- Warnings of an imminent popular Palestinian uprising involving mass marches towards Israel’s borders and throughout the West Bank are not new, but are rapidly becoming a worrying reality.
- Despite the popular dimension that motivates these protests, they are also prone to be used for political reasons. Syrian opposition sources accused the Assad regime of inciting the demonstration to divert attention from the violent crackdown within Syria.
- These protests pose significant challenges to Israeli policy-makers and military planners seeking to avoid confrontation with civilians on the one hand, while ensuring that security “red lines” are not compromised.
- In the absence of diplomatic progress, popular anger could spiral out of control. Escalating violence could threaten mainstream Palestinian leaders and undermine the improvements seen in the West Bank in the past four years.
Warnings of an imminent popular Palestinian uprising involving mass marches towards Israel’s borders and throughout the West Bank are not new. Such scenarios have been contemplated by international analysts for some time and have entered the calculations of Israeli decision-makers and military planners. But the 15 May ‘Nakba Day‘ events and the violent events in the Golan Heights on 5 June were a blunt reminder that these are no longer theoretical threats. Do these events indicate a new phase in Palestinian strategy against Israel? What are its characteristics and what threats do such tactics pose? How will these actions impact diplomatic and political dynamic between Israeli and the Palestinian leadership?
Palestinian popular protest: characteristics and context
The form of recent confrontations is not new. Mass demonstrations and clashes between unarmed protesters and Israeli military forces have taken place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1970s and were the hallmark of the first Palestinian Intifada between 1987 and 1993. Popular protest, civil disobedience and the use of low level violence, like rocks and Molotov cocktails, forced Israel to commit greater forces to arduous policing tasks in Palestinian towns and cities. Scenes of Palestinian youths confronting armed Israeli soldiers played a key role in shaping an image of asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians.
During the Oslo years of the 1990s and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, popular demonstrations subsided. Palestinian political energies were channelled through the political and diplomatic activities of the PA or through terrorist groups, such as Hamas, that rejected the peace process and used deadly violence against civilians in Israel, including suicide bombings. Terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians were also a central feature of the Second Intifada from 2000-2004. Since 2005, however, unarmed protests are gradually becoming a prevalent, though not exclusive. course of Palestinian anti-Israel activism in the West Bank. Demonstrations against the route of the Security Fence taking place weekly in the village of Bil’in have become symbols of this popular protest, attracting support from international and Israeli activists, as well as wide media attention. Though lauded as “non-violent”, these demonstrations often lead to confrontation with IDF forces and casualties have been recorded. The protesters have received little official support from the Palestinian leadership, though recently, some Palestinian politicians, including PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have expressed support.
Even though Palestinian popular protest has a long tradition, the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries has increased the motivation and ambition of Palestinian grassroots groups. At the same time, these protests emerge in the particular context of the Palestinian efforts to gain UN recognition of statehood in September. For the organisers, popular action complements Palestinian diplomatic activity – projecting to the world the Palestinian refusal to accept the status-quo and the urgency of international action on the matter.
However, popular protest and low-level confrontation has the worrying potential to spiral out of control. An escalation of violence on the ground could further diminish hopes for diplomatic progress. There are reports of divisions within the Palestinian leadership over attempts to secure a UN motion, because of the risks involved in sparking uncontrolled popular anger.
Despite the popular dimension that motivates Palestinian protests, they are also prone to be used for political reasons. There is evidence that the Syrian government promoted the Golan Heights’ demonstrations to divert attention from the violent crackdown within Syria. Lebanon’s decision to close areas near the border with Israel and prevent clashes on 5 June proves the central role Arab governments can play in encouraging or deterring such protest according to their own interests.
In the absence of serious diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, grassroots activists are increasingly taking the initiative, either through demonstrations or through other forms of activism like boycott campaigns. After the heavy toll paid by many Palestinians during the Second Intifada, many are wary of a return to armed struggle against Israel. Popular protest has been identified as an effective method of activism.
Israel’s challenges: responding to popular protest
Unarmed mass demonstrations present Israel with significant challenges. Protests of this sort take place in sensitive areas like the Israel-Syrian border Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Israeli military and police forces responsible for responding face an acute dilemma. Israel has the right to defend its borders and agreed ceasefire lines, and to prevent a mass flow of Palestinian protesters into the Golan, or across the Qalandiya crossing into north Jerusalem. At the same time, it is in Israel’s interests to minimise Palestinian casualties to prevent these events from deteriorating and drawing international condemnation. Striking this balance becomes even more difficult when protesters seek to provoke a confrontation by using relatively low-level violence such as stones and Molotov cocktails.
The IDF has routinely dealt with popular demonstrations in recent years, but on a relatively small scale. In addition to the use of tear gas and rubber bullets the IDF has sought other non-lethal instruments, and more Israeli forces are being equipped and trained for riot control. Alternative methods for deterring protesters include “Skunk”, a liquid with a strong unpleasant scent shot through a water sprayer and the “Scream” system, which uses sound waves to cause temporary lack of balance and nausea. However, there are limitations in the use of these non-lethal methods, especially over longer distances, a weakness for which the IDF is trying to find solutions.
The IDF is trying to learn lessons from the Golan events and has put in place more physical obstacles that will keep protesters away from the border. However, IDF officers who witnessed the violent events in the Golan Heights expressed concern at the determination of protesters and noted that mass violent rallies will almost inevitably require stronger counter-measures. To stop protesters from breaching the border fence on 5 June, after physical barriers, tear gas, and warning shots had failed to dissuade them, the IDF ultimately had to use snipers to fire selectively at the legs of leading demonstrators. It was reported that the IDF held their fire several times to allow the injured to be evacuated but that medics were attacked by the crowd. Some protesters stole the vests of medics and used them as cover in attempts to breach the fence.
Whatever efforts Israel makes to minimise casualties, those casualties that do occur will always count as a PR victory for the protesters.
The potential consequences for Palestinians
So far, the West Bank has not witnessed events similar in severity to those seen on the Israel-Syria border. Unlike the Assad regime, the Palestinian leadership has little to gain from a mass eruption of popular unrest, at least at this stage. The Palestinian political leadership remain focused on their attempts to seek UN General Assembly recognition in September. Deterioration of security in the West Bank would undermine their claim to have established credible state institutions. Palestinian security forces have therefore acted to prevent West Bank rallies from clashing with Israeli troops or settlers and coordination with the IDF remains strong.
Israel is concerned, however, that protests will receive stronger official Palestinian endorsement nearer to the UN debate as a way of raising the profile of the Palestinian cause. Another concern is that the realisation that such a motion will have no positive impact on the ground could spark mass demonstrations, fuelled by popular frustration. At the moment, Palestinian pollsters do not identify an increase in the appetite for renewed violence, but an ongoing diplomatic impasse could change this.
Efforts by grassroots groups to pressure Hamas and Fatah to overcome their political differences contributed to the 4 May agreement between the two movements. Palestinian activist groups are having increasing influence on the political leadership. On the one hand, this is a sign of a civil society that is gaining traction and impact. On the other hand, it poses the question whether mainstream political leadership could be forced to escalate its actions to satisfy popular frustration.
Another important dimension regards the active role of Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon and Syria. Despite the ideological and symbolic importance of the Palestinian Diaspora, the Palestinian political agenda has been dominated by leaders in the West Bank and Gaza. The severe border protests signal a potential shift of balance and tensions between Palestinian leaders in the territories and those outside, who have not benefited from the economic progress in the West Bank. However, there were reports of a violent confrontation in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria on 7 June, when a crowd of Palestinian mourners attacked Palestinian faction leaders, accusing them of endangering Palestinian lives. This gives some cause for uncertainty about the appetite of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria for future border protests.
Popular protest is now a significant factor in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but its future is unclear. Memories of the damage done to the Palestinian cause by the Second Intifada, and the recent improvements on the ground in the West Bank, may discourage the Palestinians from returning to violent protest. The appetite of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon for future border protests after the loss of life in May and June remains to be seen.
However, the Palestinian political leadership’s pursuit of UN recognition in September will not lead to a new political reality on the ground, and risks increasing frustration among the Palestinian grassroots. This could raise the potential for mass protests and lead to violent confrontations. Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak has been warning against a “diplomatic tsunami” that could follow a September UN vote. Israelis are also concerned that demonstrations could create a “tsunami of protest”. This could pose significant security and political challenges to Israel, but also weaken the standing of the Palestinian Authority. Neither Palestinian efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically, nor grassroots protest, can substitute positive diplomatic momentum. This highlights the need to bring about a resumption in bilateral negotiations between the PA and Israel.