Is this how the Third Intifada begins?

After Israeli police discovered a body believed to be 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khudair, violent clashes broke out Wednesday between angry Palestinians and Israeli forces. (Reuters)

The abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers have inflamed Israel, and the discovery of the body of an Arab teenager, perhaps killed as an act of revenge, looks set to create bigger problems. Clashes broke out on the streets of East Jerusalem today, and images taken from activists on Facebook appear to show Israeli soldiers vowing violent retaliation.

With the rhetoric at a high, a worrying question is surfacing: Is this how the third intifida starts?


A Palestinian stone-thrower stands near a tire set ablaze during clashes with Israeli police in Shuafat, an Arab suburb of Jerusalem July 2, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Intifada, in the Palestinian context, is a word that carries a lot of meaning. It comes from the Arabic word انتفاضة (intifāḍa) which literally refers to "shaking something off," but in this context might be better translated as "uprising." The word has been used to describe all sorts of protests and social movements, but it is by far best known for its connection to the Palestinian armed uprising between 1987 and 1991 and the later uprising between 2000 to 2005. These are known respectively as the First Intifada and the Second Intifada.

The First Intifada

In his book "Righteous Victims," Benny Morris goes to great lengths to describe some of the key factors that led to the First Intifada, including a decline in the Israeli security force's powerful reputation and its ability to deter, the increasingly violent guerrilla war tactics of the Islamic Jihad Movement in the Palestinian territories, acts of Jewish vigilantism, and a number of uprisings at the Deheisheh refugee camp.

The spark that created the intifada, however, is usually attributed to a road accident in the Gaza Strip on December 8, 1987, when an Israeli tank transporter collided with Palestinian cars, killing four passengers. Rumors spread that the accident was a deliberate act, Palestinians launched large-scale protests, and the Israeli army fired on them with live ammunition. Before long, the intifada had started, with many Palestinians later arguing that it was a grass-roots movement largely outside the direct control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Most experts would say that the Madrid conference in 1991 was the end of the intifada, though some date it later to the Oslo accords in 1993. Estimates for the number of deaths vary: B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, says that almost 300 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians before the Oslo Accords, while around 1,500 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces during that period. A large number of Palestinians were also believed to have been killed by other Palestinians as suspected collaborators.

The Second Intifada

On Sept. 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon, then an opposition leader, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, widely considered the holiest site for Jews and the third-holiest site for Sunni Muslims, as it houses the al-Aqsa Mosque. In an apparent bid to appeal to Israeli voters, he said, "The Temple Mount is in our hands," a phrase first used in an Israeli radio broadcast during the 1967 Six-Day War. Riots broke out in the Old City of Jerusalem the day after Sharon's visit and spread across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip the day after that.

Sharon's visit came after a period of tension for the Israelis and Palestinians, following the disappointing final results of the Oslo accords and the failure of the Middle East peace summit at Camp David just a few months before. The new intifada was marked by a tougher response from Israel security forces, and the Palestinian campaign soon made a dramatic turn to suicide attacks, peaking at 238 in 2002.

The Second Intifada was largely brought to an end with the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the Sharm el-Sheikh summit of 2005, when  Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas met to try to end the violence. Almost 3,200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, according to B'Tselem, while 950 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, 649 of whom were civilians.

The Third Intifada?

Hamas was already warning of a "Third Intifada" last month, arguing that West Bank raids could lead to a "direct confrontation" with Israel. Of course, these sorts of warnings have been heard many times before, including earlier this year in a leaked document from the Palestinian Authority.

In the past, the intifiadas have appeared unpredictable, sparked by a small-scale event. Could a violent Israeli backlash to the deaths of Israeli teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar prompt a truly grass-roots reaction from Palestinians? It's certainly possible.

But it's also possible, as some suspect, that the intifadas have been promoted as part of a plan -- there's a long-running theory that Yasser Arafat himself planned and launched the Second Intifada, for example. Israel's accusations that Hamas was behind the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli teens may support such a viewpoint, too. Although others, such as Samer Badawi of +972 Magazine, wonder if the Israelis are the ones who are trying to force a Third Intifada.

The Israeli army struck more than 15 Hamas targets in Gaza during the night. The strikes came in response to what the army said were more than 20 rockets fired into Israel since Wednesday. (Reuters)
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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