“Intifada, Intifada!”: Don’t be a snowflake

I strongly caution against the automatic equation of intifada with a call for attacks against Israelis or Jews worldwide.

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In this photo taken on April 28, 2024, the pro-Palestine encampment on school campus is closed and all entrances to that area are blocked at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in California, the United States.(Xinhua)

Alongside the slogan ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ chants calling for ‘intifada’ have become among the most controversial aspects of the protests being held in support of the Palestinian cause on American college campuses and elsewhere around the world. For many critics of these protests, the calls for intifada equate to incitement to kill Israelis and/or Jews around the world. The debate as it plays out on social media tends to be very repetitive with the same talking points, and here I hope to shed some new light.

To begin with, defenders of the chants note that intifada is a standard Arabic word for ‘uprising’ and is not simply confined the periods of Palestinian unrest against Israel that popularised the term. This is indeed correct. There are a whole series of other incidents of unrest have been and can be called intifada in Arabic. For example, the Shi‘i uprising in Iraq against Saddam Husayn’s government in the wake of the First Gulf War is known in Arabic as the intifada sha‘abaniya. The original unrest in Tunisia that led to the deposition of the Ben Ali government has similarly been described as an intifada in media, besides the more familiar term of the Jasmine Revolution. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of the Jews against the Nazi German occupation during World War Two can be described as an intifada in Arabic.

In response, critics will not necessarily deny this point, but highlight that the Palestinian intifadas entailed considerable violence against Israel, including terrorist attacks. Lest there should be any debate about definitions, by terrorist attacks I mean operations that specifically targeted civilians for political purposes, such as bomb attacks on Israeli public transport and at places frequented by civilians like restaurants and cafés: a phenomenon that was notable during the Second Intifada (2000-2005).

While it is true that those who use slogans of intifada should bear this point in mind and understand why their critics see calls for an intifada as advocating attacks on Israelis and Jews, it is also the case that words in conflicts can have different meanings for different people. Without other supporting evidence, it should not automatically be assumed that any call for intifada here is a call for attacks on Israelis and Jews.

To understand this point better, it is helpful to consider another regional conflict as an analogy: namely, the Syrian civil war. Many supporters of the Iranian-led ‘resistance axis’ in particular deeply resent any comparison of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Syrian civil war, because their opponents who have invoked the comparison normally do so to try to equate the Syrian government and Israeli government as entities oppressing people demanding their freedom: in other words, per the logic of the ‘resistance axis’ supporters, it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that the Syrian government is as bad as the evil Israeli regime! For my part however, I do not suggest the analogy in order to make moral comparisons between the Syrian and Israeli governments, but rather because I believe that fundamentally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be best understood as a civil war, going back to the descent of Mandatory Palestine into full-blown civil war prior to the declaration of Israel’s independence- that descent into civil war itself being part of a pattern of inter-communal violence going back to the earliest days of Mandatory Palestine. To be sure, this civil war has not always had the same intensity of violence, but it deserves the appellation so long as there is no final status resolution for all the land encompassed by Israel and what are today conventionally called the Palestinian territories and bouts of violence continue to emerge (the Gaza war being its latest major iteration).

Within the Syrian civil war of course, the most pervasive slogan among those opposed to the Syrian government is the word ‘revolution’ (Arabic: thawra), though the word intifada has also been used to describe it. Anyone who has studied the war in any meaningful depth will know that while those who advocate thawra have a common end goal of replacing the Ba‘ath-dominated and Bashar al-Assad-led Syrian government, there are a variety of views about how to realise that and also as to what Syria should look like if the current government should be removed.

For many if not most government loyalists in particular however, calls for thawra have a variety of negative connotations, such as terrorist attacks (principally bomb attacks in civilian areas), massacres of Syrian military personnel (e.g. one of the earliest incidents being the Jisr al-Shughur massacre in 2011, in which a Military Security unit was massacred by insurgents, who falsely portrayed the incident to the outside world as the government’s killing of defectors). The thawra for government loyalists has also meant sectarian cleansing and massacres, such as the Hatla and Latakia massacres in 2013, the Ishtabraq massacre in 2015, and the extended siege of the Shi‘a villages of al-Fu‘a and Kafariya in Idlib that culminated in an Iranian-brokered 2018 evacuation of the original inhabitants, whose homes have since been confiscated by insurgents and Sunnis displaced from other parts of Syria.

Even so, it would be wholly unreasonable to assume automatically that anyone inside or outside Syria who calls for a revolution is advocating these sorts of tactics and outcomes. Look at the protests in primarily Druze province of al-Suwayda’ in southern Syria, ongoing since August 2023. One can find many calls for revolution in those protests, and protestors have engaged in actions of civil disobedience like removing portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, while also shutting Ba‘ath Party headquarters, ransacking them in some cases, and even converting one base into a school.

Yet it is clear to any objective observer that despite internal disagreements on issues such as whether al-Suwayda’ should become an autonomous region, the protest movement in the province has a consensus against turning the movement into an armed insurgency against the Syrian government: rather, the use of arms is only to be in self-defence should the Syrian government choose to launch a violent crackdown on the movement. So far, the government has avoided such an approach, though there are uncertainties and fears of a coming change amid reports that the government has sent military reinforcements to the province. The protestors themselves of course have not lived in a bubble for the past 13 years: they are aware of the Syrian civil war’s history and all the destruction and loss it has entailed, and yet most of them who do call for revolution hardly see the armed insurgency that emerged as a model to look up to.

By extension, therefore, it should not be automatically assumed that those calling for intifada are advocating violent and terroristic tactics against Israelis and Jews. When they call for intifada, they could simply mean major non-violent protest and activism of various sorts. It is also possible that many of them simply do not know in detail the history of the first and second intifadas, and have a romanticised vision of them as protest with forms of civil disobedience and seemingly ‘heroic’ acts of ‘resistance’ like hurling invective at Israeli soldiers, throwing stones at soldiers and tanks, and so on. One does not have to be a supporter of the Palestinian cause to appreciate these nuances.

If you reject the Syrian civil war analogy of course, you may want to consider the following analogy that sticks just within the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consider calls for an Israeli ‘victory’ in Gaza. What does victory mean? There is no doubt that for many Palestinians and their supporters, a call for Israeli victory is seen as tantamount to ‘genocide’, both because of the extent of massive destruction of infrastructure in Gaza and the numbers of Palestinians killed in the current fighting, and the fact that in Israeli discourse, some public figures have advocated outcomes along the lines of flattening Gaza and the large-scale if not total removal of the Palestinian population from Gaza. Yet should that mean automatically assuming that any call for ‘victory’ is advocating genocide? No. For many who advocate that outcome, it would rather mean just dismantling Hamas’ rule over Gaza and ensuring it does not exercise authority in the Strip again, being replaced by a local Gazan administration that is more palatable to Israel, far removed from any ideas of ethnic cleansing or partial or total extermination of the Palestinian population. One might criticise such proposals as unrealistic, but they are clearly not genocidal even as they entail the notion of an Israeli victory in Gaza.

In short, I strongly caution against the automatic equation of intifada with a call for attacks against Israelis or Jews worldwide. Do not take the call for intifada in isolation, but rather look at the accompanying evidence: for example, if a person’s call for intifada is accompanied by explicit slogans like ‘burn Tel Aviv to the ground’, or discourse saying that there is no such thing as Israeli civilians and/or that all Israelis are ‘settlers’, then it is clear that that person’s conception of intifada is really not so innocent and naïve. Without nuance in analysis, you risk becoming a snowflake- the exact sort of thing for which college campus discourse has been derided in recent years.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an independent analyst and a doctoral candidate at Swansea University, where he focuses on the role of historical narratives in Islamic State propaganda. His public media work focuses primarily on the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria, and he has been cited in numerous outlets for his insights, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, and the Associated Press. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.

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