Joshua Stephens

Not (yet) an Intifada

Palestinian kids throw stones
Israeli ammunition

RAMALLAH - Since news broke Saturday night that 30-year-old Arafat Jaradat had died while under Israeli interrogation, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have been escalating at a breakneck pace, pitting Palestinian rocks, fireworks, and the occasional Molotov cocktail against Israeli teargas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition. Murmurs of a possible Third Intifada are ubiquitous, from the pages of Haaretz, to a rallying cry made by imprisoned Palestinians, to the casual conversations of middle-class landlords in Ramallah.


But before we can speculate about the emergence of a new Intifada, we must look for clear evidence of a coagulation of the outrage on the ground into determined organization.


While this kind of organization is yet to be seen, there is no shortage of outrage. After having broken out Sunday, today clashes outside the Ofer prison just west of Ramallah showed no sign of abatement. Ambulance sirens drowned virtually all ambient noise around Ramallah’s Yasser Arafat Square for much of Monday afternoon, racing to respond to numerous injuries from teargas canisters, teargas exposure, and ammunition fired by Israeli soldiers. A video posted to YouTube Sunday shows young people in Jerusalem's Sha'afat refugee camp chasing an Israeli military convoy out of the neighborhood, slashing the tires of IDF jeeps and doing visible damage with large rocks and shopping carts. Last night, a rocket fired from Gaza landed in southern Israel. In Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp, Palestinians attacked an IDF guard post with Molotov cocktails, drawing rifle fire that left thirteen-year-old Mohammed Khaled Qurd critically wounded, and sixteen-year-old Uday Sahran brain-dead, after a bullet pierced his skull.


If the death of Arafat Jaradat while in Israeli detention set in motion something new, the apparent use of live ammunition during protests – particularly targeting children like Qurd and Sahran – foreshadows another game change. During Sunday’s clashes outside Ofer prison, I was surprised to find a spent .22-caliber casing amidst scattered plastic-coated bullets and used teargas canisters. I sent a photo of the casing to a ballistics expert, who told me that the crimping pattern on the casing indicated it was not, in fact, a proper live round. Likely, he said, it was a blank used for crowd dispersal, or spent in the process of firing some other object – like teargas.


While this type of ammunition might not be live, it seems more than capable of causing death. It appears that this was the type of ammunition with which young Mohammed was injured in Bethlehem, and from which Uday may ultimately die. Haaretz reports that the Israeli military has admitted to using so-called Ruger bullets – .22-caliber rounds previously used for crowd control, but banned by the IDF after causing serious injuries and deaths during the Second Intifada. Despite this ban, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem claims that these rounds have killed two people in the last five years.


The specter of a new Intifada burns brightest in the nightmares of Israeli officials: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has implored the Palestinian Authority to contain the demonstrations now sweeping the West Bank, fearing instability as well as more bad press for Israel. In return, Netanyahu has promised the transfer of previously-withheld tax revenues by the end of the week, raising speculation that the PA's security forces are effectively on the Israeli payroll – a claim the PA vehemently rejects. Regardless, it's unclear if Palestinians trust the PA, much less if it is in any position to influence the largely spontaneous upheavals that have rocked the West Bank since Saturday night.


However widespread, references to a Third Intifada seem premature. Thus far, the clashes unfolding across the West Bank – while clearly intensifying – lack the sort of coherent or structural coordination that characterized previous uprisings. To the extent that any coordination can be discerned, it's tied to social media, and the plight of Palestinian prisoners as a valve for unrest around myriad issues. Much of the international media's rush to splice current outrage onto previous Intifadas seems designed to shoehorn what are ultimately conditions of the Occupation under which Palestinians have lived for some time into an intelligible historical narrative. Real, if not soundbite-friendly.


While (for now) the PA is staying clear of decisive intervention, there's little indication it would back any revolt. As recently as a week ago, PA security forces collaborated with the Israeli military in shutting down a demonstration in Hebron, and prior suppression of protests – even marches in support of the Egyptian revolution – was widely reported. Surmounting the PA structures hostile to popular revolt would require the establishment of parallel institutions similar to those present during the First Intifada, later dismantled by Yasser Arafat and the creation of the PA. The more recent Popular Resistance Committees, established to combat the construction of Israel's separation barrier are the entity with the structural organization most like the pre-Oslo institutions, but even these have come under the same EU patronage to which the PA is beholden.


The looming question is not whether a new Intifada is imminent. Rather, the question is whether the trauma and outrage on the ground will take shape in the form of committed and ongoing organization. Ultimately, it's in the hands of those demonstrating across the West Bank, and the extent to which we will hear it whispered in the world of high politics is a reflection of other – and arguably irrelevant – calculations.

Young Palestinian protesters lob stones at Israeli security forces on February 26, a few days after the news broke of Jaradat's death. (AFP photo)

"If the death of Arafat Jaradat while in Israeli detention set in motion something new, the apparent use of live ammunition during protests – particularly targeting children like Qurd and Sahran – foreshadows another game change."