The first intifada 20 years later

10 December 2007

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A Palestinian youth throws stones at an Israeli military jeep in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, September 2006. (Magnus Johansson/MaanImages)

The first Palestinian intifada (uprising or shaking off) erupted dramatically on 9 December 1987 after twenty long years of brutal Israeli military occupation. The Palestinians had had enough. Not only had they been dispossessed of their homeland and expelled from their homes in 1948 to make way for the boatloads of European Jewish immigrants flooding into Palestine on a promise of a Jewish state, they had been made to suffer the indignities of a people despised and rejected by the whole world. They were the victims of a colonialist project that denied their existence and their rights to self-determination in the land that they had continuously inhabited for millennia so that a state could be created in all of the land exclusively for Jews from anywhere in the world. To this day, the Zionist project has held powerful countries and august institutions hostage in its service, despite the indisputable rulings of international law and United Nations resolutions supporting the rights of the Palestinians. What Israel had not bargained for, though, was the steadfastness of a wronged people and their indomitable spirit that sent the first stones hurtling towards army tanks and bulldozers in their desperate bid to shake off Israel’s crushing occupation. So began the “War of the Stones.”

The occupation and the intifada

The cause of the first intifada is most often attributed to the killing of four Palestinian civilians by an Israeli jeep at a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, and then the subsequent killing of seventeen-year-old Hatem Abu Sisi by an Israeli officer who fired into a crowd of aggrieved and protesting Palestinians. However, these violent individual acts — and those preceding them — were merely the last straws in a 20-year saga of military occupation and its debilitating effects on a population denied any control over their economic, social and political development. More than a knee-jerk reaction to that occupation, it was a united demonstration of a continuous political struggle for self-determination that had been playing out long before 1987 at the grassroots level.

A whole generation of Palestinians had never known anything other than occupation. That occupation had made them economically dependent on Israel. Not only did they have to put up with being treated like inferiors and prisoners in their own homeland, but they were also grossly exploited for their labor. They were paid half the wages of Israeli workers, they were taxed higher, they had few benefits and they were without job security because official Israeli policy denied them any rights within Israel. Many Palestinians were employed without the required work permits, which put them in an even more tenuous situation. They — like any other people — wanted to be free from Israel’s tyranny, and like any other people, they wanted to resist the force being used against them, but without an organized resistance movement, they were powerless to challenge the occupation itself. The more dependent they were, the more the occupation became entrenched, and the more Israel profited. Beneath the surface, though, their discontent was seething.

Palestinians were also seeing their confiscated land being illegally settled by Jewish foreigners who were allowed to carry machine guns and were protected by the Israeli army when they used them to terrorize Palestinian families. These families were constantly under threat, not only for continuing to live on their own land and properties, but also for any outward expression of their cultural identity or nationalist feelings. Anything that was deemed pro-Palestinian was forbidden or destroyed. The word “Palestine” was expunged from textbooks and any products marketed as Palestinian were relabeled as Israeli. [1] Literature, art, music, and other activities that encouraged a national consciousness were subject to attack and universities were often closed for long periods because they were seen as fomenting nationalist fervor. This repression of Palestinian national identity led to an underground movement which only deepened their feelings for liberation and over time created a culture of resistance which ultimately found expression in the intifada. [2]

Israel tried numerous times to manipulate events so that a “new leadership” would supplant the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that was spearheading the national movement. The idea was to limit Palestinian control of their own affairs as much as possible while leaving Israel in complete control of military and security matters. The Palestinians, however, had other ideas and rose up against the “Civil Administration” scheme in 1976, against the Camp David accords in 1979-80, and also against confederation with Jordan. They pursued their rights through political and legal channels, but Israel used deportation as a means of quelling the growing resistance. Thousands of political figures and activists were expelled from their country, their lives often threatened. By 1987, there were still some 4,700 political prisoners in Israeli jails [3] out of the 200,000 Palestinians arrested in that 20 year period. [4] The Palestinians found that they had no impartial avenue available to them to hear their grievances fairly, particularly over Israel’s land confiscations, water use and building constructions. As conditions deteriorated and Palestinians saw their political and cultural identity at risk of being annihilated, it is not at all surprising that they rose up to shake off Israel’s brutal occupation.

Challenging images

The Palestinians realized that their greatest power lay in mass civil disobedience — boycotting Israeli goods, refusing to pay taxes to Israel, establishing their own mobile medical clinics, providing social services, organizing strikes and demonstrations and unarmed confrontations. The tactics they used took Israel unawares and captured the attention of a hitherto unreceptive Western media. Specifically, the images of Palestinian boys throwing stones at advancing armored tanks totally upended the David and Goliath myth that Israel had propagated so effectively — a fledgling Israel struggling to survive against the mighty Arab world. Suddenly, everyone was seeing a different Goliath. Israel — the most powerful military force in the Middle East — was facing down defenseless “David” in a re-enactment of the Old Testament story when David slung his stone and slew the giant, Goliath.

Israel’s carefully constructed image of the defenseless victim had already been crumbling since the 1967 War when it launched preemptive strikes against Egypt and Jordan and won spectacularly and then had no qualms in defying international law and occupying all of Palestinian land. In 1982, the scenes of butchered Palestinian bodies in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon horrified the world and there was no mistaking Israel’s involvement. By the time the intifada catapulted the Palestinian struggle into the public spotlight, Israel’s schizophrenic self-image of victim and conqueror was up against the media’s pictures of soldiers’ bullets shooting down Palestinian boys with rocks in their hands. Matters were made worse by Israel’s Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin who ordered the soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators. In just four years, more than a thousand Palestinians had been killed and many more were crippled.

To the outside world, the throwing of stones became a powerful visual image of the first intifada, but it was the use of leaflets that effectively mobilized the Palestinians against the occupation. Writers Shaul Mishal and Reuben Aharoni observe that “In the absence of an official and prominent local leadership, leaflets became a substitute leadership during the intifada.” [5] Their influence was felt everywhere as they informed the people of where to go and what to do and what had been achieved. Messages of upcoming strikes, boycotts and specific campaigns made the rounds and gave the people a sense of unity of purpose. This was also a time when symbolism became very important to the national movement and the Palestinian flag and its colors were incorporated even in clothing and embroidery. When so much else was restricted in their lives, the Palestinians had found novel ways to resist nonviolently, which had Israel searching for ways to respond. Force was still its preferred method of control, but later its manipulation of the peace process so frustrated even the small gains made by the Palestinians, that resistance took on a new and much more dangerous meaning with the second intifada in 2000.

Punishing the Palestinians

Throughout the years of the first intifada, it was not the stone-throwing youths that had Israel worried as much as the civil disobedience that had become rampant amongst the Palestinians. To quell it, Israel resorted to punishing the Palestinian population en masse. Ordinary civilians found themselves without freedom to pursue even the most routine daily activities. Curfews were ordered for weeks on end and thousands of Palestinians were arrested. With the closure of schools and universities, education effectively became illegal and teachers and students had to resort to “underground” classes. Homes were demolished without warning, olive trees and agricultural crops were destroyed, vital water supplies were redirected to Israel and then water usage restricted so severely, people had to queue with containers for hours to buy back their own water. So punishing were Israel’s assaults on the Palestinian population that rumors of transfer began surfacing, especially when Israeli Former Military Intelligence Chief General Shlomo Gazit said that these measures were intended so that Palestinians would “face unemployment and a shortage of land and water and thus we can create the necessary conditions for the departure of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.” [6]

Empowering the people

The idea of population transfer was not something new even then and the Palestinians understood that their survival depended on uniting all levels of society. The intifada drew its support for the first time from the lower social strata — people who had been most burdened by Israel’s occupation, particularly by Israel’s exploitation of their resources and their labor. Under what was called the United National Command, “unified” popular committees took responsibility for everything, from keeping watch over villages and refugee camps at night against army and settler raids to distributing food and clothing to those in need. Emerging from these groups came nonpartisan local leadership and a social revolt against traditional conventions. The masses took part in the demonstrations and confrontations with the Israeli army, urged on by the anonymous printed leaflets that were always careful to avoid calling for armed struggle so as not to alienate the people. In their book, The Intifada, Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari say that “This was a sharp psychological turnabout for a public that had discovered what it could do — and how to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses.” [7]

There was no doubt that this national movement gave every Palestinian a sense of empowerment, even though there were very few gains on the ground. Women especially found themselves free to engage in productive work, much of which was created by women’s committees, and conventional social boundaries soon blurred as women became more politically involved by transforming “their family responsibilities to encompass the entire community.” [8] While the stones were no match for Israel’s impressive arsenal, an Israeli commander observed that “The essence of the intifada is not in the actual level of activity, but in the perception of the population … the sense of identity, direction and organization.” [9] If nothing else, the people’s non-violent mass civil disobedience strategy had attracted media coverage and journalist Thomas Friedman commented that “the presence of the foreign media really forced Israelis to look at the true brutality of their occupation.” [10] That is, until Israel found other more sinister ways to turn around public opinion.

Israel shifts the goal posts

The Oslo “peace process” took the wind out of the intifada. Suddenly, Israel was the peacemaker on the world stage and began talks with the PLO, fully intending to neutralize it. Rather than leading the national movement and resistance to Israel’s oppression, the PLO morphed into an institution — the Palestinian Authority (PA) — charged with policing its own people for a place at the negotiating table. The world breathed a sigh of relief and international efforts were concentrated on the peace process while the sordid realities on the ground were once again ignored. Despite Israel agreeing to withdraw from the occupied territories, it did no such thing. Instead, it confiscated even more Palestinian land and continued to build more illegal Jewish settlements. Jerusalem residency rights were withdrawn and not only was Jerusalem closed to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, but freedom of movement within the occupied territories was further curtailed and reduced to the humiliating experience of being told when and where they could go — if at all. What is more, the Palestinians found themselves split into three disconnected enclaves A, B and C — islands in a sea of looming Israeli settlements. Yet, the world dangled the carrot of an independent Palestinian state and Israel allowed the discourse to continue, everyone knowing full well that Israel was doing what it wanted. The brazenness of the charade was breathtaking. Even more breathtaking, is that the charade is being repeated today.

As peace and a two-state solution became the catch-cry for the protagonists and observers alike, the intifada appeared to lose its raison d’etre. It had wrought a huge toll on the disintegrating Palestinian economy. The mass national strikes had invited a devastating military response in the form of curfews where “every Palestinian living in the Occupied Territories had spent an average of approximately 10 weeks under in-house curfew,” [11] creating an incredible worker absenteeism problem. Palestinians not only lost their jobs at home, but Israeli employers began employing imported labor and newly arrived immigrants to replace the Palestinians. Essentially, mass resistance was impossible to sustain indefinitely, if the routine of daily life was to go on with some semblance of normality.

The intifada lives on

The carefully organized resistance network was gradually disbanded as Palestinians prepared for the promise of Oslo. The intifada became much less dramatic, even uninspiring, but nevertheless, it was rooted in the Palestinian that would allow it to endure for years. [12] When the Palestinians came to realize that the Oslo process would never reach a conclusion and that their national struggle had been in fact further eroded by Israel’s unbridled expansionism, the intifada that followed was understandably explosive.

It should not be forgotten that every day, all Palestinians engage in acts of resistance just by simply finding ways of getting around the grid of suffocating checkpoints to pursue normal, ordinary activities like working or going to school. Every week, villages like Bil’in stage nonviolent protests against the apartheid wall that Israel is building throughout the West Bank. Thousands of such protests go unnoticed by the Western media which mindlessly repeat Israel’s mantra that the Palestinians must stop their violence. For Israel, every act of resistance against its colonialist and illegitimate policies is anathema and must be put down, punished and demonized. For the Palestinians — with the experience of two intifadas behind them — they know that their resistance will continue as long as Israel denies them their universal human rights to freedom and self-determination. The question that should weigh heavily on our consciences is — how many intifadas must be fought before justice for the Palestinians finally prevails?

Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.

Endnotes
[1] R Jamal Nassar and Roger Heacock, Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads, New York: Praeger, 1990, p.27.
[2] Samira Meghdessian, “The discourse of oppression as expressed in writings of the intifada,” World Literature Today, 72.1 (1998), p.43.
[3] Toby Shelley, and Ben Cashdan, Palestine: Profile of an Occupation, London: Zed Books Ltd, 1989, p.21.
[4] Ruth Margolies Beitler, “The Intifada: Palestinian Adaptation to Israeli Counterinsurgency Tactics,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 7.2 (1995), p.68.
[5] Shaul Mishal, Reuben Aharoni, Speaking Stones: Communiques from the Intifada Underground, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994, p.25.
[6] The Jerusalem Post International Edition, 5 March 1988, p.7.
[7] Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, The Intifada, Jerusalem: Schocken 1990, p.102.
[8] Kanako Mabuchi, “The Meaning of Motherhood during the First Intifada: 1987-1993,” M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, Trinity Term 2003, p84.
[9] D. Reische, Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, New York: Franklin Watts, 1991, p.135.
[10] Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York: Anchor Books, 1995, p.447.
[11] “No Exit: Israel’s Curfew Policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, 1991.
[12] Norman G. Finkelstein, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 p21-22.