Understanding Israel’s new – and nameless – intifada

Since the beginning of the latest spate of violence here, Israelis and Palestinians have been at a loss about what to call this amorphous, scary thing.
October 16, 2015

Since the beginning of the latest spate of violence here, Israelis and Palestinians have been at a loss about what to call this amorphous, scary thing.

The main question hovering above the public sphere is, “Is this finally the third intifada?”

The Jerusalem Press Club thinks so. It has invited members of the media to a Sunday talk on “The Third Intifada: Causes and Solutions.” The speaker is Dr. Shmuel Berkovits, author of The Battle for the Holy Places and How Terrible Is the Place: Holiness, Politics and Justice in Jerusalem and the Holy Places in Israel.

Hamas, the extreme Islamist faction that governs the Gaza Strip, has routinely been calling for “days of rage.”

Among some of the young Palestinians pushing for revolt, the name of choice has been the Al-Aqsa intifada, named for Jerusalem's iconic, golden-domed al-Aqsa mosque. This follows countless false reports that Israeli police or military forces have stormed the holy site with the intention of demolishing it to “Judaize” the city.

Some Israeli Jews, notably in the media, have taken to calling this the “intifada of knives,” a nod to the weapon of choice in the current tumult.

But seen on the ground, it seems to be, if anything, a reluctant intifada. It is the intifada no one wants. In Jerusalem, Muslims, Christians and Jews gingerly ask each other and themselves, “How are you? You know, apart from the situation?”

The Arabic word “intifada” means rebellion on a massive scale. It is no intifada if it has not spread like wildfire. There is no such thing as an intifada in dribs and drabs, however much the so-called leaders of this region exert themselves to find a term that sticks.

The rioting this month has not really caught on, but frenzy and fabrications are flourishing.

Tel Aviv was paralyzed Thursday morning not by another stabbing, but by a highway car chase following “two Palestinian suspects.” By midday, the two had been released and the city's mayor, Ron Huldai, went on the radio to defend the “real intelligence” behind the stoppage. Tel Aviv is, after all, a city notoriously intolerant of traffic jams.

In the evening, a few dozen passengers headed to Paris from Ben Gurion Airport revolted on the tarmac and refused to board their flight when they learned their pilot was Czech. “We feel safe only with an Israeli!” a woman is heard screeching on a video taken at the scene.

For Israelis, years of hearing that the world is inclined against them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and now a situation that feels impossible to control seem to be taking a toll.

In the words of one Jerusalem police officer, who was not authorized to speak with the media, “What do you mean by 'intelligence' when we are talking about a guy who wakes up in the morning and grabs a kitchen knife instead of going to work, or some guy who rams his company car into a crowd? How can you collect intelligence about an individual's dark thoughts?”

Three Israelis and about 30 Palestinians have died since the stabbings began, most of the Palestinians in riots or confrontations with police. More than 100 have been wounded.

One case that has stuck in the public imagination is that of Ahmed Mansra, 13, who, along with a 16-year-old pal, stabbed a Jewish 13-year-old boy in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev, almost killing him.

Ahmed was hit by a car; the 16-year-old was shot and killed by a guard.

Both 13-year-olds, as it happens, are at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital.

In a speech on Wednesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of the “cold-blooded execution” of Ahmed. (An English-langue version of the speech released on Thursday changed “execution” to “shooting.”)

Livid Israeli authorities released a video of Ahmed, very much alive, being fed by a nurse.

By then, the “execution of Ahmed” had become a known “fact” among untold thousands, and for the benefit of Western observers, Saeb Erekat, Palestine's chief negotiator, was forced to issue a clarification explaining that “Palestinian civilians, including children, are being systematically targeted for extra-judicial executions by Israel.”

While it isn't quite an intifada, people here are living amid swirling rumors and fears, and opportunistic baiting.

Israeli journalists devoted the evening news to bewailing the empty streets and empty restaurants. In real life, the bars in downtown Jerusalem were full if less exuberant than they normally would be on a Thursday night, the night the weekend starts.

Soldiers stood guard on corners in the Holy City, which is not usual, and they did not seem particularly alert. Some were on their phones, others chatted with civilian friends.

Whatever it is, this intifada-without-a-name does not yet seem to be catching on.

Noga Tarnopolsky has two decades of experience covering international politics. Opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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