As fighting flared this week in the Holy Land, high-ranking officials in both Israel and Palestine were well aware that a Third Intifada is about to erupt. The recent acceleration of violence in Gaza was merely the last straw. Although a ceasefire is inevitable in the next few days, the Israeli bombardment and threat of a ground invasion has pushed Palestinians in the West Bank and elsewhere ever closer to revolt. When the next intifada comes—and it will come—it will be even more destructive and violent than the Second Intifada that began in 2000.
Palestinians have witnessed sweeping changes in the Arab world, where people in the nations all around them successfully toppled their dictators after demanding freedom, democracy, and dignity. Palestinians have watched these gains with pride, yet their daily lives are getting worse under military occupation.
For years, the U.S. and Israel accepted authoritarian stability in the Middle East. However, Israeli brokers such as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have now been replaced with leaders more sympathetic to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. While these changes have emboldened Hamas to fire more rockets at Israel, the new state of affairs in the Middle East has not pushed Netanyahu’s government to change its policy toward the Palestinians.
Yet the main reason for the upcoming Third Intifada is the failure of the Palestinian Authority to achieve any political concessions from Israel, despite President Mahmoud Abbas having met all of the conditions that Israeli governments have demanded. Abbas built up the security force in the West Bank to prevent extremist groups from carrying out attacks. He recognized the state of Israel, and has begged repeatedly to go back to the negotiating table and the two-state solution.
In response, his leadership has been ridiculed by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose policy toward Abbas has been to ignore him, delay talks, and humiliate him politically by building more settlements. Abbas could not even get Netanyahu to extend the settlement freeze.
In 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was signed, there were approximately 300,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The agreement stated that “Neither side shall initiate or take any steps that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Yet since Oslo, Israel has aggressively increased its number of settlers and settlements. By December 2010, the number of settlers had increased to over 500,000.
Israel has systematically built a state within a state, marked by different classes of rights between settlers and Palestinians. Whereas settlers are subjected to Israeli civil law, Palestinians are subjected to martial law. Settlers have fortresses of villas, running water, and bypass roads exclusively for their own use. Palestinians are humiliated daily by the inequality endemic to the occupation and treated as an enemy by the occupying forces. They have witnessed the rest of the Arab world gaining rights while they have been denied their basic rights.
The result is that the Palestinian moderates have been politically annihilated. The failure to achieve concessions has reinforced the notion that Israel reacts only when provoked.
The next intifada will be the most violent one.
When the First Intifada started peacefully in 1987, it originated as an intellectual movement for freedom, dignity, and democracy and led to the Oslo Agreement. When the Second Intifada began in 2000, it started in the mosques, fueled by anger over the failure to implement the Oslo Accords. The next intifada will be the most violent one. The longer that a political solution is delayed, the more disillusioned Palestinians become. Sixty percent of the Palestinian population is under 30, and these young people have been raised in an environment where their aspirations are answered systematically by violence and suppression by Israel.
Politically savvy and radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad sense the Palestinian desperation, and exploit it for political advantage. And by bombarding Gaza, Israel is only helping them bolster their support. The tragedy in this conflict is that both sides have been raised in a culture of victimhood, and while they perpetuate violence against one another, they are reinforcing a political culture based on the belief that violence is the only solution.
Hamas will be the real winner of this conflict. Gaza has been long ignored by the international community, but the Israelis have pushed attention back to the Palestinian issue. Hamas will soon accept a ceasefire, however any agreement is only the calm before another storm. Now more popular than ever, Hamas will immediately begin to re-arm before launching another attack.
The only way Israel will ever be secure is through a political settlement. But Netanyahu’s policies and actions have set up a dangerous precedent—a precedent that if you launch missiles, Israel will negotiate with you. But if you peacefully meet Israel’s demands, you will be ignored.