"I was a senior U.S. diplomat 20 years ago during the Second Intifada...a lot of what we're seeing today has a very unhappy resemblance," CIA Director Bill Burns said recently.
Middle East watcher Dan Byman declares: "The odds of a third intifada are higher than they have been in years."
A protest march at the University of Michigan in January featured chants of "Intifada! Intifada! Long live the intifada!"
The word "intifada," which literally means "shaking off," refers to the recurring effort by Palestinians to expel Israel, through varying degrees of violence, from the territories they seek for their national project. One intifada erupted in 1987. Another began in 2000. Going back, there was also the Arab Revolt of the 1930s—it, too, can be described as an intifada.
Today, the data suggest another intifada is possible. A mapping project by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies identified more than 1,120 violent incidents in the West Bank and Israel since last March.
The young Palestinians who welcome an intifada are too young to remember the last one. A 20-year-old today would have been just two years old when it ended. And crucially, few Palestinians remember that all three uprisings were disasters for their people.
Looking back, several major themes emerge:
Bloodshed. The violence of the Arab Revolt in the 1930s left an estimated 5,000 Palestinians dead, 15,000 wounded, and 5,600 incarcerated. The British colonial authorities were not bound by the vigilant media environment of today; a recently unearthed dossier of British military atrocities is a testament to that. During the First Intifada, an estimated 1,376 Palestinian died and at least three times as many were wounded. Around 175,000 were arrested by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The Second Intifada, which was a much more violent affair, led to 2,700 Palestinians deaths and thousands more Palestinian injured. The IDF reportedly destroyed more than 5,000 homes as retribution for terrorist attacks.
Economic Devastation. Israeli researcher Tamir Goren observes: "One of the most grievous outcomes of the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) was the severe economic damage caused to the Arab community." The local Arab population staged strikes and boycotts to protest the British colonial presence. This crushed the Palestinian economy at a moment when resources were in short supply. During the 1987 Intifada, the Palestinians fared no better. The Israelis imposed economic penalties, including the revocation of work permits (a significant source of income for many Palestinians at the time), and blocked agricultural exports from Gaza. Concurrently, with anti-Jordan sentiment surging, King Hussein relinquished all claims to the West Bank, cutting off crucial social services. During the 2000-2005 Intifada, the Palestinians again faced calamity. Once the darlings of international donors, the Palestinian Authority's embrace of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 killed donor revenue. Cash dried up and budgets tightened. In 2003, the World Bank noted: "Physical damage resulting from the conflict jumped from $305 million at the end of 2001 to $728 million by the end of August 2002. Between June 2000 and June 2002, Palestinian exports declined by 45% in value, and imports contracted by a third...losses reached $5.4 billion after 27 months of the intifada."
Political Chaos. During the Arab Revolt, a bitter family rivalry developed between the hardline Husseini family and the more pragmatic Nashashibis. Historian Yehoshua Porath noted how a "terrible blood feud...resulted in a mutual hatred and dissidence so intense that a return to the show of unity...became impossible." Suspected "collaborators" were targeted, accounting for 494 deaths. Internal rivalries re-emerged during the 1987 Intifada, with Palestinians killing at least 800 of their own. Analyst David Pollock appropriately called it an "intrafada." The dynamic re-emerged again during the 2000-2005 uprising. Even the far-left NGO Btselem noted: "Palestinians have killed dozens of Palestinian civilians on suspicion of collaboration with Israel. Some of the victims were killed in assassinations conducted by organizations; others died at the hands of Palestinian Authority security forces as a result of being tortured or when attempting to escape, while other were lynched by crowds of people."
Religious Extremism. During the 1930s-era Arab Revolt, nearly 500 Jews were murdered in what can only be described as a religiously incited jihad. A key player was the grand mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Arab Higher Committee, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The mufti was not just an Islamist extremist; he was also an outright Nazi collaborator. The Arab Revolt was also influenced by a radical cleric, Izzeddin al-Qassam, who organized guerrilla units to attack the British. The British killed Qassam in 1935, but not before he built a movement. Today, Hamas has a fighting unit that bears his name. The Hamas charter, issued months after the First Intifada erupted, lays bare the organization's fanaticism for all to see. As Hamas gained power, according to author Don Peretz, the group attacked women perceived as immodestly dressed and broke up weddings featuring Western music and dancing. Hamas and other Islamist groups also led the way in the Second Intifada, with a campaign of suicide bombings and other gruesome forms of jihad. The embrace of such violence has undeniably left a scar on Palestinian culture over the decades.
A Lost Generation. During the Arab Revolt, Palestinians recruited children as combatants. Authors Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal note that the "Palestinians had the young, brown- and black-shirted fascists to emulate." In the 1980s, Palestinian kids were known as "Children of the Stones." Of the estimated 1,376 Palestinians killed in the First Intifada, 281 were children, Btselem has observed. Palestinian society as a whole—with help from Western media—encouraged the Palestinian youth to confront Israeli soldiers on the front lines. Each age group had discrete tasks, from burning fires to throwing stones. During the Second Intifada, at least 250 Palestinian children were killed. Many of these children were encouraged to fight by the various factions—along with several Arab states that paid stipends to the families of "martyrs."
Mission Failure. The Arab Revolt was a Palestinian disaster. The resulting power vacuum enabled surrounding Arab countries to deprive the Palestinians of agency for decades. Some assert the First Intifada was a success because it led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. History, however, is less kind: Despite ample resources and international interest in their cause, the Palestinians failed to transition to formal statehood. Palestinian strongman Yasser Arafat instead launched the Second Intifada. As a result, the West decreased its (oftentimes still-considerable) support. Moreover, the Israelis gave up on two-state diplomacy, refusing to negotiate under fire. Since then, no Israeli prime minister has been willing to directly engage in formal peace talks.
Undeniably, the intifadas have harmed Israel, too. Loss of life, injuries, property damage, and scarred psyches were among Israel's myriad burdens. But Israel has not only endured—it has thrived.
The same cannot be said for the Palestinians. This is due, in no small measure, to disastrous decisions by Palestinian leaders in the 1930s, 1980s, and the turn of the century.
Those warning of another intifada are right to sound the alarm. Those advocating for one either don't know the history or choose to ignore it.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press 2021). Find him on Twitter: @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.