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Is a new intifada imminent?

The day after Donald Trump's formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the question was whether protests will explode into a full-blown violent uprising

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the West Bank city of Nablus on Dec. 7, 2017.

Mention the second intifada to Israelis and Palestinians and they wince. That intifada – one of the Palestinian uprisings against Israel – started in 2000, lasted almost five years and killed about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

"It was a war," said American-Israeli Gerald Steinberg, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist who lived through it. "Buses were blowing up."

On Thursday, the day after Donald Trump enraged Palestinians, and many world leaders, by formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the question was whether a third intifada was about to start, or was already under way.

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The signals were certainly ominous.

Hamas, the Islamic political and military movement in Gaza, called for a new intifada. Throughout the day, the West Bank and Gaza saw protests against the U.S. President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Trump's momentous shift in diplomatic policy – no other country recognizes Jerusalem as the capital and none has its embassy there.

Palestinian Hamas militants take part in a protest in the northern Gaza Strip.

Some of the protests turned violent. Dozens of Palestinians were reported injured after clashing with Israeli troops, who fired tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets and used water cannon. The Times of Israel reported that, at one point, live bullet rounds were fired at some protesters in Gaza, injuring several of them at the barrier that separates Gaza from Israel.

Central Jerusalem, while relatively quiet, had turned into an armed camp, with Israeli soldiers and police officers stationed on virtually every corner in and around the old city. In East Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter, the stores were closed and local residents prepared for violent demonstrations on Friday, once afternoon prayers are finished.

By Thursday afternoon, small protests were already under way at Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the old city, and some young Palestinian men were chased, and detained, by well-armed Israeli soldiers. "Tomorrow, there will be violence here, in Ramallah, in Gaza, in Amman," said Youssef Baraka, a Jerusalem merchant who owns shops in the Muslim Quarter. "But if you fight for your rights, is that violence, is that terror? Palestine will never give up. There will be an uprising for sure."

Israeli police clash with Palestinian demonstrators at the Damascus Gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

But others were less certain that any protests would explode into a full-blown intifada.

Gershon Baskin, the long-time peace activist, occasional peace negotiator, author and co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a public-policy think tank, doubts an intifada along the scale of the gory 2000-2005 episode is inevitable even if he is not ruling it out (the first intifada, between 1987 and 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, was steadily violent but less so than the second one).

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He thinks any new uprising would be decided on the street, not by the generally weak Palestinian leadership, led by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. If a violent act from either side turns deadly, and triggers ever more violent retaliations, all bets are off. "The next three or four days will be critical," he said. "There will be confrontations and the outcome in terms of human lives will determine whether the protests could spin out of control. One question is whether the Israelis will try to contain [the protests] without using brute force."

Absent escalating revenge retaliations, Mr. Baskin thinks the protests won't endure because both sides would have too much to lose from a full-blown intifada, and that no one knows this more than Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Abbas is urging reconciliation with Hamas, in Gaza, and needs to be seen as a calming voice, even if he is urging world leaders to oppose Mr. Trump's "unacceptable crime" of recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and making it the home of the future U.S. embassy, which is now in Tel Aviv (as are all the embassies, Canada's included). "Abbas needs to be seen as the leader of all Palestinians and cannot urge violence," Mr. Baskin said.

Israeli troops fire tear gas toward Palestinians during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

He also noted that, examined carefully, Mr. Trump's speech on Wednesday, while unhelpful to the peace process, was less inflammatory than advertised. Mr. Trump left open the possibility of East Jerusalem emerging as the capital of a sovereign state of Palestine. "There was a little bit of honey in his speech, which wasn't such a game changer, in my mind" Mr. Baskin said. "He didn't talk about a united Jerusalem and he called for God to bless both Israel and the Palestinians."

Mr. Steinberg, the Bar-Ilan political scientist, agrees that a third intifada seems unlikely. "People who have lived through them know the costs and no one comes out with any gains," he said. "There is too much residue left from the last one."

He also thinks that Mr. Abbas is not a figure worth fighting for in the minds of many Palestinians. In the second intifada, the Palestinians were united under then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, a popular leader who commanded great loyalty. "Today, the Palestinians have no real structure," Mr. Steinberg said. "Palestinians are at war with each other."

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Still, he notes that "Jerusalem is always a trigger."

Tunisian demonstrators shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration in Tunis.

Jerusalem is holy ground for Christians, Muslims and Jews. For Israeli Jews, Jerusalem has always been their capital. In his Wednesday speech praising Mr. Trump's Jerusalem move, Mr. Netanyahu called Jerusalem "the focus of our hopes, our dreams, our prayers for three millennia," adding that "there is no peace that doesn't include Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel."

At the same time, Palestinians think a Palestinian state is unthinkable without its sovereign capital in East Jerusalem, given the ancient city's historic and religious importance to the Palestinian people and Muslims. Jerusalem is home to the al-Aqsa Mosque, considered Islam's third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. On Wednesday, the royal palace of Jordan's King Abdullah II strenuously opposed Mr. Trump's announcement, "stressing that Jerusalem is the key to achieving peace and stability in the region and the world."

Jerusalem has always been such a hot – and unresolvable – topic that its future has been left in official diplomatic limbo, even after the Six Day War in 1967, which saw Israel drive back Jordan from East Jerusalem. Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel vowed to negotiate Jerusalem's future as part of a peace agreement. The Palestinians fear that Mr. Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital tilts the power balance over the city even further in Israel's favour.

While a third intifada may not materialize, emotions are running high on both sides and Jerusalem will almost certainly not emerge unscathed as the Trump-inspired protests mount. "I saw the first intifada, the second and this could be the third," said Najla Abuhilal, a Palestinian first-aid worker who spent Thursday afternoon watching the small protests outside Damascus Gate. "For sure, there will be more dead people."

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