WJC ANALYSIS - Will a new intifada erupt in the West Bank?

24 December 2012

By Pinhas Inbari

Over the last few months there has been an escalation in demonstrations in the West Bank, which included violent acts like stone and Motolov-cocktail throwing. Israeli security forces arrested the Hamas cells that participated in the violent demonstrations and have geared up for a potential escalation in terrorist activities.

It is doubtful that the latest unrest in the West Bank will develop into a third intifada that would compete with the Arab Spring for the world’s attention. However, it is important to examine what lies behind the current disturbances and what motivates the political actors behind the scenes. First, it is premature to label the events as full-fledged 'unrest'.  The incidents were orchestrated by paid cadres and were not the result of a poplar outcry. In fact, both Fatah and Hamas – separately – pulled strings behind the scenes.

Let us examine their goals.

Fatah, whose influence and size are shrinking, has stuck to its basic line - 'the struggle', which justifies the organization’s existence. The nature of 'the struggle', however, remains ambiguous. Fatah is very careful not to engage in a full scale intifada on the level and magnitude of the first and the second intifadas.

Its leadership correctly reads the reluctance of the Palestinian people by and large to return to the hardships that usually accompany the intifadas. Some still blame Fatah from dragging them into the disastrous consequences of last intifada. What is more, the Palestinian Authority is now in the middle of an economic crisis and is unable to pay salaries to its civil servants. This sector, when paid on time, was employed in the former intifadas. The Palestinian Authority had an official duty to participate in intifada-related marches and demonstrations. 

This time around Fatah is careful not to engage the public sector, fearing that instead of shouting slogans against the occupation it may decide to storm the Muqata in demand of a paycheck. Clearly, Fatah is careful to limit its 'struggle' to make sure the protestors target Israel instead of the Muqata.

The situation is completely different for Hamas. The organization’s online activity indicates that it is interested in a breakout of a full-scale intifada in the West Bank. For example, this photo, which appeared in last weekend’s edition of Hamas’ site, shows events that unfolded in Jenin and were most likely triggered by local Hamas activists.

However, Hamas is split between the overall interests of the movement and the interests of the different groups vying for power inside the organization. Officially, Hamas needs to find a new channel for its 'resistance'  policy after the conclusion of a tahdiya with Israel at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense. The movement is under great pressure to join Political Islam and thereby abandon the struggle and turn Hamas to a political party. By triggering violence in the West Bank, Hamas has signaled that the tahdiya in Gaza is no indication that it has joined the ranks of Political Islam. 

Still, Hamas’ resolve is constantly tested by internal conflicts between its leaders, namely the outgoing leader Khaled Mashal and the local leadership in Gaza. Despite Mash’al’s much publicized visit to Gaza, he was unable to retain the position of head of the movement. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya, on the other hand, has been touted as the head of the organization by numerous Hamas websites. And, while Mash'al was described as the leader of Hamas, Haniyya was described as the leader of Hamas in Gaza. The rivalry between the two may force a split in the organization.

The inability of the movement to select a leader is also delaying the proclamation of the Shura, which makes the official announcements about Hamas’ leadership. Furthermore, Mash’al now finds himself without a political home, as his refusal to accept Political Islam has disqualified him from joining the Muslim Brotherhood. His only recourse seems to be a revival of an old plan cooked up together with the rejectionist Fatah senior, Faruq Qaddumi, to overtake the PLO’s Executive Committee. Hence, a new intifada that would emphasize the PLO-Hamas joint credo of the "armed struggle" may serve his needs. 

To this end, Mashal will likely push for Hamas to turn the West Bank into its area of interest, which will include reconciliation with the radical wing of Fatah – the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – and the revival of terrorist activity launched from the West Bank. 

Mash’al has already met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss cooperation. However, Abbas and PA Prime Minister Fayyad fiercely reject the notion of an armed struggle, preferring a "civil struggle" that includes the economic boycott of Israeli products, a diplomatic intifada in the corridors of the UN, etc.

Surprisingly, support for a new intifada surfaced inside the West Bank in order to compel the Arab world to help the PA with its financial woes.  The head of the PLO Executive Committee, Yasser Abd Rabbo, said in a conference in Ramallah that a new popular intifada might garner empathy and support among the Arab nations in the region who would then mobilize to rescue the Palestinians from their economic crisis. 

While it is evident that various Palestinian parties seek to spark a new large scale intifada in the West Bank, so far the pressure has not reached the point of no return, i.e. a massive popular uprising. However, a new wave of terrorist attacks against Israel or a diplomatic campaign and a commercial boycott may very well happen.   

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