The ‘lone-wolf intifada’ that isn’t

Palestinian men pray on the third Friday of Ramadan at the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Palestinian men pray on the third Friday of Ramadan at the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A recent survey of Palestinians’ political leanings has left many observers flummoxed: The Palestinian citizenry appears nuanced and sophisticated, weary of its old leadership and completely disinclined toward upheaval or extremism.

In other words, bracingly normal.

The poll, released two weeks ago by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, shows something many longtime observers already know:  Palestinians are a normal people living under abnormal political strictures.

The survey was conducted in late August, in a series of one-on-one interviews with 1,199 Palestinian men and women over age 18 living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In a set of responses that the Israeli daily Ha’aretz deemed surprising, the least surprising result may be that Palestinians, while turned off by their leaders, do not romanticize militancy.

President Mahmoud Abbas, according to the poll, has the confidence of only 16 percent of Palestinians. But his rivals are viewed even more dimly. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the extremist Islamic faction Hamas, for example, is trusted by 12.5 percent. Khaled Meshal, another Hamas leader, gets 4.2 percent.

Two former Fatah leaders once seen as possible successors to Abbas clocked in at 7.1 percent (Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli jail for murder) and 3.2 percent (Mohammed Dahlan, who is widely perceived as corrupt.)

This was the most interesting finding, according to Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University who was involved in drafting the questions and analyzing the responses. “The lack of credible successors to President Abbas,” Khatib said, “means that the vacancy of the position of president will create a big vacuum.”

He added, “Something should be done now, or the consequences will be negative for everybody,” which sounded for all the world like an American talking about the U.S. primaries.

Despite recent media reports on the end of the two-state solution and the inevitability of the Palestinian Authority’s collapse, 71.7 percent of Palestinians surveyed said the current form of government should be preserved, in contrast to 23.7 percent who would do away with it.

Here again, like many Westerners, Palestinians seem fed up with their leaders but not prepared to undermine the institutions of their state.

Only 3.8 percent of Palestinians claim any sympathy for extremist Islamic movements. Notably, 71.8 percent of the respondents in Gaza said the Islamist movements that threaten Hamas — various jihadist groups and clusters of Egypt-based Islamic State sympathizers –have limited or little presence.

The poll results may not have gotten much attention because they are both obvious and counterintuitive. Obvious, because Palestinians want to prosper and preserve whatever advantages they have. Counterintuitive, because, for several years, learned columnists, opinion-makers and professional pundits have not only claimed that a third intifada is in the offing, but, in many cases, claimed that one has begun.

In recent years, every incident between Palestinians and Israeli forces, every chokehold, every rock thrown, every deathly altercation has been reported as another spark in the soon-to-erupt conflagration.

Yet, the conflagration has still not come. In fact, Khatib said that another poll, taken four months ago, showed declining support among Palestinians for violence as a means of fighting the occupation.

Condemned to report on a slow drip of terror attacks perpetrated by individuals, experts have resorted to reporting on a “lone-wolf intifada.” It may sound like a rousing new chapter in local lore, but it does not exist. An intifada — an uprising — by its nature must be large and widespread.

Yes, the frustration and fury of individuals is real — but, to the regret of militants and alarmists alike, it does not make a movement.

The extent to which Palestinian society has lost its appetite for antagonism is made clear in another section of the poll that asked questions regarding Palestinians’ adherence to the boycott of Israeli products.

The percentage of Palestinians supporting the boycott dropped from 59.2 percent in March to 49.1 percent in August. Asked about their own, personal refusal to purchase Israeli products, 34.1 percent of respondents reported boycotting the goods, down from 48.8 percent five months ago.

This reality is visible in any Palestinian grocery store. While it is true that some Palestinians buy Israeli products because they are what is available, that is only part of the story.

Many Palestinians want to get the best deal for their money, bring quality food home to their tables and aspire to the comforts of a tranquil, conventional life.

In a world in which putative leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States seem to be more of a norm that an aberration, Palestinians appear ready for their own revolutionary establishment candidate.
Noga Tarnopolsky has two decades of experience covering international politics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post and El País, among others.

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