The Long History, and High Costs, of Palestinian Intifadas

A Palestinian uses a slingshot during a protest near Ramallah in the West Bank, May 16, 2021. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
For Palestinian leaders who choose to promote them, intifadas are often self-defeating.

‘The past is never dead,” William Faulkner famously observed. “It’s not even past.” When it comes to Palestinian politics, Faulkner’s quip holds true. The recent fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian Islamist groups — the fifth such conflict in 15 years — has concluded. After-action reports and assessments are incoming. But if the past is any indication, the hostilities look likely to change the Palestinian political landscape.

The recent conflict was, in truth, two conflicts. The first was between the Jewish state and Iranian proxy groups such as Hamas and got the lion’s share of attention from the press and pundits. The second, however, was no less important: an internecine conflict between Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian National Authority that controls Palestinian portions of the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. This conflict, while less bombastic, is no less consequential.

In January of this year, Abbas, a deeply unpopular octogenarian, promised to hold elections for the first time in more than 15 years. It was a poorly calculated move meant to appeal to the Biden administration. Abbas even permitted Hamas, which had fought a brief but bloody war against Fatah in the summer of 2007, to stand in the elections. Yet, Abbas’s decision to allow Hamas to participate was counterintuitive.

The Hamas–Fatah War of 2007 was itself the result of Abbas’s holding elections at the request of the U.S. — elections that Fatah lost. In that war’s aftermath, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, which it has used as a base to attack Israel ever since.

The ensuing years have seen multiple wars between Israel and Hamas, as well as a steady decline in support for Abbas. The PA president has grown increasingly authoritarian in response, shutting down the Palestinian Legislative Council and imprisoning and threatening his critics and rivals. When polls showed that Abbas’s divided Fatah movement was likely to lose the elections announced in January to Hamas, the autocrat ramped up repression before eventually deciding to “postpone” the elections on April 28.

Hamas, which had warned Abbas not to make such a move, then accused him of orchestrating a “coup.” Abbas sought to shift the blame to Israel, but few bought it — least of all Hamas. With violence enveloping Jerusalem — much of it stirred by Hamas supporters — Abbas chose to pour gasoline on the fire. After attendees at Jerusalem’s al Aqsa mosque began throwing rocks and other items at police on May 7, Abbas praised the rioters, declaring “full support for our heroes in Aqsa.”

Hamas’s subsequent decision to launch a rocket barrage at Israel was, in part, a move made at the behest of its benefactor, Iran, whose officials have acknowledged using the violence to extract concessions from the U.S. in talks over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. But Hamas had other objectives as well: It hoped to demonstrate its strength in the PA-ruled West Bank and to weaken Abbas. And on both fronts, it was successful.

Fatah is the great loser of the recent conflict. Hamas has demonstrated a reach and popularity that extends beyond Gaza and into the West Bank. This was evidenced when Hamas supporters interrupted a May 21, 2021, sermon at al Aqsa mosque, chanting “The dogs of the PA, get out!”

The PA has responded by arresting internal activists and critics. To compete with Hamas, Abbas has also demanded that the Israel–Hamas ceasefire include a ban on visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. As the Jerusalem Post reported, Abbas “emphasized the importance of including the PA in any plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the recent round of war between Israel and Hamas.”

Those, like the U.S., who are looking to bolster Abbas are likely fighting an uphill battle. Throughout history, Palestinian leaders have encouraged “intifadas” (violent uprisings) resulting in lost lives, Jewish and Arab alike — and also in the replacement of one Palestinian political elite with another.

The first “intifada” did not begin in 1987, as commonly supposed. Rather, it began half a century earlier.

At the time, Palestinian Arab politics was dominated by Amin al-Husseini, who had been appointed by the ruling British as the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Husseini had incited anti-Jewish violence in 19201921, and 1929. But by the 1930s he came under increasing criticism from firebrands such as Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, who argued that he was not being militant enough in combating Zionism.

When Qassam and some supporters murdered a British policeman and were subsequently killed in November 1935, his well-attended funeral sparked what has commonly been called the “Arab Revolt,” but which, in truth, was the first intifada. Husseini hoped to capitalize on the growing violence. Armed and equipped by the authoritarian anti-Semitic powers of the day — fascist Italy and Nazi Germany — Husseini’s forces murdered Jews and British officials. Husseini also used the occasion to assassinate and eliminate members of the Nashashibi clan, his chief rivals for power.

By the time the intifada was crushed in 1939, Husseini had been banished from British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. Many of his followers and supporters had been killed by the British, but he himself was now the undisputed master of Palestinian Arab politics. Despite his World War II-era collaboration with the Nazis, Husseini remained the dominant force among Palestinians for at least another decade, only declining in influence when his forces failed to destroy the fledgling Jewish state in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Fifty years later, in December 1987, anti-Jewish violence again erupted, perpetrated by young Palestinians, many of whom were critical of the old guard of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. Younger Fatah members felt that Arafat and other Fatah founders were old, out of touch, and corrupt. Like Husseini before him, Arafat tried to capitalize on the fire that others had lit, attempting to use the intifada to regain relevance. Arafat would manage to maintain his dominance thanks in no small part to the U.S.-backed Oslo Accords, which allowed him to lead the newly created Palestinian Authority. But he would spend the next two decades alternately battling and cooperating with younger rivals and groups such as Hamas.

The violence from 2000 to 2005, commonly known as the Second Intifada, began with Arafat’s blessing. But it would end in his death and leave behind a Fatah whose ranks were depleted, with top members killed or jailed. As the 2006 elections illustrated, Arafat’s successor, Abbas, would inherit a movement that was poorly positioned to counter Hamas.

Yet recent events prove that Abbas is incapable of learning the salient lesson of this long history: For Palestinian leaders who choose to promote them, intifadas are more than costly — they’re often suicidal.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated the Hamas–Fatah War was in 2006. It was in 2007. 

Sean Durns is a senior research analyst at the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).


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