Analysis: Riots in Israel are not an intifada

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 4, 2010
IDF soldiers try to disperse Palestinian demonstrators near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron last Friday

IDF soldiers try to disperse Palestinian demonstrators near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron last Friday

The images of youths throwing stones and border policemen firing tear-gas grenades back at them last week in the alleyways of Hebron and at the entrance to the Temple Mount seemed eerily reminiscent of the two intifadas. But that is all they were: images.

So far, a widespread uprising throughout the territories, coupled with gradually escalating responses by the Israeli security forces, has failed to materialise; the riots seem to be petering out. This is not a third intifada, at least not yet.

The violent protests followed the Israeli government's decision to include the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem in a new list of nation heritage sites. Of course, the first two intifadas were triggered by isolated incidents and did not immediately spread. But neither intifada could have occurred without a groundswell of Palestinian frustration and an often-hidden guiding hand. Both factors are largely absent, though, this time around.

While the Palestinians are hardly complacent about the current situation in the West Bank, which is still under Israeli control, they have seen an impressive economic renaissance in the past two years, and a gradual building of the fundamental trappings of a sovereign state. Their instinctive indignation at the many manifestations of occupation still around them is not comparable to the pent-up anger that stoked the first intifada in 1987, or the sense of desperation after the peace process failed in 2000.

The Palestinian leadership had a clear interest in riding that wave of popular outrage in both those instances, with Fatah and the other movements vying against each other to finance, direct and take credit for events.

That dynamic has almost totally vanished. Hamas's leadership on the West Bank is all but muzzled, following a concentrated Israeli campaign to decapitate the military and political wing of the movement through arrests and targeted killings. Over the past two years, it has also been increasingly suppressed by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, fearful of a rerun of the Hamas coup in Gaza. The other rival Palestinian organisations have been emasculated too.

Eager to prove its dominance, Fatah has for now relinquished its revolutionary agenda and most of the movement's leaders are in an uneasy alliance with the Authority's prime minister, Salam Fayyad. The aim is to consolidate and expand their control of wider areas in the West Bank.

Now that the Authority has succeeded in presiding over financial growth and the building of state infrastructure, they will have more to lose from a new intifada. Mr Fayyad is no Zionist but he fervently believes that the best way for the Palestinians to achieve statehood is to make such a state a reality, harnessing international, mainly American, support. The Americans are training and supplying battalions of Palestinian National Security soldiers. Their stated aim is to keep the peace and continue suppressing Hamas, while co-operating closely with Israeli security forces.

Mr Fayyad's protest against the Israeli National Heritage List took the form of a special session of the Palestinian government in Hebron on Monday once the sporadic rioting had all but died down.

Encouraging them would have run counter to his strategy.

Last updated: 4:58pm, March 4 2010