The beginning of the “third intifada” has been predicted repeatedly in the past, but when the leader of Hamas called for a renewed uprising against Israel on Thursday, there was a sense that this time it could be for real.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, was responding to President Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and to eventually move the U.S. Embassy there. To Hamas, the decision amounted to a “declaration of war,” according to a Thursday speech by its leader.
“Jerusalem is being kidnapped and ripped from us,” Haniyeh said. Overnight, protesters in Gaza had chanted slogans such as “Jerusalem to us” and raised banners depicting Jerusalem as a red line. U.S. and Israeli flags as well as pictures of Trump were burned amid cheers from protesters.
With the United States getting blamed for the escalation of tensions, fears mounted that another intifada could also directly target Americans.
What is an intifada?
Most commonly, the Arabic word انتفاضة is associated with two long Palestinian uprisings against Israel. The first one occurred between 1987 and 1993, followed by a more violent second uprising in the early 2000s that lasted for about four years. The uprisings are known as the first intifada and the second intifada, and both proved destructive to the Palestinian economy.
The word itself carries a lot of other meanings, however. Apart from “uprising,” it can be translated as “shaking something off,” or “tremor.”
What was the difference between the first and second?
Although the term intifada is often associated with violent protests, nonviolent actions such as boycotts initially dominated the first uprising, which lasted until the early 1990s.
The outbreak of protests was the result of many factors that had accumulated for years, and it followed a collision between an Israeli military truck and several Palestinian cars. Four Palestinians were killed in the accident, and subsequent protests — fueled by rumors that the collision was deliberate — were met with violence by the Israeli military.
Protests, often carried out by young people, featured stone throwing and attempts to boycott Israeli products. Instead of deploying terrorist tactics, Palestinian protesters initially relied mostly on nonlethal actions but were still met by what Israel dubbed an “iron fist” policy. By January 1988, anti-government protests attracted tens of thousands of people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They rallied against a policy that Israel's defense minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, described as "force, power and beatings."
Throughout that uprising and partially due to the harsh Israeli response, a number of militant political groups emerged or were strengthened, including Hamas.
The second intifada began in 2000 as the result of a breakdown in peace negotiations between the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The breakdown coincided with a visit by Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader and soon-to-be prime minister, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a complex that also houses the al-Aqsa Mosque — considered the third-holiest site by Muslims. Sharon’s declaration that the “Temple Mount is in our hands” was understood as an attack on its status by many Palestinians and Muslims elsewhere, and it led to riots. Each side subsequently blamed the other for the escalation that followed.
In contrast to the first intifada, the second uprising was more similar to a violent insurgency. The shooting and killing of 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammed al-Dura during the second day of the uprising further fueled the violence, although it remains disputed who was responsible for his death. Instead of boycotts and stone throwing, shootings and suicide bombings dominated the conflict that ensued. Israel responded with targeted killings and home demolitions, among other controversial tactics.
More than 4,000 people — most of them Palestinians — were killed in the five following years, as suicide bombings and shooting attacks fed a cycle of violence. At the peak of the intifada in 2002, there were more than 230 annual suicide attacks. The years-long uprising deepened mistrust on both sides of the conflict and arguably weakened the position of those in Israel seeking a longer-term peaceful solution. The violence eventually faded following the death of Arafat in 2004 and renewed peace talks a year later.
How likely is a third intifada?
A third intifada has been predicted multiple times. In 2014, there were fears over an escalation of violence after the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers inflamed Israel. Clashes broke out on the streets of East Jerusalem after the discovery of the body of an Arab teenager.
This summer, observers noted a concerning rise in violence in Jerusalem when Israel fully closed the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers, after three Palestinian Israeli citizens killed two Israeli police officers near the site.
Could Trump’s pronouncement now trigger an escalation of the tensions that have accumulated over recent years?
Some experts believe that Hamas and Fatah, which constitutes the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, may now be forced into a limited escalation of violence.
The existence of the Palestinian Authority is based on a peace agreement with Israel, and Fatah has so far remained committed to that arrangement, said Jane Kinninmont, a senior Middle East researcher at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“But it has already been difficult for years for Palestinians to believe that a two-state solution is actually going to happen, and many Palestinian youth think it is a fantasy. Now even seasoned negotiators from Fatah are saying that the latest U.S. move indicates that the two-state solution is dead,” said Kinninmont.
Recent efforts by Hamas and Fatah to overcome their rivalry and broker a deal could also be damaged by Trump's pronouncement Wednesday. Hamas, in particular, is facing a dilemma.
“If Hamas attacks Israel with missiles, Israel will respond with heavy air raids and significant humanitarian costs, and the old lose-lose story will repeat itself,” said Kinninmont. "On the other hand, if they do nothing, the U.S. will feel vindicated.” She warned that Hamas may increasingly choose U.S. targets to avoid a direct conflict with Israel.
But Imad Alsoos, a Hamas-focused researcher at Berlin’s Free University, believes that Hamas’s options are too limited to start another intifada itself. “If there was a popular uprising, it is likely that Hamas could jump on it and lead it, but they are too demobilized to launch it by themselves,” said Alsoos. He said he thinks that such an uprising would remain focused on Israeli targets.
“Whether or not the violence escalates mostly depends on how Israel will respond to the protests against Trump's pronouncement. So far, I don’t see the U.S. declaration itself as the key factor,” said Alsoos.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.