnesty by the Israeli authorities following an agreement made between the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s security forces in the summer of 2007. Israel promised full amnesty for wanted al-Aqsa members who would stop taking part in any terrorist activity and relinquish their weapons. His colleague S., who sells cakes and candies in the old city market, did the same.

“We paid our dues. We are not going to take part in a Third Intifada. We are now in the family business—raising our children and educating them. We are not in the fighting business anymore,” M. said. “Who should we fight for? The PA who neglected us?” S. added.

Life in the West Bank has dramatically improved in the past few years under Fayyad’s leadership. The economy has flourished, although it has slowed down somewhat in the last nine months. Law and order are back on the streets of cities like Jenin and Beit Lehem, the IDF keeps a fairly low profile, there are fewer checkpoints, and the roads are open. If there is a violent escalation with Israel, people are afraid all of this would be lost.


So, why do people, especially Israelis, fear a Third Intifada? First and foremost, politicians on both sides, but especially on the Palestinian side, have made crucial mistakes that have increased the likelihood of violent confrontation. There was the Palestinians’ demand for a complete stoppage of settlement building as a precondition for resuming peace negotiations. When Israel refused—and this came as no surprise—the Palestinians decided to go the United Nations.

As M. and S. emphasized to us in Nablus, another major factor is that there is a new generation of Palestinians raised entirely under Israeli occupation, whose reactions no one can easily predict. In a sense, these young people are the greatest unknown. Perhaps they will take their inspiration from the Arab Spring, using Twitter, Facebook, and rallies that might include stone throwing, but not guns, to force change. Or maybe not.

It shouldn’t have come to this. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completely failed to attempt a diplomatic move that would delay the Palestinians’ statehood bid. Under pressure from his foreign minister, the hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu refused to act. A harsh report published in late August by Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, criticized the prime minister for his failure to come up with any initiative that would persuade the Palestinians to give up their U.N. move. Though the Obama Administration has launched a last-ditch effort to prevent a diplomatic showdown later this week, it seems unlikely to bear fruit.

If Palestinian statehood comes up for a vote in the U.N. Security Council, as Abbas said late last week was the plan, the United States will block the bid with its veto. But what will a failed Palestinian attempt mean for Israel? Defense Minister Ehud Barak made headlines a few months ago when he warned of a “diplomatic tsunami” awaiting Israel after September. Given recent events in Egypt and Turkey, that seems increasingly likely.

Other senior members of the Netanyahu Cabinet disagree with Barak’s gloomy forecast. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon believes that pessimistic scenarios are widely exaggerated. “Compared to September 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out, Israel faces a totally different Palestinian leadership today,” Yaalon told us. “Abbas is not interested in violence. Yasser Arafat was.”

Seven years ago, as the IDF’s chief of staff, Yaalon talked about the need for “deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us.” In other words, the only way Palestinians would end their intifada was if they were convinced that an armed struggle wasn’t worth the trouble, because the price they’d pay would always be much greater than the damage inflicted on Israel. Yaalon is convinced this has been achieved.

Netanyahu and his closest political ally, Barak, have given strict orders to IDF commanders regarding the protests later this week: contain, contain, contain. During the last week of August, the IDF general staff spent five hours of its weekly Monday morning meeting debating preparation for events in September, dubbed Operation Seeds of Summer. The IDF has devoted a huge amount of time to training forces for this operation, briefing the junior and mid-level commanders, and distributing nonlethal weapons to soldiers at the checkpoints and in the settlements.

The trouble is that the junior command has been given conflicting orders: avoid civilian deaths that could lead to further escalation, and, at the same time, prevent the crowds from storming the checkpoints and the settlements. Even if the IDF were to pull both off, success depends heavily on cooperation with Palestinian security forces, which may not come through if things deteriorate. “Don’t be mistaken: If thousands of Palestinian civilians tear down the fence around Beith El [a large settlement near Ramallah] and attempt to get in, we will have to shoot live ammunition,” warned a senior IDF officer. A similar scenario happened this spring along the Syrian border, when Israeli soldiers shot at Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators who crossed the border. Dozens were killed.

After failing with wars (in 1948, 1967, 1973), suicide-bomb attacks (from 2000 to 2004), and missiles and rockets (during the Second Lebanon war and afterward), Israel’s opponents could discover that mass, nonviolent demonstrations will be their most effective strategy against the Jewish state. “We don’t deal with Gandhi very well,” admitted Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, to his U.S. counterparts, according to a recently published WikiLeaks document. The Israeli army has never had to confront an unarmed rally of thousands of people marching toward an Israeli checkpoint or a settlement.

On Wednesday, perhaps we’ll see what that looks like.

Amos Harel is the defense analyst for Haaretz. Avi Issacharoff is the newspaper’s Arab-affairs correspondent.

Amos Harel is the defense analyst for Haaretz. Avi Issacharoff is the newspaper’s Arab-affairs correspondent.