How the Palestinians stoked, then stopped, a new intifada

Everything seemed to be in place for a third intifada. A bogged-down peace process, extreme politicians eagerly egging on their cohorts, rumours of Zionist plots to destroy the Temple Mount mosques, huge piles of rocks aimed at the heads of Jews at the Western Wall and all the religious fervour of Ramadan and the High Holy Days.

But in the end, the Jerusalem riots of the past couple of weeks petered out. Despite dire warnings from some former police officers and defence experts, a third uprising against Israel failed to ignite.

For this, there are a number of figures to whom we should be grateful.

First, Jerusalem Judge Shimon Fineberg, who decided not to make a martyr of the Islamic Movement’s Sheikh Raed Saleh. Instead of sending him to prison for incitement to violence, he made do with forbidding his entrance to the capital for 30 days.

Fatah and Hamas exhibited a rare sense of caution

Thanks are due also to Sheikh Saleh’s colleagues in the Islamic Movement, who made it clear that they disapproved of his provocative tone.

Then there is the Jerusalem Police, who responded resolutely to the violent outbreak, but were careful not to cause too many casualties, in the clear knowledge that a shahid’s blood could stoke an unquenchable fire.

But more than anyone else, the peace that continued to reign throughout most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can be attributed to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The two men may be the most bitter of rivals, incapable, it seems, of reaching an agreement on a schedule for elections, but last week they were united by a joint interest. Both of them gave clear orders to their underlings that all the demonstrations against the “Zionist threat” to Al Aqsa were not to get out of hand or be allowed anywhere near the positions of the Israeli army.

Unlike Mr Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat, who could never be relied upon not to ride a populist wave, both Palestinian leaders exhibited a rare sense of caution and self-preservation. Both of them made fiery speeches promising to fight for Jerusalem, but that was it.

President Abbas knows that a fresh round of warfare would wipe out the only tangible gain he has achieved in almost five years of presidency, the improvement in the security and financial warfare of Palestinian citizens in the West Bank.

A new intifada would mean the return of the roadblocks, the curfew, the trade restrictions, and it would put the five battalions of Palestinian soldiers, trained by the United States Army, in an untenable position. Either stay by the sidelines during a national conflict or lose all American support.

In any case, Mr Abbas has no time right now for a violent uprising he cannot control. He is too busy trying to extricate himself from the political scandal caused by his decision not to press for an investigation of Israel following the Goldstone report. This week, he reversed his position and is now demanding the UN investigate it, as well as the Jerusalem riots.

Hamas and Mr Haniyeh have achieved only poverty and isolation during their three years of rule in Gaza, but after the devastating Operation Cast Lead nine months ago, they know full well that their only chance to open the border-crossings and begin rebuilding is a prisoner deal followed by a truce with Israel.

If they fail that, they will have no more to offer Gazans than organisations like Islamic Jihad and al Qaida. Both leaders sent messages assuring Israel they were not seeking escalation and made do with rhetoric.

Peace between Israel and Palestinians and between Palestinians and Palestinians is still a long way off by any yardstick. But at least for the time being, full-scale bloodshed is not an option for any of the main players.

Anshel Pfeffer is the JC’s special correspondent in Israel

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010