RAMALLAH, The West Bank — The Israeli intelligence agency operating in the Occupied Territories, Shin Bet, announced late Thursday night that a Hamas cell from Bethlehem plotted to fire rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman while a ferocious war was under way in Gaza last summer on the other side of the country.
Lieberman, a hardline Israeli hawk living in the Gush Etzion settlement block near Bethlehem, would have been hit as he commuted to Jerusalem. Few targets would carry more symbolic weight. Lieberman recently told the German Foreign Minister that Israel “won’t accept any limitations” on building Jewish neighborhoods in the Palestinian area of east Jerusalem, which Palestinians still hope to make the capital of their state.
Add this latest report to the months of incidents including car rammings, knife attacks, and the massacre in a West Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday that left five dead—four religious Jews and one police officer belonging to the Druze minority. It is no wonder that headlines around the world are talking about a new, third intifada, or Palestinians uprising. But is that what’s really going on?
The kind of violence we’ve seen so far suggests that version 3.0, if it begins—or has begun—will have a different character from those that came before. It doesn’t appear to be shaping up like the stone-throwing First Intifada. This time much more deadly force will be used. Nor is it likely to replicate the desperate, bloody, suicide-bomb-laden Second Intifada, after which Israel walled off the Palestinians of Jerusalem and the West Bank. What we have seen so far are a lot of so-called lone-wolf attacks, where individuals take it on themselves to crash their cars into Israelis, or to take a knife and go on a spree stabbing people. Or they join an organization like the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, thought to be virtually moribund, then take it on themselves to slaughter rabbis and worshippers in a synagogue.
It is conceivable, if highly unlikely, that most Palestinians will try to pull back from the brink. Three days after the attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem, the administrative capital of the occupied West Bank is calm. But anger and the Palestinians’ fears—a component rarely mentioned by outsiders—continue to fuel an atmosphere primed for desperate violence.
One thing this new unrest shares with the Second Intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, is the flashpoint. A struggle over the right of Jews to pray in the courtyard of the al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of the most holy sites in Islam, and a symbol of Palestinian identity regardless of faith, has kept Jerusalem—the disputed capital of both Israel and a presumptive Palestinian state—on edge.
On Thursday, Israeli police delivered notices to the families of Oday and Ghassan Abu Jamal, the cousins who carried out the synagogue attack and were shot dead at the scene, that their homes would be demolished because of the sins of their sons.
Many view the destruction of houses that the families of terrorists still inhabit as a form of collective punishment. But that hasn’t stopped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from promising that there “will be more house demolitions and many other steps” taken to impose calm on Jerusalem.
“There’s a lot of fear among the Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem,” says Rima Awad, the advocacy director for the Palestinian Counseling Center and member of the Coalition for Jerusalem. She acknowledged that Palestinians had done their share to intensify the conflict, but argued that no matter how you cut the cards, they are stacked against the residents of East Jerusalem.
Awad noted that in a situation where the Israeli police force largely chooses to deal with Palestinians suspected of terrorism by using bullets rather than handcuffs, she and her fellow Palestinian Jerusalemites “don’t feel that we’re protected.”
When asked if she thought a new intifada might be taking shape, she said flatly, “all the indications” are there. “A confrontation is coming, no doubt. We feel it in the air.”
She isn’t alone. “The situation is no longer under control,” says Ehab, a resident of al-Amari refugee camp outside Ramallah. “It’s quite unstable. Anything can happen.”
Refugee camps played a crucial role during the Second Intifada. The visit of the late Ariel Sharon to the al-Aqsa compound in 2000 (on his way to winning election as Israel’s prime minister) is widely seen as the beginning of the uprising, but Palestinians in the camps had been arming for months beforehand, in the name of protecting themselves from marauding Israeli settlers. Ebah, speaking from his home in the camp, said suggestively, “There are signs of a big thing on the horizon.”
Israeli politicians see something there, too. The mayor of Ashkelon, an Israeli city of approximately 113,000 inhabitants near the Gaza Strip, placed a partial ban on Arab workers.
The incredibly specific prohibition was announced via Facebook, and it bars any Arabs from working on bomb shelters being built in nursery schools, presumably to stop them from constructing flimsy protection should Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system fail.
The Israelis “always find a way to punish people” says Najwan Berekdar, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship from Nazareth, the birthplace of Christ, which is now a mainly Arab city in the Galilee region.
Less than two weeks ago, the this normally peaceful are of northern Israel was shaken by violence when police officers shot a Palestinian dead after he attacked a police car with a knife. Kafr Kanna, the village where the shooting took place, erupted. Some 5,000 local residents took to the streets, confronted Israeli policemen, and took to doing what Palestinians so commonly do when facing Israeli forces. They threw stones and set tires on fire. Had they been in the West Bank, the spectacle would hardly have attracted notice. But these demonstrations were in Israel itself.
Since then, the north has been calm. But not content. Berekdar, an activist who works with Palestinians across Israel, says that they “don’t feel safe, comfortable or confident wherever they are,” whether they are threatened by settlers, soldiers, or bureaucrats and politicians like the mayor of Ashkelon.
She added that there is an overwhelming sense of isolation within the Palestinian community throughout the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel. While Israel has its frighteningly powerful army and the support of the majority of western governments, Palestinians feel that they have “only themselves.” And what has been happening over the past months is, in her view, “a new method of Intifada,” and “maybe a more effective one.”
The Daily Beast recently spent time in the Aida refugee camp, and refugees there said something similar. They haven’t seen anything like this before.
Walking through eastern Jerusalem, with its roads that lead to Palestinian neighborhoods blocked by barricades and patrolled by Israeli forces, the desperation is palpable. The Israeli response to the heinous crimes committed by Palestinians often seems overkill. Palestinians then respond in kind.
With the announcement of the housing demolitions in Jerusalem, another Palestinian response seems inevitable. Clashes are expected. Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian group that runs the Gaza Strip and is listed as a terrorist organization by governments across the world, called for a day of rage on Friday. But it could be said that every day these days is a day of rage. There is no indication that either side is going to give up.
Rima Awad, and all the other Palestinians who talked with The Daily Beast, agreed. “If we’re not in an intifada, then it is coming,” she said.