By Barry Rubin
Is there going to be a “third intifada?” I have no idea. That is a question most likely to be determined by those who set Palestinian strategy and they will surely differ among themselves. What interests me is the question of on what basis would such a choice be made.
When this issue is discussed publicly it is attributed almost entirely to the idea that frustration will motivate revolt. This is certainly the point made by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders. The argument is that unless they get their way diplomatically violence will be the logical outcome.
But that’s just a tactic to use violence as leverage, scaring Western countries—because such threats won’t scare Israel—into concessions. Moreover, since Western countries will not hand the PA unilateral independence on its own terms, without any deal with Israel or concessions, violence would ultimately either be useless or talk of violence would turn out to be a bluff.
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There are other considerations that will determine Palestinian policy.
Would a “third intifada” actually bring Palestinian gains? I would argue that neither of the first two did, though of course that didn’t stop them from happening. Political profitability is not the only factor involved and Yasir Arafat had his own way of assessing the balance of forces. But whether violence would bring any benefit is going to be an important issue for the PA leadership.
Why would a PA leadership launch a new war if it didn’t expect rationally to gain from it? Ideological enthusiasm and irrational wishful thinking do play some part here. Yet the current leadership has had some lessons in the cost of wrecking their own infrastructure. That kind of thinking in itself is insufficient.
There’s another point that must be raised. Would a “third intifadah” and the wrecking of Palestinian infrastructure once again enhance or destroy the PA and Fatah dominance on the West Bank? On the positive side, demagoguery about heroic fighters, martyrdom, and liberating Palestine by fire and sword has proven to be useful for building mass support.
Yet that has usually been true when Fatah, through the PLO, either had a monopoly on violence or Hamas was content to play second fiddle to Arafat. Those conditions no longer apply.
On the other hand, however, wouldn’t Hamas, with its greater degree of specialization in terror and triumphalism be in a better position to benefit? After all, Fatah does rule the West Bank and provoking anarchy and chaos could destroy its standing. By having to cooperate with Hamas, Fatah would legalize its organizations and actions, allowing it to heap new glory on itself by murdering Israeli civilians. That is very risky.
In contrast, Fatah would gain nothing in the Gaza Strip which would stay firmly under Hamas control. Small Fatah groups might be able to operate there but so what? They would have no political influence and be under the thumb of Hamas. A “third intifadah” is politically beneficial to Hamas and that is a point that no Fatah or PA leader can easily ignore.
More likely, then, is a situation in which either Hamas forces an outbreak of uprising or some leaders in Fatah do so. The latter’s motivations would include a genuine belief in revolutionary methods, which a significant sector of the Fatah leadership does accept, or the use of an intifadah as part of a leadership struggle.
The fact is that Mahmoud Abbas is in the closing phase of his leadership and there is no clear successor. Complicating the situation is the specter of a generational transition. People can put forward in conversation their preferred person to lead the PA, PLO, and Fatah or speculate as to who it might be. But the truth is that nobody has the least idea, even of who are the most likely candidates.
A leader or faction or elements of the “young guard” might well decide that an intifadah would suit their purposes. It would distance themselves from the “failed” policies of Abbas and the current establishment. By focusing on youth, violence, and the security forces, such a strategy could benefit a takeover bid by “military” officials or by young anti-establishment forces.
There is a difference between those two sectors. The PA “military” tends to dislike Hamas but those who came of political age in the “first intifadah” see things differently. They might view a war as the best way to fuse Fatah-Hamas cooperation with themselves taking a leading role.
Of course, an uprising could take place due to some major or symbolic incident, forcing the leaders to rush to the front of the army. That is also possible. But least likely of all would be Abbas and the current leadership making a calculated decision to launch a war that they expect to gain from.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com