Is the Arab Spring an 'intifada'? And why haven't the Palestinians joined in?
The intifada or 'throwing off' was the spontaneous Palestinians grassroots rebellion against Israel that began in the fall of 1987. Much like the beginnings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, the rebellion spread quickly in the pre-internet days across the Palestinian territories and Gaza and captured the world's attention. Within a few short years, however, it was usurped by the PLO and Yasir Arafat. As befitting the Internet age, the Arab Spring has now largely been usurped more quickly by Islamists around the Arab world.
For the Palestinians the Arab Spring has produced hard choices. While the star of Arab nationalism has fallen everywhere, among the Palestinians in the West Bank it is still alive, kept on life support by international aid, the Israeli military, and an unquantifiable sense of dread at the prospect of a Hamas takeover. Hamas has been regnant in Gaza since 2007. Repression and immiseration have resulted. The choice for Palestinians in the West Bank is stark and all stakeholders have made the Faustian bargain to retain the repressive and kleptocratic Palestinian Authority over the murderous and theocratic Hamas. An intifada by choice seems unlikely there, but an accidental one cannot be dismissed.
But broader forces are also at work. Outside of Gaza Palestinians are stranded between two of their core cultural beliefs. The first is unending opposition to Israel. 'Steadfastness' means rejecting the existence of the Jewish state, and this is manifest at all levels of Palestinian society, from school textbooks to summer camp programs, to TV shows, literature and poetry. Virtually any peaceful interactions with Israelis are scorned as 'normalization,' and Israel is vilified by official Palestinian Authority and Hamas media not simply as the existential Other but in classically antisemitic terms as the eternal evil of global Jewry, parasitic and bloodthirsty.
At the same time there is another Palestinian imperative that is both cultural and socio-economic, the absolute necessity to maintain international aid. In per capita terms Palestinians have long been the world's largest recipients of aid, far outstripped the vastly more impoverished regions of Africa and Asia. The Palestinian sense of entitlement is also absolute; any suggestions of cuts in direct aid or to UNRWA, the UN organization that maintains the third or fourth generation of 'refugees' who have been denied or refused to resettle in the Arab world, are met with anger, shock and threats. Intifada threatens aid, as does statehood, at least eventually.
How billions in aid have been spent is something else. Spending on the bloated public sector and the binge of construction and infrastructure projects throughout the West Bank account are obvious for only some of the money. Still, Western donors, interested as ever in buying quiet, have not been too curious about Palestinian corruption that has diverted unknown amounts. Israel, too, has been more interested in the status quo.
Without this aid the Palestinian economy could not have made the impressive gains it has registered under prime minister Salam Fayyad. The quiet that has been purchased benefits all parties including Israel, but is probably unsustainable in an era of European economic collapse and American austerity. Fayyad warns all visitors that peace and quiet requires continued funding. Enough unpaid salaries could itself spark an intifada, against the Palestinian Authority.
Coping with these requirements and maintaining solidarity with Arab and now Islamist uprisings is a delicate affair. Vicious Palestinian incitement keeps the national cause alive by focusing on Israel and the Jews as the sources of all Palestinian misfortune. Loud but desultory moves toward a 'unilateral declaration of independence' give the impression to Palestinians that statehood is on the horizon. The purported infrastructure gains impress Western donors, as does the relative quiet, and the cash flow supports the Palestinian economy.
The 'UDI' strategy also cleverly positions Palestinians to pursue their long-term goal of eradicating Israel by co-opting additional United Nations institutions. This 'long march through the institutions' has the spread the delegitimization and stigmatizing of Israel widely and at a low cost. The failure of UDI efforts rally the cause while the successes undermine Israel, but the speed of change is slow enough to maintain the illusion of peace and all-important Western aid.
These balances, appearing to support larger causes while maintaining dependence on aid, exerting pressure on Israel while remaining dependent on it again Hamas, are not political genius on the part of the Palestinian Authority but a unique confluence of interests. Cashing checks while inflicting damage is the bottom line for the Palestinian Authority and its global support network of intellectuals, lawyers and NGOs. Maintaining quiet while facing the vastly more threatening problem of Iran is the bottom line for Israel. And for Europe and the United States the issue is maintaining quiet while rebuilding the international economy and while the convulsions of the Arab Spring play themselves out. Whether deemed appeasement or containment, the price tag is a few billion dollars annually and a relatively low level of Palestinian terrorism.
In the past week, as UN reports about Palestinian economy were made public, president Mahmoud Abbas has tried to get the jump on Hamas by orchestrating protests against his own prime minister, Fayyad. By loudly proclaiming a "Palestinian Spring" Abbas is again simultaneously demanding aid, staying ahead of his own street, and just behind the larger Arab world.
But in the long-term these contradictions will not be sustainable. Islamist victors emerging from the Arab Spring will eventually demand Palestinian direct action. Even a marginal Palestinian or Islamist group can easily set the region ablaze. The recent Sinai terrorist attack on Israel has produced an angry crackdown by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government and a confrontation with Hamas only the basis of its timing and toll of Egyptians killed. But it has also allowed Egypt to move armor, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons into Sinai in contravention of the Camp David Accords. An intifada-like spark could ignite a direct confrontation between Egypt and Israel.
All parties would be losers in such a scenario but none more than the Palestinians. Ironically, the culture that invented intifada now has the most to lose. But it appears unlikely that lesson can be transmitted to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Alexander Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is also a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.