The stabbings, shootings, protests and clashes now spreading across Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel present one of the greatest challenges yet posed to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his strategy of bilateral negotiations, diplomacy and security co-operation with Israel. The unrest – its proximate cause was increased restrictions on Palestinian access to al-Aqsa Mosque – reflects a sense among Palestinians that their leadership has failed, that national rights must be defended in defiance of their leaders if necessary, and that the Abbas era is coming to an end.

Abbas came to power with a limited window to achieve political results. More a drab functionary than a charismatic revolutionary leader like Yasser Arafat, he was seen as a bridge to recovery from the ruinous years of the Second Intifada. At the time of his election, in January 2005, Palestinians were battered, exhausted and in need of an internationally accepted, violence-abhorring figure who could secure the political and financial support necessary to rebuild a shattered society. The Fatah movement was divided and discredited by the failure of Oslo, corruption scandals and the abandonment of its liberation strategy before independence had been achieved. Abbas, who had led outreach to the Israelis since the 1970s, seemed a sufficiently unthreatening transitional figure. He had few serious challengers: Hamas abstained from the presidential election; Fatah’s founding leaders had been assassinated many years earlier; Marwan Barghouti, in Israeli prison since 2002, withdrew from the race. And the Bush administration, newly re-elected, favoured Abbas.

No one expected these conditions to last. Palestinian fatigue from fighting Israel would wear off. The West Bank and Gaza would be rebuilt. Hamas wouldn’t stay out of politics forever. Continuing occupation would foment resistance. Leaders who suppressed that resistance would be discredited. And a new generation of Palestinians would grow up with no memory of the costs of intifada and no understanding of why their parents had agreed not only to refrain from fighting the Israeli army but to co-operate with it, under agreements that Abbas had negotiated.

For Abbas, political survival depended on making significant gains before any of this occurred. His strategy entailed several gambles. First, that providing Israel with security, informing on fellow Palestinians, and suppressing opposition to the occupation would convince Israel’s government that Palestinians could be trusted with independence. Second, that after Palestinians had met US demands to abandon violence, build institutions and hold democratic elections, the US would put pressure on Israel to make the concessions necessary to establish a Palestinian state. Third, that after being invited to participate in legislative elections, Hamas would win enough seats to be co-opted but too few to take over. Fourth, that by improving the Palestinian Authority economy and rebuilding its institutions, Abbas would buy enough time to achieve Palestinian statehood.

In all four respects, he came up short. Israel took his security co-operation for granted and the Israeli public did not demand that its government reward Abbas for his peaceful strategy. The US did not apply the necessary pressure to extract significant concessions from Israel. Hamas won the legislative elections, took over Gaza, and refused to adopt Abbas’s political programme (though Hamas’s victory also strengthened international support for Abbas, as the international community shifted from democracy promotion to democracy prevention). And West Bankers, though dependent on the jobs and economic infrastructure provided by the PA, also resent it, and have lost whatever faith they once had that Abbas’s strategy could succeed. According to an opinion poll taken last month, two-thirds of West Bankers and Gazans want him to resign.

As Abbas’s failures mounted, Palestinians took matters into their own hands. They did so gradually at first, in areas outside PA control: Jerusalem, Gaza, Israeli prisons, and villages and refugee camps not under PA jurisdiction. The process has accelerated, with violence and protests proliferating in Israel, Gaza, Jerusalem and even parts of PA-controlled territory in the West Bank.

For Abbas, this presents a substantial threat. A true uprising could make security co-operation with the occupier untenable, leaving Abbas with limited means to suppress, marginalise and imprison his only significant political challenger – Hamas – while opening the door for new contenders. By definition, violence would represent a weakening of Abbas’s hand, since his principal asset was always his international respectability. If violence intensifies, he can be condemned internationally for not doing enough to stop it and discredited domestically for doing too much. If security breaks down, Israel will find him increasingly irrelevant and may begin empowering those it believes capable of quelling the unrest.

For now, the odds are still stacked overwhelmingly against those seeking to turn the clashes and violence into a sustained uprising. The attacks and protests so far have been dispersed, unorganised and unco-ordinated, without a strategy or clear goals. Many Palestinians believe that enormous sacrifices can achieve results – Israeli support for territorial concessions to the Palestinians was strongest at the height of the Second Intifada, in March 2002 – but few wish to pay that price again. Protesters are not yet turning out in numbers anywhere approaching those of the First or Second Intifada, and they have not turned against the PA, which together with Israel is the greatest obstacle to overturning the status quo. Palestinians have no doubt that Abbas’s co-operative strategy will not succeed, but they have little faith that the alternatives would do better.

So far, PA security forces have mostly avoided the embarrassment of violently quashing protests against Israel and have kept their collaboration with it out of the public eye. The IDF appears to have learned lessons from two intifadas and is taking pains not to exacerbate tensions by imposing closures or cancelling permits to leave Palestinian territory or work in Israel. Huge numbers of Palestinians continue to depend on a PA whose existence would be threatened by a new uprising.

As Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem approaches its 49th year, it is hard to defend the notion that it is unsustainable. But sustainable is not the same as cost-free.

The violence of the past three weeks is a resurgence of occupation’s costs, which, though unpleasant for Israel, have so far remained the bearable price of holding onto East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For the Palestinians, the violence and protests are an announcement that although their crushed and divided national movement may not be strong enough to achieve its goals, its constituents are not so weak that they will no longer pursue them.