Nameless and Leaderless in Jerusalem

Nameless and Leaderless in Jerusalem

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been around for generations, it still has the capacity to surprise. Even the experts are confused by the current violence that has been roiling Jerusalem for weeks now. Is this the long-awaited third intifada? What is causing it? Why is it centered in Jerusalem, not the West Bank? Who is leading it, and why are the principal actors teenagers with household knives? In fact, similar questions were asked at the beginning of the two previous intifadas, and of the Palestinian Revolt during the British Mandate. Why now? What for?

Admittedly, this wave of violence has unique features, but though the world and the context have changed since the Second Intifada ended more than ten years ago, the plight of the Palestinians hasn’t. The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is cited by many as the focal point, but there is no leader or organization to ask and no press releases to consult. The traditional players – the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Fatah – are clearly not in charge. Nor do we see crowds of hundreds or thousands as we did previously, though it seems most Palestinians are supporting “it”, whatever “it” is.

Even in the absence of links to the traditional actors, the conditions that gave rise to the current situation of terror and violence are not hard to discover. Palestinians have exploded in violence at least three times in the last eighty years when they perceived no future for themselves and no control over their lives, and have used whatever weapons were at hand. What is different today is that, in the age of ubiquitous social media, organizations, spokespeople, bulletins, etc. can all be dispensed with. Some are calling it the “smartphone intifada,” since all seems to flow through them.

In 1936, with desperate Jews fleeing Europe and swelling Zionist numbers in Palestine, Palestinians began a three year revolt, at least nominally under the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin el-Husseini. It accomplished little, ended in internecine violence, and was an important factor in the much bigger Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. In December, 1987, twenty years after Israel won the Six Day War, as settlements were increasing and the Palestinian issue seemed to be sliding off the international agenda, the First Intifada exploded, taking the Palestinian leadership, the Israelis, and everyone else by surprise. It ended in intra-communal violence and the Oslo Peace Process of the 1990s, which both sides now revile as a fraud by the other side.

In September 2000, two months after the failure of the Camp David Summit, the Second Intifada broke out, nominally as a response to Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram/Temple Mount, but primarily as an expression of frustration, anger, and impatience. It too, ended with horrific destruction and infighting, and no gains for the Palestinians.

Now, with not even the pretence of a peace process on the horizon and the world’s attention on Syria, Iraq, and ISIL, settlements growing, and no remotely effective leadership, Palestinians again perceive their situation as hopeless. Add to it the growing Muslim belief that Israel is about to fundamentally change the status of the Haram, and perhaps build a Third Temple, and there is no wonder that this explosion is taking place. It should be noted, however, that although prominent members of Netanyahu’s coalition have visited the Temple Mount recently and called for changing its status, there is no credible evidence that the Israeli government would countenance that. But the teenagers who are picking up knives and attacking Israeli Jews are not reading these assurances. Rumor and desperation rule now, and enough Jewish leaders have made enough promises to restore Jewish control on the Temple Mount that many Palestinians, and some Israeli Arabs, have little doubt they will do so.

I lived in Jerusalem during the most violent days of the Second Intifada, but today the fear on both sides seems even greater. Israel is cracking down harshly; about 40 Palestinians and eight Israelis (as of Oct. 15) have been killed, numbers that will most surely rise in the coming days. Israel is imposing neighborhood closures and deploying troops in Jerusalem. But it cannot confiscate every smartphone, so there is every reason to believe this is not a limited episode, but rather a new phase of the conflict, whether or not it is eventually dubbed the Third Intifada.

Israelis have generally supported heavy crackdowns on Palestinian violence, and are doing so now. Palestinian President Abbas, despite accusations of incitement by Netanyahu, is apparently also trying to damp it down, though his government is feeble and discredited. History offers no comfort; there is every reason to believe that sporadic and undirected violence will be the theme of the immediate future, and that, unfortunately, it will accomplish little to improve the Palestinians’ conditions or advance the prospects of a long overdue settlement.

Israeli repression may work in the short run but only a political settlement can head off a wider wave of violence. The current Israeli government, despite its nominal support for the two-state solution, has shown little interest in reaching a settlement based on the 1967 borders, which is what most of the world expects. France has intimated it would introduce a Security Council Resolution on settlements and the US position is still unclear. There is very little belief that the world community is prepared for the heavy lifting that a comprehensive settlement would entail; however, it is unlikely that more promises or protracted negotiations, without real change, could head off the escalating violence.

This was originally published by the Middle East Institute on October 16, 2015 at:

Paul Scham
This post was written by
Paul L. Scham has been Executive Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland since 2008. Originally an attorney, with a B.A. from Columbia and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, he quickly tired of practicing law and has worked on issues relating to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than twenty years at NGO's, in think tanks, and at universities.

5 Comments on "Nameless and Leaderless in Jerusalem"

  • Jerry Blaz says

    Neither the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority appears to be involved in the current “unrest,” which is what the word ‘Intifada’ was meant to signify when it was first introduced into the special language surround Israeli issues. However, the bitterness from the killings of the three young Jewish students followed by the beating and burning to death of an “innocent bystander,” an Arab teenager, who opportuned into the hands of self-appointed Jewish “vigilante” killers seems to be the initiating events of the current violence.

    While the government says “not me,” cabinet members and their followers among the extremist elements of the settler “movement” have been going up to the Temple Mount, and this appears to be the “causus belli” for Arab youths to become active violently. Not a change of the status quo instituted in 1967? Well, if it walks like a duck and quakes like a duck….

    While the Jewish death toll is well-known in the Israeli street, the much higher toll of Palestinian dead is less-known, but in the Palestinian streets, each death is just as resonant in the “incitement game.”

    Unless the Israeli authority acts more decisively in taking Jewish culprits into a justice system that is an “equal-opportunity” justice system, it will become a genuine “third intifada.” I am not optimistic that this is going to happen.

  • The article mistakenly states that the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the two intifadas achieved little. The first prevented Israel from reaching its demographic potential and may have delayed its independence, the last two harmed Israel’s image overseas, and the second intifada caused Jewish Israelis to doubt Palestinian intentions and take a skeptical view of the peace process.

    The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 resulted in the British White Paper of 1939, which severely reduced Jewish legal immigration to Palestine thus denying sanctuary to millions of European Jews who could not escape mass murder during the Shoah and might otherwise have become Israeli citizens. Had even a small fraction of the six million Jews murdered during the Shoah been able to reach Palestine the demographic between the Arab majority and the Jewish minority would have shifted dramatically in the Yishuv’s favor and might have lead to an earlier Israeli declaration of independence during World War Two, which might have enabled the rescue of still more European Jews and resulted in an even stronger State of Israel. From a Palestinian nationalist perspective preventing that outcome was no small achievement.

    The steps Israel took to defend her citizens during the two intifadas weakened its image overseas. The second intifada succeeded in psychologically traumatizing Israeli Jews leading them to doubt the sincerity of the Palestinian side in peace negotiations and convinced many of them that Peace is unattainable. From a Palestinian rejectionist perspective this too is no small achievement.

  • Paul Scham says

    Dear David,
    Your response to my post appears to have confused the “word “achieved,” which was the word I used, with “resulted in.” The Palestinian Revolt of 1936 and the two intifadas certainly had results, though we can’t possibly tease out exactly what they were without entering the speculative realm of counter-factual history. However, there is no doubt that they achieved very little, in the sense of accomplishing any semblance of what their goals were. The Palestinian Revolt sought to prevent a Jewish majority from creating a Jewish state, at which they were spectacularly unsuccessful. The goals of both intifadas were fairly inchoate, but creating some sort of Palestinian state was the least common denominator of both of them, and they were equally unsuccessful. You would probably argue that they sought to destroy Israel, which is even further away from what transpired.

    I argued that the likelihood of the current violence achieving anything positive for the Palestinians is equally remote and I think history is a good indicator that that will prove to be the case.
    Paul Scham

  • Ted says

    Dear Paul,

    Following on this quote from your, I want to develop a point that is rarely recognized in the mainstream:

    “It should be noted, however, that although prominent members of Netanyahu’s coalition have visited the Temple Mount recently and called for changing its status, there is no credible evidence that the Israeli government would countenance that. But the teenagers who are picking up knives and attacking Israeli Jews are not reading these assurances. Rumor and desperation rule now, and enough Jewish leaders have made enough promises to restore Jewish control on the Temple Mount that many Palestinians, and some Israeli Arabs, have little doubt they will do so.”

    Given that Palestinians in East Jerusalem see that Israeli Jews are gradually and progressively taking over Palestinian land and homes all over East Jerusalem, the West Bank and within Israel, there is little reason for them to believe that the Israeli government will not eventually attempt to take over Al Aqsa, whether that is today, next month, in ten years etc.. It is hard to take seriously claims that Israel has no intention of taking over a specific area when Palestinians see with their eyes what is happening all around them and what has happened to many locations that right-wing Israeli Jews set their sites on in the past.

    In that context, it is not at all surprising that many or most Palestinians have trouble taking Israeli government claims of no intention to alter the status quo seriously. In fact, I wonder, given the evolution of things in Israel and Palestine over the last many years, can you really feel confident that the Israeli government in the medium to long-term will not attempt to take over Al Aqsa, or countenance or acquiesce to such a take over?

    Thanks very much,


  • Paul Scham says

    I am not at all confident that at some point Israelis won’t try to fundamentally change the status quo. However, that does not seem to be happening now, and I think Bibi, as a non-religious Jew, sees the downsides clearly and will make sure it doesn’t happen on his watch. However, no one can rule it out in the future but I think it’s important to recognize that it does not seem to be happening now.

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