Lynette Nusbacher
Lynette Nusbacher

There Was Only One Intifadah: Part One

There has been a lot of noise in the past week about ‘a third Intifadah’, with some threatening one, some saying they’re conducting one and some dreading one.  The words ‘a third Intifadah’ are obscuring the reality of the recent violence conducted by Palestinians against Israelis:  there isn’t any such thing as ‘an intifadah’.  There was only one.

A Madrid garage door painted with a kaffiyeh-wrapped face and the word 'INTIFADA'.
Intifadah is a term redolent of Palestinian victory over Israeli strength. This appropriation of the term and the covered face is from Madrid, photographed in 2013. (Photo credit: Flickr user r2hox / CC-BY SA 2.0)

From 1987 to 1993 there was a Palestinian and Arab-Israeli uprising called ‘The Intifadah’.  It got this remarkable name (which means ‘shrugging off’) because it was a new thing.  It was organised by local committees, and it largely involved demonstrating that Israeli military power meant nothing in the face of crude weapons delivered largely by kids.  Rather late in the game, the PLO, from their base in faraway Tunisia, did attempt to take over the direction of the Intifadah from the local committees, and in doing so did bring significant numbers of firearms into the mix.  Otherwise, the Intifadah had very little to do with the PLO or (at least in the first two or three years) with shooting and stabbing.

What was significant about the original Intifadah was that the Israeli security establishment, so prepared for massive armed attack from any direction, so prepared for attempted hijacking, so secure after it had eliminated the PLO’s Fatahland enclave from South Lebanon; was unprepared for kids throwing lethal weapons (stones, pieces of cinder block, pieces of steel reinforcing bar) that didn’t look like lethal weapons.

The IDF was utterly unprepared to deal with potentially lethal violence from young people, some very young; and was forced to admit its unpreparedness by issuing fatuous orders to break children’s arms with truncheons or use machines to throw gravel from half-tracks or helicopters.

The whole point of the Intifadah was that it was completely different from what had gone before.

The Intifadah demonstrated the end of the twenty year period in which Palestinians were prepared to accept that terrorism by the PLO or military action by Arab dictatorships were going to free them from Israeli occupation.  It also signalled the end of Palestinians’ willingness to observe Israeli economic prosperity from their jobs in fields and on building sites while accepting the misery of life in UNRWA’s shantytowns.

The aim of the Intifadah was diffuse, because there wasn’t a single organising body; but, broadly speaking, it was to demonstrate to Israel that occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be prohibitively costly without the consent of the Palestinians themselves.  The Intifadah was successful in changing Israeli policy; but because Israel enlisted the support of the PLO in Tunis to end the Intifadah, it was far more a success for the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat than for Palestinians in general.

During the Camp David Summit in the Summer of 2000, the hot rumour in Israel was that a white stallion had already been chosen for President Arafat to ride through the gates of Jerusalem in triumph.  That is to say, the sherpas (as the senior officials who do the preparatory work for summits are charmingly called) had ironed out an agreement that would enable Arafat to declare a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem; and Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were only travelling to Camp David for the signing ceremony.

When Arafat walked away from the Camp David Summit, he and his people had to deal with the dashed expectations of Palestinians, and also with Hamas, an organisation which had battened on the first Intifadah while Arafat and his PLO colleagues were living well on Saudi subsidies in Tunis.  The PLO, by then morphed into the Palestinian Authority government, planned and instigated a very well-designed armed offensive designed to draw the IDF into confrontations that demanded they use lethal weapons against apparent noncombatants.  At this the PLO was astonishingly effective.  This effort built the power of the PLO’s armed militias, long since converted from European skyjacking and ruling South Lebanon, as specialised urban operations forces.

These militias had the significant task of blotting out Arafat’s co-operation with Israel since the Oslo Accords of 1993-1995, and substituting a narrative that the PLO was as eager to violently confront Israel as its Palestinian rivals Hamas and as its Lebanese competitors Hizballah.  Their links with the more or less legitimate Palestinian government were obscured by rudimentary concealment, which enabled the PLO to claim to Palestinian audiences that they were achieving successful violent confrontation with the Israelis, while claiming to overseas audiences that they were trying to restrain the violent elements they were recruiting and paying.

When the PLO’s militias were prepared to start their operations against the IDF they awaited an appropriate moment.  Opposition Leader Ariel Sharon’s visit was no more a ‘trigger’ for the violence of 2000 than Ambassador Shlomo Argov’s attempted murder in 1982 was the ‘trigger’ for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.  The name ‘al-Aqsa Intifadah’ suited Arafat’s book insofar as the combination of the sacred name of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the resonance of the original 1987-1993 Intifadah, resulted in a name rich in meaning to Palestinians and their supporters.

From 2000 until the creation of Israel’s security barrier system, the confrontation sustained by the PLO’s militias and by Hamas were a chain (rather than a campaign) of urban operations which forced the IDF to change its emphasis away from mechanised warfare and towards low-intensity urban operations.

Israel found that it was destroying its army in Gaza, and had no choice but to withdraw and picket the Strip from outside.  To those who had been operating against the IDF in Gaza this appeared to be a significant victory, and with hindsight the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, the Hamas takeover in 2008 and the enormously successful ‘open-air prison’ narrative disseminated worldwide ever since; it was a victory, particularly for Hamas.

It was not, however, a popular uprising.  It was not conducted by local committees.  The stone-throwers were throwing to provoke Israeli armed response and to engineer optimal media coverage.  It was not actually a ‘second intifadah’ in anyone’s minds but the PLO’s.  Conflating the two events obscures their significant differences.

So if anyone says that someone is planning, creating or expecting a ‘third intifadah’, tell them they’re wrong.  There was only one Intifadah.

The recent (and current) violence against Israelis, and the repressive response this violence seeks to provoke, are something else, which will have to be the subject of another article.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.