Why you should care
President Trump’s openly biased positions on the Middle Eastern conflict are threatening to spark the third intifada.
Distrusted by the Palestinian leadership and feared by the Israeli military, Jamal Tirawi has a unique view of the conflict from his office in Nablus, deep in the West Bank. To the left, along a busy road where uniformed men carry AK-47s, is Balata, the largest and most febrile of the West Bank refugee camps. To the right is the casbah of Nablus, rebuilt from the rubble of the second intifada, when Israeli tanks rolled down this road in 2002.
Tirawi, who ran a militia in the 1990s, was convicted of helping carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv during the uprising and was described recently by one Israeli military official as the sort of man the Israel Defense Forces worries about. A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, he is an outcast from the West Bank leadership who see him as an unreliable rival. He has a grim warning for both groups.
“Any second now we could see the beginning of a third intifada,” he says solemnly, sitting between two portraits — one of Yasser Arafat in military garb, the other of his more moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in a suit. “The reality is that the fire has already started, but any second now, the flames could get really high — we are talking about total chaos.”
At any other time, Tirawi’s warning would be dismissed as the exaggerations of someone who exists on the often violent periphery of Palestinian politics. Since the end of the previous period of unrest to rock the occupied West Bank in the early 2000s, there have been persistent warnings about a new intifada. But among the Palestinian leadership, Israeli officials and observers, there is an increasing concern that after a long period of relative calm, there is a real possibility of an outbreak of sustained violence in the West Bank.
When there’s nothing left to live for, should I not die in a way that matters?
Adil, a 32-year-old Palestinian
Gaza, the blockaded coastal strip run by the Islamist group Hamas, corners much of the world’s attention. With protesters massed at the Gaza border with Israel since March this year, Israeli snipers have shot and killed at least 150 people, and wounded thousands more. However, it is the West Bank, run by the secular party Fatah, that remains the heart of Palestinian nationalism.
A quarter century after the Oslo Accords were first signed, Palestinians now feel as far as they have ever been from their eventual goal — a state of their own, a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and the dismantling of some, if not all, of the settlements that encroach deep into land they intend to build a nation out of.
In interviews, West Bank residents describe a mounting despair that is the result of an emboldened right-wing Israeli government, a belligerent U.S. administration and an indifferent Arab world — especially Saudi Arabia, which has chosen to build covert ties with Israel as it duels with Iran. Their frustration with their own interim government, the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Abbas, has also grown. More than 60 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas — whom they deride as corrupt, inept and impotent against Israeli aggression — to resign, and three-quarters think things have become worse since Oslo.
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These conditions resemble those that preceded previous outbreaks of violence, which were triggered by isolated incidents. The first intifada started in 1987 after an Israeli military vehicle hit a civilian car in a refugee camp; the second started in 2000 when right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon entered Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The potential catalyst this time, say observers, is the rapid change in U.S. policy toward the Palestinians under President Donald Trump. To satisfy his evangelical base, Trump has moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, without addressing the Palestinian claim to the east of the city as a possible shared capital in the event of a peace deal. He has cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Palestinian refugees, and appointed as the U.S. ambassador David Friedman, who has supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Last month, the U.S. shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, effectively cutting all high-level ties, “reducing us to the 1980s, like we are terrorists,” according to one Palestinian politician.
“You may think I am being dramatic, but when there’s nothing left to live for, should I not die in a way that matters?” says Adil, a 32-year-old waiting outside an East Jerusalem hospital that has lost U.S. funding. Adil suffers from an easily cured illness, but cannot afford the treatment — not one person in his family has a job, and all eight relatives live off aid. “Life is depressing. Death is final, and for my family, it will bring honor.”
According to Israel television channel Hadashot, the chief of staff of the military, Gadi Eisenkot, warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-September that there was an 80 percent chance of a large outbreak of violence in the West Bank. Tirawi agrees. “The Israelis are delusional if they think things are under control,” he says.
How Israel controls the West Bank today is far different from when the second intifada was quelled in 2005. Drones, heat-sensing cameras and other forms of surveillance have replaced many checkpoints. The generally lower level of violence means that troops enter less often into refugee camps or the larger cities controlled by the PA. Instead, a robust arrangement with Abbas’ government sees Israeli and Palestinian security officials share intelligence.
For the Israelis, it is a way to maintain surveillance on a large urban population without directly policing them, and for the Palestinians, who still receive funding from the Americans for this, the security arrangement helps keep opposition to Abbas in check. The lower level of violence has allowed the Israeli military to reduce the “points of friction” with the Palestinian population, according to a senior military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The surveillance adds a sophistication to the occupation that was not possible during the first two intifadas.
Instead, the military official says, they keep their eye on more emotive triggers: changes to the status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest site in Islam; the conditions of refugees and prisoners; and around this time every year, the olive harvest, when Israeli settlers often clash with Palestinian villagers trying to harvest their ancestral trees.
Aside from these issues, the Israeli official describes a situation where random acts of violence from “lone wolf” attackers remain a threat, but more organized violence is rare.
At least some of the calm is to do with Abbas and the PA. While he is the subject of Israeli and U.S. criticism for paying stipends to the families of Palestinians convicted of terrorism in Israeli courts, Abbas has been wary of signaling a broad approval of violence. Those who know him well say this is partly because he has staked his political career on negotiations. Others, including Israeli officials, suggest Abbas, an 82-year-old chain-smoker, would be incapable of controlling, let alone ending, a fresh uprising. But as Abbas has aged and the PA’s popularity has waned, senior leaders are beginning to jostle for his position and are increasingly critical of him in public. Lt. Gen. Eisenkot cited Abbas’ death as a possible trigger for more violence, according to Israeli media.
Jibril Rajoub is one of the officials fearful about the future. Rajoub spent his youth in street battles with Israeli soldiers, and rose up the ranks of the exiled PLO in Lebanon and Tunisia. He ran the PA’s secretive security services under Arafat, and remains a controversial figure, running the Palestinian Football Association. The Israeli government blamed him for threatening violence against the Argentine soccer team for considering a match in Israel this year. (Argentina canceled; Rajoub denies the allegation; FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, banned him for a year for “inciting hatred and violence.”)
In a suit and tie in his well-guarded office in Ramallah, Rajoub says violence is inevitable. “Chaos will be the rule, and discipline will be the exception,” he says, after emphasizing that he and his leadership will continue to urge peaceful resistance to their followers. “But we can’t ensure anything — no one can control millions of people, or tens of thousands of weapons and machine guns moving in the street, and no one can control the different factions.”
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In Balata’s narrow streets some 27,000 people are crammed into less than 1 square kilometer of space. Most are descendants of people who either fled or were driven from their homes in what became the state of Israel in 1948. Some 58 percent of Balata’s adult residents have no jobs, the United Nations estimates. More than half are under 25, and after Friday afternoon prayers, many of the young men hang out outside the barbershops that line the main street of the camp.
At one, the usual posters of the latest hairstyles have been replaced with images of the young men killed by the Israeli military. Of the eight young men in the shop, only one has a job. Even the 36-year-old barber is an apprentice, paid in lunch and afternoon tea. “These are supposed to be the best years of their lives,” says Tirawi. “You are thinking of life, of meeting a woman and getting married. But instead of all this, you choose to go and die.”
Tirawi’s concern is mirrored elsewhere. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian leader whose work includes oversight of the economy, says the West Bank is gripped by hopelessness. There is a political impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, but also within Palestinian factions themselves. Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank refuse to reconcile and present a unified national government.
“The mood today is the same as it was in the months before the first intifada,” Shtayyeh says. “There is no political horizon for improvement, and this is creating an extreme anger within the public.”
Speaking privately, many Palestinian leaders talk of worst-case scenarios. They include the return of suicide bombs, the increasing allure of Islamist propaganda from their rival Hamas and a collective fear that their unpopularity with Palestinians could result in a succession battle after Abbas’ death, both within Fatah and with Hamas, which would seek to capitalize on the power vacuum.
Shtayyeh is not as pessimistic. He lists several reasons why both Israel and the PA, which understands the challenges to its own survival an upsurge of violence could bring, would work to defuse any violence. Some 200,000 Palestinians work in Israel on a daily basis — both illegally and legally, including some 18,000 who work in factories on settlements — bringing close to $3 billion in salaries back to their families, he estimates. A further 100,000 work for the PA, bringing some economic stability to the West Bank.
It is those who remain stuck in refugee camps or outside the Palestinian mainstream that he worries about. “These are the ones who will trigger a new wave of protests — they are the ones who are angry, frustrated, politically mature.” With the current state of anger, he adds: “They are the ones, they are the trigger.”
Contact and conflict in the fractured West Bank
Three Sundays ago, Ashraf Na’alwa, a Palestinian electrician in his early 20s, walked into an Israeli-owned and -operated factory. Within minutes, according to the Israeli military and CCTV footage, he had shot and killed two of his bosses and injured a third before escaping. A few weeks earlier, a Palestinian youth walked up to an American-Israeli settler, Ari Fuld, at a shopping center and stabbed him in the back.
Both attacks took place in the fractious geography of the West Bank, where some 450,000 Israeli settlers rub up against 2.5 million Palestinians. The settlers’ homes, factories and shopping complexes are illegal under international law, but since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the number of Israelis living in the West Bank has nearly quadrupled, further inflaming tensions between the neighbors.
That presents a challenge for the Israeli military, which must protect its citizens, who often live within a few hundred feet of Palestinian villages, drive on the same roads and work in the same factories. (Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the Six-Day War in 1967.)
Unlike Gaza, which saw an Israeli withdrawal in 2005 before it was placed under a punishing land, sea and air blockade, this proximity gives the conflict an immediacy — stabbings, stones thrown at passing cars, car rammings, Molotov cocktails. The 19 refugee camps that dot the West Bank are fertile recruiting grounds for groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, according to a senior military official who declined to be identified.
Already this year, some 2,300 Palestinians have been apprehended, six warehouses used to manufacture or store weapons raided, and $50,000 in cash and 25 vehicles seized. Were there to be an outbreak of violence, refugee camps such as Balata in Nablus or Qalandiya near Jerusalem would probably be at the center of activity.
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