Throughout 2012 senior Palestinian leaders – Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – called for Palestinians to launch a third Intifada and resume violent attacks against Israel. And as predicted, recent months have seen an uptick in orchestrated demonstrations and public violence among Palestinians targeting Israelis, including lynching attempts that reminded Israelis and observers of the lynchings that marked the beginning of the Second Intifada.
As early as January of this year, military and security sources in Israel were reported to have identified an emerging wave of violence driven in part by Fatah’s failed diplomatic gambits, including those strenuously opposed by President Obama who repeatedly warned of the counterproductive danger of the PA’s unproductive diplomatic maneuvering, and by a deliberate attempt by Fatah leaders to exploit and provoke the frustration they themselves created:
Flames of unrest in the West Bank — possibly stoked by the Palestinians’ upgraded status at the United Nations, to that of a nonmember observer state, and Israel’s recent war against Hamas in Gaza — have surfaced over the past few weeks… The first two intifadas [“uprisings”], which started in 1987 and 2000, were characterized by widespread violence, civil disobedience and terror attacks. The second intifada saw an onslaught of suicide bombings that declined as Israel constructed the West Bank security barrier.
Last week saw riots and clashes that included fights between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli settlers. The death in Israeli custody over the weekend of Arafat Shalish Shahin Jaradat, who died of an apparent heart attack, has increased tensions. Thousands of Palestinian prisoners refused their breakfasts – the beginning of a potential mass hunger strike – and Palestinians again rioted throughout locations in the West Bank.
As the violence grows, Jerusalem is demanding that Palestinian Authority officials take responsibility for curbing the riots. Similarly, attention will increasingly turn to identifying what West Bank interests and powers are driving the violence.
The answer will almost certainly identify some direct Hamas involvement in the growing unrest, but reports are increasingly linking Fatah officials to the outbreaks, and suggest that the group and its leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have not only been encouraging violence, but also helped set the stage for the confrontations, having dramatically raised Palestinian expectations for diplomatic progress while systematically eliminating any options for achieving that progress.
Like President Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice criticized those moves as a set back to peace, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the PA’s statehood efforts “unfortunate and counterproductive.”
The Washington Post was worrying over the scenario as early as in 2011. At the time Abbas was moving to secure a United Nations declaration of “statehood” – a version of which the Palestinians eventually won and which Palestinian officials said marked the end of the Oslo peace process – setting the stage for “trigger[ing] a third intifada”:
Over the past four months Mahmoud Abbas has dug himself into a very deep hole in the Palestinian West Bank. Next month, he will try to blast himself out with what he hopes will be a controlled explosion — mass demonstrations… [T]he grand statehood initiative is likely to produce nothing tangible for average Palestinians, other than the loss of their jobs… Hence, Abbas’s appeal, first delivered in Ramallah late last month, for “mass action, organized and coordinated in every place,” to accompany the U.N. vote… The alternative is the exposure of Abbas’s fecklessness. “Abbas’s problem is that he will be humiliated if the U.N. votes and then nothing happens on the ground,” says a senior Israeli official… “So he is planning to jump on the back of a tiger. The problem is that if he loses control of the tiger, he is doomed.”… Officials around Abbas say they recognize that if the demonstrations turn into a “third intifada,” they will be the losers: They will be swept from power by a more militant group of leaders.
The case for Hamas’s role in the violence is also straightforward. Hamas and its leaders continue to call for renewed attacks against Israel in general and for new intifadas in particular – and starting in the middle of 2012 the Iran-backed group began to call for a new intifada over prisoners. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has already moved ahead of Abbas in popularity. And indeed some Israeli officials see Hamas’s hand in the recent violence, and suggest that the organization is seeking to weaken Fatah and seize control of the West Bank.
But Hamas does not yet control the the West Bank. The territory is still Fatah’s, and that group’s leaders have similarly refused to give up “armed struggle” against Israel (PA Mayor Jamal Muhsein in 2009; Fatah Central Committee members Jibril Rajoub and Abbas Zaki in 2010; Fatah Central Committee Mahmoud Al-Aloul in 2012 and then again this month; and so on). Even Abbas – going back as far as 2008 – has kept open the option of resuming violence “resistance” against Israel:
PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday said that he does not rule out returning to the path of armed “resistance” against Israel and took pride in the fact that he had been the first to fire on Israel and that his organization had trained Hizbullah. In an interview with the Jordanian daily al-Dustur, Abbas said that he was opposed to an armed struggle against Israel – for the time being. “At this present juncture, I am opposed to armed struggle because we cannot succeed in it, but maybe in the future things will be different,” he said
Instead he pursued a diplomatic strategy that, in ways large and small, repeated the risks of his 2011 and 2012 statehood gambits: raising Palestinian expectations while eliminating the chances for negotiations necessary to meet those expectations. The combination – which has seen Abbas make largely symbolic stabs at achieving Palestinian statehood while eschewing bilateral negotiations with Israel – was identified by Israeli security officials as risking a third Intifada as far back as 2009 and as recently as 2013. But instead of heeding U.S. requests and returning to the negotiating table, Abbas ignored Israeli good-will gestures – including those involving settlement freezes and prisoner releases – and piled on an array of preconditions that made negotiations untenable.
Abbas assured the international community that the risks associated with his diplomatic move – including and explicitly the controversial move to pursue and secure non-member statehood status in the U.N. – would not trigger violence. He is now praising the protests that he predicted would never break out. Along with the human and material costs of a third Intifada, the unrest may well cost the Palestinian Authority President and his Fatah party their credibility.