December 9, 1987 – exactly 24 years ago – is the day Palestinians remember as the start of the first Intifada, or uprising, against Israel’s brutal and unending occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that had begun 20 year earlier.
For young people in the Palestine solidarity movement today, the start of the first Intifada is ancient history – before many were born. For me it was absolutely formative.
I was not in Palestine. In fact I was growing up comfortably in Belgium. But it was the daily TV images of what was happening in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that opened my eyes and changed me.
One piece of footage in particular had a profound impact all over the world: a group of Israeli soldiers on a hillside in the West Bank systematically breaking the bones of two captive Palestinians, using rocks and sticks.
They committed these war crimes at the behest of Israeli leaders, especially then Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin who ordered troops to use “force, might and beatings” (as well as the live ammunition that claimed lives almost daily) to crush the uprising.
Today, as video of graphic and brutal violence from all over the world is so easily and quickly available, it might be difficult to understand just how deeply shocking this particular footage was. But it is a piece of film that profoundly and permanently changed the way millions of people saw Israel.
Breaking Gandhi’s bones
We often hear Palestinians lectured – by the likes of New York Times columnist Nick Kristof among others – that if they only acted like Gandhi, the Israelis would be impressed and suddenly grant Palestinians their usurped rights.
It’s important to remember – and teach – about the first Intifada for so many reasons, but also because it gives the lie to that silly, condescending and constantly recycled refrain.
The Israeli violence against the completely unarmed first Intifada was intended specifically – as Rabin made clear – to crush any form of Gandhi-like protest, and Israel’s brutality perhaps more than anything else, convinced the next generation of Palestinians that armed resistance was unavoidable.
From bone-breaking to mass violence by remote control
This video – I do not know who put it together – shows other graphic scenes of beatings and torture of Palestinian teens during the first Intifada. It then includes a much longer clip of the hillside bone-breaking that is even more chilling to watch in silence as the soldiers work at their gruesome task methodically.
What is striking about videos of the first Intifada in general is the presence of Israeli soldiers in the middle of Palestinian cities. That now is relatively rare – except when they go in on brutal night raids coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.
The 1993 Oslo Accords, and the subsequent creation of the Palestinian Authority, replaced Israeli soldiers with Palestinian Authority forces. While Palestinians remained under occupation, now the enforcers of the occupation became Palestinians in uniforms. But Israel was relieved of the burden – and some of the bad publicity – of doing the dirty work itself.
Much of Israel’s violence – and the threat of violence – is now done by remote control: PA proxy forces, walls, checkpoints, heavily reinforced watchtowers, cattle runs with unseen voices barking orders, electronic ID cards, drones and F-16s, and even Israeli teenagers shooting people in Gaza dead via video screens as if they are playing a game.
It’s an ever more totalitarian system of violent control of a whole population that had yet to be perfected in the days of Bone-Breaker Rabin.