The question that has been raised frequently over the last few days – Do the clashes this week portend a third intifada? – is being asked from a narrow Israeli, military perspective. It is a perspective that accepts Israeli control over the Palestinians as the natural order of things, an order the Palestinians are disturbing. We should be flipping the question on its head: How is it that the third intifada has yet to erupt?
It is the narrow Israeli perspective that has prompted local pundits to ponder whether the single rocket fired from Gaza on Tuesday also portends change, marking an end to three months of quiet on the Gaza border. Framing the question in this way entails a routine avoidance of the fact that these haven't actually been quiet months for the residents of the Gaza Strip. In that time, the Israel Defense Forces has continued to fire on Palestinian civilians: fishermen, farmers, scrap collectors on the edges of the Strip. Some have been wounded, while others have been detained – primarily fishermen, some of whose fishing boats have been seized.
As in Gaza, so too is this the case in the West Bank. Even when the Palestinians are not seeking confrontation with IDF soldiers, quiet does not prevail and the undisturbed atmosphere is not the natural order of things.
The Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiation department monitors daily occurrences which it deems occupation dependent. Every day it releases a list of between 150 and 200 such incidents, which are recorded by the Palestinian security forces and various civil groups. Even when there are no injuries or deaths, this list pretty much always includes IDF gunfire, harassment by settlers, army raids of villages or cities, home demolitions, home seizures for military purposes, arrests, mobile checkpoints and blocked roads.
The daily list does not include routine instances of humiliation at the crossing points leading into Israel or the times when Israel prevents Palestinians from leaving Gaza or the West Bank. Nor does it examine life under the shadow of land appropriated for a neighboring settlement or the separation wall; financial restrictions; the hours spent waiting in Civil Administration offices; the results of the municipal neglect in East Jerusalem; the reports of interrogations in various Shin Bet security service facilities or the wholesale convictions in Israeli military tribunals.
When the feelings of anger and frustration are taken into account, what's surprising is that these emotions don't erupt and carry away most of the Palestinian population. It's true that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his security forces are worried about a new intifada – especially one that is taken over by armed militants, as happened in the second intifada – but that doesn't explain the pan-Palestinian restraint.
Despite the impression that comes across from some of the Israeli punditry, the Palestinians are not just pawns of their leaders who either attack IDF soldiers or refrain from doing so based on orders they received. What's surprising about the demonstrations in support of the Palestinian hunger strikers imprisoned in Israel is not the hundreds of people took part but the hundreds of thousands of people who have every reason to march against those who symbolize the occupying power, and have not done so.
The victims and the suffering that were part of the previous uprisings, and the Israeli suppression of them, did not produce the desired changes. On the contrary, there are many who say that each of the previous intifadas made the Palestinians' situation worse. But past failure is not enough of a reason not to give a third intifada a try.
One major explanation for the fact that the Palestinians have yet to do so is a lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership – whether it's Fatah, some of whose leaders are calling for demonstrations and some of whose leaders are urging caution, or Hamas, which also speaks in two voices: that of cease-fire and stabilization and development when it comes to Gaza, and that of all-out war when it comes to anywhere else.
Over the past two months, after the euphoria over what was described as a Palestinian victory in Operation Pillar of Defense and the honeymoon period of meetings between Hamas and Fatah, spokesmen from both movements are once again engaged in verbal sparring over which side is responsible for the lack of progress in Palestinian reconciliation talks.
There was some public wrangling on this matter over the weekend, when Hamas official Abdel Aziz Dweik belittled Fatah accomplishments. And at the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, the Palestinian detainee who died during a Shin Bet interrogation Saturday, Hamas supporters heckled the speaker who was supposed to be representing all the Palestinian political movements: Fatah official Abbas Zaki, who hails from the same village as Jaradat. Fatah activists were sent to take the megaphone away from the hecklers during the funeral.
The prevailing conclusion is that the leadership of both movements is more interested in maintaining its hegemony than in genuinely working to get rid of the dual government or heal the rift that undermines the Palestinians' ability to build a unified strategy against the occupation. And new leaders, along with new or changing organizations, are taking their time to develop and generate excitement.
At first, the revolutions of the Arab Spring inspired a mood of optimism among the Palestinians, along with intensified efforts to carry out direct action. The assumption was that the governments that had relatively good relationships with Israel had toppled or would do so shortly, rapidly changing the regional balance of power. In the meantime, the Palestinians came to realize that the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian rebels were operating with American support and that the neighboring countries were busy dealing with the travails of revolution and counter-revolution and were not yet ready to change their relationships with Israel. The conclusion, then, was that continued restraint is necessary.