By Yossi Alpher
In recent weeks and months, we have confronted a growing number of worrisome possible precursors of a new intifada or some similar round of violence on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. While the previous two intifadas were seemingly triggered by unintended actions or events (a traffic accident in 1987, a Temple Mount visit in 2000), in retrospect it is clear that they erupted due to the accumulation of frustrations on the Palestinian side, at least some of which could have been prevented by Israel.
What are the relevant frustrations today?
The most serious is the total stalemate in the peace process: the recent Amman talks failed, the United Nations track has proven less than fruitful for the Palestinians, and the Obama administration in Washington is so deeply entrenched in an election year that it is taking no risks regarding Middle East peace. When the world looks at the Middle East, it sees chaos and revolution in places like Syria — not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, after moving forward in fits and starts, is seemingly stalemated. Were it to succeed, the resultant merger activities and elections would keep the Palestinian public busy for the better part of a year. Not only is that not currently the case, but the boost Hamas has received from the Arab revolutionary wave, with its across-the-board enfranchisement of political Islam, enhances its policy of rejecting peace in the public’s eye. Were a new round of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip-based Hamas to break out now, it too could catalyze West Bank violence. Moreover, Egypt’s switch from supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization in its peace negotiation efforts to dialoguing with Hamas seemingly confronts PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with the need to contemplate more radical options.
Apropos the role played by the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif in the September 2000 outbreak of the second intifada, we almost witnessed a replay two weeks ago, when internet incitement by right-wing Israeli extremists sparked violent demonstrations on the Mount. But even without the most extreme right, the settler mainstream continues to throw lighted matches on a tinderbox as the Netanyahu government takes full advantage of the seeming absence of acute international concern to expand settlements at an alarming rate — yet another traditional precursor and catalyst of Palestinian violence.
Another potential context for renewed violence is prisoners. The Shalit prisoner release deal between Israel and Hamas has apparently triggered a pattern of events familiar from previous instances, whereby the large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel, under duress, contributed to renewed Palestinian violence. Inevitably, some former prisoners are now perceived by Israel as again planning violence: five Islamic Jihad activists who were released in the Shalit exchange were recently re-arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.
Moreover, a few administrative detainees have initiated hunger strikes to protest the lack of due process in their incarceration. Why now, when Israel has been holding a small number of prisoners without trial for decades? Once again, the overall atmosphere and accumulation of contributing factors provide the explanation. Were a hunger striker to die, this could readily trigger a chain of mass protest and violence.
Those IDF incursions into the cities of the West Bank, usually to make arrests, constitute yet another certain cause of acute Palestinian frustration with the status quo. A recent invasion of the Al-Quds University campus to confiscate broadcasting equipment due to a squabble over frequencies is the most recent such flashpoint. Eventually, if and when Palestinian Authority security forces are sufficiently embarrassed and compromised by this behavior — at a time when no one can point to compensatory progress toward a two-state solution and the settlements are spreading — then the one element on the Palestinian side that is capable of preventing a new outbreak of popular violence will simply step aside.
That could happen this week, this year or not at all. Experience teaches us that the outbreak of an intifada cannot be accurately predicted. But we also know that a lot could still be done to prevent it. As to the question whether violence benefits or hurts the Palestinian cause — that is the topic of a separate inquiry.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by Daily news Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.