“The third intifada has already begun,” a very mild-mannered Palestinian told me last week when I asked her if she expected a new uprising should Palestinian diplomatic efforts fail. My initial reaction was that either her words were overly dramatic or that the uprising was too gentle to be noticed. But on further reflection, I was less certain.
She was, of course, exaggerating—there are few overt signs of popular mobilization. Her claim should not be quickly dismissed, however. The third intifada—if it does develop—may begin far more gradually and remain less violent than the second of the early 2000s. Even though I differ with her assessment—the third intifada has not yet begun—signs of change and motion are unmistakable. It is simply not clear where they will lead.
In my second visit to the West Bank since the beginning of the Arab Spring, I was struck by how much of the groundwork exists for a new round of popular mobilization. On this visit, I spent most of my time speaking with youth groups across the political spectrum. The foot soldiers in the past two intifadas have been young Palestinians. But this time, youth groups seek not only to participate but to lead a new upsurge of activism. Should their mobilization efforts pay off, they will find themselves face to face with an apparently ill-prepared but still very powerful and tactically adept adversary.
It is clear, however, that for all of the growing expectations of a confrontation with Israel, the internal obstacles to youth-based mobilization are every bit as formidable as the external ones. There are wide areas of consensus in Palestinian political life that may soon support an upsurge of activism, but internal divisions still run very deep and might easily lead any new round to fizzle or devolve into self-defeating actions.
Cracks in the Cynical Consensus
At its core, the current calm is based on a bitter cynicism about high politics. Any apparent motion on the diplomatic front attracts apathy at best and derision at worst. The phrase “peace process” is generally used only ironically in current Palestinian political discussions, and recent efforts by the United States and Europe to restart negotiations between Israeli and the Palestinian leaders seem like an anachronistic sideshow.
Palestine’s effort to win recognition as a state from the United Nations in the fall attracts a bit more interest but little hope. There is much discussion about September as a turning point (with the timing of the UN effort dovetailing with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s promises that, by August, Palestine would be institutionally ready for statehood). More rarefied discussions with those most familiar with UN procedures suggest the effort will be anticlimactic at best,1
but even those less procedurally informed place little hope in effective changes on the ground as a result of diplomacy in New York. Instead, September is viewed more as a date by which the bankruptcy of the current strategies will become undeniable.
The reconciliation agreement signed by Hamas and Fatah, the two halves of the Palestinian leadership, in April generated a bit more hope, but that has faded. While popular pressure may have been among the factors helping push the two sets of leaders together, the process of reunifying the Palestinian polity has been monopolized by a small number of officials. Procedurally, it has drawn completely to a halt; even the limited and glacial progress made on some issues is being held hostage to a sudden insistence by Fatah that only Fayyad can head a post-reconciliation cabinet.
National elections promised by the agreement seem very distant indeed; even local elections have been postponed indefinitely while political leaders bicker. On the ground, few signs of reconciliation exist. A Fatah leader in a camp in the Ramallah area told me that Hamas and Fatah supporters still have little interaction; young Islamist activists in Nablus evinced continuing bitterness toward the security forces they consider a tool of a Fatah leadership co-opted by Israel.
The idea that institutions can be built on the West Bank and deliver to Palestinians the effective basis for a state—the core of what used to be called a “West Bank First” strategy by outsiders—has clearly run its course. Parts of the West Bank Palestinian Authority (PA) run more cleanly and effectively than they did in the past, but the argument that the PA is somehow closer to statehood as a result ignores the stagnation and even decay in other parts of Palestinian political life, such as political parties and democratic practices.2
Even the West Bank PA’s signal achievement—meeting the public payroll—has been recently thrown into doubt.
Thus, few Palestinians hold much hope for negotiations, international diplomacy, reconciliation, or state building to bring about change any time soon. With no extant political process or framework engaging them, Palestinians display an odd combination of cynical inertia and expectations of change. For now, the dominant mood seems to be one of political exhaustion and a concentration on daily life; Palestinians speak frequently of the heavy price they paid for the second intifada.
But this consensus leads at times to a suggestion of a more politically enabling attitude: that Palestinians erred by allowing the second intifada to become, as they put it, “militarized.” Most of those who remember the first intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s describe it nostalgically as very different from the second: it was a time of social solidarity, mass action, and far less action by armed groups or militias. And they wonder if a new generation can lead people back to such popular activism.
As a result, there is strong support for what Palestinians call “popular resistance.” Indeed, prominent Palestinian political leaders, including Fayyad himself, have endorsed the idea that some forms of popular resistance must become part of the Palestinian political repertoire.
Preparing for—and Defining—Popular Resistance
Just what is popular resistance? It is not necessarily synonymous with either peaceful or nonviolent resistance, though there is a very strong overlap between the two (the extent of which varies according to the user). Underlying the support for popular resistance is the idea that the most effective way to combat the occupation is to involve the entire Palestinian people. Specific tools would include boycotts, marches, and demonstrations. If force is contemplated, it is generally not armed (throwing stones at Israeli military and security forces, for instance, is widely regarded as a form of popular resistance). If force is used, it is often directed against things rather than people (the separation wall, for instance).
The reasons for interest in popular resistance vary. Certainly, the moral appeal of less violent forms of politics is powerful for many, but other factors attract even the less gentle: the failure of the militarized second intifada to secure any Palestinian goals, as well as the social, political, and economic devastation it caused; the desire to involve all of the people in the people’s cause; and the incessant suggestions of outsiders (not all of whom sympathize with the Palestinian plight) that international support would be quickly forthcoming if only Palestinians adopted peaceful means.
Thus, there is increasing talk of a new, more “popular” uprising—involving mass demonstrations in front of a settlement; large-scale attempts to march through checkpoints; selected consumer boycotts; blocking of bypass roads; attempts to disrupt construction of the wall; or a variety of imaginative techniques to turn attention to the occupation.
The increasing talk of popular resistance has led to tremors—demonstrations in support of West Bank-Gaza reunification; smaller marches on checkpoints—but no groundswell of activism. To date, the senior leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza seems too deeply entrenched in its current, dominant positions and do not seem to wish to rock the boat any time soon; the growing feeling that the current stability is unsustainable coexists with a strong degree of official complacency.
Still, there are those who seek to goad Palestinians into action. It is quite common to hear talk that an upsurge of popular mobilization and even a third intifada based on popular resistance is only a question of time (and perhaps a spark difficult to anticipate in advance). Not everyone is simply waiting. A small number of activists have moved beyond talk and speculation to organizing and planning. This group includes hundreds of youth acting without regard to political affiliation and deliberately devoid of formal structure; it has grown in both number and prominence since the beginning of the year. While the youth activists’ efforts preceded the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, their ranks swelled after those events and made them the focus on domestic (and, in the past few weeks, some international) attention. Having met with some leading members on different occasions, I can describe them as impressive, imaginative, and intelligent. In an exhausted and stagnant political scene, they are a surprising new element. But can they form the core of a new popular movement or are they merely a passing curiosity?
Is There Room for Youthful Optimism and Energy?
Whether the youth activists prove to be effective, they are certainly intriguing. Their effort is full of paradoxes: they are a group of savvy novices; a headless movement of cerebral activists; an elite group of populists; a collection of militant milquetoasts; and a coalition of political activists who seek to transcend politics.
Earlier this year, they sought to draw on the energy and model of the Egyptian revolution to experiment with their own forms of political action.3
Organizing in small discussion groups and using newer social media, they debated means and ends before the bulk of the effort swung behind a set of targets: in February and more conspicuously in March, they organized demonstrations calling for an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza. When the reconciliation agreement was signed, they turned their attention to the occupation, organizing marches on checkpoints in May to commemorate the Palestinian nakba
, or “catastrophe,” of 1948, when Palestinians suffered bitter defeat and dispersal.
Their efforts seemed to gain some traction and even more considerable attention. The activists had some success in coordinating with one another not only within the West Bank but also with Gaza and with Palestinian communities in Syria and Lebanon (although the depth of those ties is difficult to ascertain); they have also linked up with Palestinian citizens in Israel. But they admit they have also lost momentum over the past few months. The senior Palestinian leadership is generally hostile to or dismissive of their efforts; the March demonstrations organized in Gaza were substantial but suppressed by the Hamas government, and Hamas youth activists I spoke to last week still described the movement as a tool in the hands of others designed to pressure Hamas.
Fatah leaders have exhibited a broader range of attitudes. Initially hostile and suspicious, they eventually turned more subtle (perhaps because of their own political weakness), attempting at some points to co-opt the movement, especially when it steered more closely to slogans that could be aligned with its own agenda. Evidence shows that the older factions remain deeply skeptical that inexperienced youthful activists could lead those who have become deeply accustomed to popular struggle.
Yet the current youth are adopting a very different approach than previous generations have. Their organizations are loose and informal; they consist of cliques of friends and loose networks and have no central committees, revolutionary councils, or political bureaus to take positions, assign tasks, or write platforms. Their decision-making pattern is democratic and participatory rather than hierarchical. They attempt to mirror the post-ideological nature of some of the
Egyptian movements, orienting themselves around simple and direct slogans rather than detailed programs. While individual activists often have positions, the movement as a whole does not seem to be oriented around a political platform of any kind—not even statehood—but is instead united around extremely general demands for change, freedom, and justice. And the movement eschews armed struggle. For the current youth movement, the emphasis is much more on the imaginative than the forceful.
The Potential and Limitations of the Fafi Fida’i
Youth activists have already encountered severe obstacles to their continued progress. The most vexing ones are internal and domestic: the nature of the movement and the activists’ place in Palestinian society pose some real difficulties. Their continued progress depends on their ability to overcome these obstacles or turn them into virtues.
First, their decentralized and democratic nature makes them chaotic, uncertain in their decision making, unable at times to distinguish who is a member and who is not, and difficult partners. The senior Fatah leader most sympathetic to the movement told me how frustrated he was at not being able to get clear answers and decisions from the youth activists. Although he clearly respected their potential role, he said it was impossible to coordinate with hundreds of people simultaneously.
Movement leaders point out that this can be an asset as well as a liability. When some activists set up a tent in the middle of Ramallah, a PA security official approached someone he had identified as a leader and told him to have his movement take the tent down. The activist responded that the officer would have to wait while the movement deliberated and took a vote. The tent stayed up (but the activist in question earned himself an angry lecture from the officer about how to organize properly). Although some movement activists talk gingerly about moving toward a more formal structure, there is also concern that such a thing could sap its innovative spirit.
Second, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, the youthful Palestinian activists are entering a crowded political space. Their numbers are paltry next to those involved with the two big movements (Fatah and Hamas). And while the leaders of those movements are viewed by many Palestinians as tired and too deeply focused on pursuing their own factional interests, they still dominate much of Palestinian political life. Fatah is deeply disorganized but still has its networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and youth organizations. Hamas is less visible in the West Bank but it has become deeply entrenched in Gaza and is unfriendly to any actor that questions its status as a deeply rooted popular movement. The youth activists react to this by insisting they are non-factional and instead seeking to be a catalyst for action. Playing such a role requires careful navigation between being co-opted by the older movements and challenging them too directly.
Third, class and geographical divisions have deeply inhibited the movement’s reach. Indeed, in my recent trip, I was startled by how much cultural, class, and geographical divisions play into the effort to mobilize the Palestinian population. The youth movement is sometimes dismissed largely as a group of cosmopolitan and pampered youth from a few elite schools in Ramallah. In a discussion with young Fatah members in a camp outside of Nablus, I heard the youth activists (one of whom accompanied me to the meeting) derided for their hairstyles and their dress. The word used to describe them was “fafi,” a slang term meaning effete or effeminate.
One young activist described a hostile, even jeering reaction to a demonstration that activists tried to organize in Qalandiya, a camp at the northern checkpoint controlling the entrance to Jerusalem. Movement leaders fully acknowledge the problem; remarkably, when they hear such derisive comments, they react not by taking offense but by taking notes and attempting to develop ways to close the social gap.4
Finally, the absence of a clear political program may be critical to the group’s self-identification but it can also make it lose focus. Egyptian and Tunisian activists were able to personalize their adversary; their political program was similarly vague but it could be encapsulated in the simple demand that the president leave. The Palestinian activists have flailed and been unable to develop a consistent slogan or focus. They have debated whether to emphasize internal or external goals, and any demand they develop is often revealed to have shortcomings.
Their most impressive moment of focus came in March, when they coalesced around a demand to end the division between the West Bank and Gaza—but the signing of the reconciliation agreement made that a fleeting achievement. Since that time, different activists have pressed issues related to the Israeli occupation, internal Palestinian governance, and relations with the Palestinian diaspora. In a sense, they seem to depend on events or popular response to guide them; the next upsurge of activism is expected in September, but it is unclear what the focus will be and how responsive a chord they will be able to strike.
Even if they overcome these obstacles, the activists will likely face a forceful Israeli response. In some ways, they are counting on an overreaction to galvanize domestic support and international attention; if so, they may not be disappointed. But if that happens, it is not clear how long they will be able to maintain the emphasis on popular resistance and reject the use of arms.
One activist told me that when he tried to lead a chant of “Silmiyya, silmiyya” (peaceful, peaceful) in the face of arrests by security forces in Ramallah, his call was immediately echoed by fellow demonstrators. Later, when he tried to initiate the same chant in Qalandiya before armed Israeli security forces, his attempt fell completely flat. Some youth activists are ideologically committed to peaceful protest, while others show more practical than moral dedication. But all are very aware that the second intifada itself also began as a set of popular protests and demonstrations that were met by a forceful Israeli response, and that the same escalation from popular to militarized uprising could happen again.
The youth activists have some tall obstacles to overcome and few successes to claim so far in organizing popular mobilization. But in personal conversations, they marry youthful idealism to an ability to learn and a hardened sense of the realities of politics. Some consciously look to other mass movements that took a while to gel and endured tremendous hardship before they realized any of their goals. For that reason, many would respond warmly to the aphorism voiced by James Baldwin in the middle of a difficult and bitter civil rights struggle in the United States: “I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”5
1 For a thorough analysis of scenarios at the UN by an Israeli expert, see Tal Becker, “A Coming Storm? Prospects and Implications of UN Recognition of Palestinian Statehood,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Note Number 6.
2 I have argued this elsewhere, most extensively in two commentaries for Carnegie last year: “Are Palestinians Building a State?” and “Fayyad is Not the Problem but Fayyadism is not the Solution to Palestine’s Political Crisis.”
3 See earlier commentary in February 2011: “The Unsustainable May No Longer Be Sustainable.”
4 Indeed, one activist when she heard the “fafi” charge replied, “They are right; we have to address that.” Another responded by good-humoredly supplying me with other derogatory descriptions of youth activists, including “Kitkat”—a reference to the chocolate-covered wafer that snaps under mild pressure.
5 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Modern Library, 1995, p. 102.