Over the past days, growing unrest in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in response to the death of a Palestinian in Israeli custody has threatened the relative calm that has prevailed recently, a result of the considerable amount of cooperation between the Palestinian security services and the Israeli army. While it seems clear that neither of the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, are interested in an escalation, the speed with which large protests erupted in the last week demonstrates once again the danger of pretending that the status quo in the occupied territories is a sustainable one.
Although protests against various aspects of the occupation— the encroachment of Israeli settlements and the construction of its separation barrier on Palestinian farmland, to name two of the most onerous—have become a regular occurrence over the last few years, demonstrations have increased markedly over the past weeks in support of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners. The size and intensity of the protests grew after the news came on Saturday11. An Israeli government spokesman initially said that the 30-year-old father of two had died of a heart attack. Speaking later at a news conference in Ramallah, Issa Qaraka, the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs said, “The signs that appeared during the autopsy show clearly that he was subjected to severe torture that led immediately to his death.” An Israeli spokesman later said that the autopsy was inconclusive, but that Jaradat’s injuries could have been caused by efforts to revive him. that a young man named Arafat Jaradat had died in Israeli custody.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu communicated his concerns to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, requesting that he control tensions. Abbas reportedly met with his security chiefs on Monday night and ordered them to maintain calm, but other members of Abbas’ Fatah party have encouraged the protests.
Arrested several days previously for throwing stones at cars near an Israeli settlement, the circumstances of Jaradat’s death are in dispute.
The situation escalated steadily since Saturday as clashes between protesters and the Israeli army broke out across the West Bank. Thousands attended Jaradat’s funeral on Monday. U.N. Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry called for an independent inquiry into Jaradat’s death after meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Early Tuesday, a rocket was launched from Hamas-ruled Gaza, hitting near the Israeli town of Ashkelon, breaking a three months long cease-fire. The Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the armed wing of Fatah, claimed the rocket was retaliation for Jaradat’s death.
To say that these developments put the Palestinian Authority leadership in a tough spot is an understatement. The P.A. has worked diligently over the past several years to improve security coordination with the Israeli army, something acknowledged by all sides. A January report by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, noted that in 2012, for the first time since 1973, there were no Israeli fatalities in the West Bank as a result of terrorist activity. In the recent past, P.A. security forces have moved swiftly, sometimes brutally, to quell protests.
At the same time, the P.A.’s domestic critics charge that they’ve received little for these efforts apart from more occupation and more Israeli settlements. In response to Mahmoud Abbas’s successful effort to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations (itself an effort to show some tangible good for the Palestinians in the absence of meaningful negotiating process), the Israeli government withheld tax revenues due to be transferred to the P.A., making it extremely difficult for the organization to pay the salaries of its employees, including those of the very security services that are expected to keep the calm.
The fact that the current unrest involves the death of a Palestinian prisoner, and hunger strikes by many others, puts a particularly serious form of pressure on the P.A. “The prisoner issue has a high degree of potency in Palestinian political culture,” says Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow who previously worked with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah. Thousands of young Palestinians have processed through Israel’s military prison system over the course of Israel’s almost forty-six year old occupation. Currently, some 4,700 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails, on charges from throwing stones to killing Israelis. “The prisoner issue just won’t go away,” Elgindy says. It’s one that has touched every Palestinian family. The fact that Hamas was able to facilitate the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011, a major victory for Hamas at their rival Fatah’s expense, also makes the Fatah leadership particularly sensitive to the issue.
As for whether this could spark a larger uprising, “You never know what the trigger can be. This could be it,” Elgindy said. “In the first intifada, it was a kid getting run over by an army jeep. The second was [Ariel] Sharon going to the Haram [Al Sharif],” the Islamic holy site atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In my own visits to Israel-Palestine over the past several years, the message from Palestinian activists has been pretty clear with regard to a third intifada: While the occupation status quo is an extremely difficult one in which normal social and economic life is all but impossible, the clampdown with which Israel responded to the Second Intifada, which included multiple Palestinian suicide bombings against civilians in Israel, is still very much in memory. The situation escalated steadily since Saturday as clashes between protesters and the Israeli army broke out across the West Bank. Thousands attended Jaradat’s funeral on Monday. U.N. Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry called for an independent inquiry into Jaradat’s death after meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Even if a third intifada were largely a non-violent one, as most of the Palestinian activists I’ve spoken to acknowledge it should be, the chances are slim that great numbers of Palestinians will soon risk that sort of retaliation again.
“They are rightly hesitant to jump willy-nilly into mass mobilization,” Elgindy says, “because there are so many uncertainties. There will be a strong response from Israelis, there is no diplomatic safety net, and their leadership is in shambles.” Importantly, there are no apparent Palestinian leaders with an actual strategy to parlay an uprising of this sort into tangible political achievement, Elgindy says. “Who’s going to pick up the ball and run with it after a mass mobilization?”
But there is also a serious problem with focusing too much on the next intifada: It treats “not yet an intifada” as an acceptable baseline. “It sets us into a rhythm where unless it’s an intifada, it’s not a crisis,” says Yousef Munayyer, director of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. “So the status quo is treated as something that’s not a crisis, which it very much is.” In Munayyer’s view, the focus on the potential of an intifada reveals the tendency of Western analysts to view the situation through the prism of Israel’s security interests. “Unless Israel’s security is at risk through some sort of Palestinian uprising, then the situation is seen as more or less tolerable,” he says. “The violence of occupation doesn’t seem to bother anybody until there’s a threat that unrest might spill over” and create a problem for Israel.
As it is, the situation remains stuck. The Palestinian national movement remains divided, with Fatah dominating in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Peace negotiations with Israel are going nowhere, with little hope on the horizon. Everyone seems to hope that the relative quiet will persist. But while the current protests appear, for the moment, to have crested, living on a knife’s edge should not be mistaken for stability. “There is massive popular discontent in the West Bank, and I would say in Gaza, with the status quo. When that gets translated into mass mobilization is a different question,” Elgindy says. “It’s not so much about the spark as it is the kindling.”