[News] The first intifada 20 years later

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Dec 11 11:10:25 EST 2007

The first intifada 20 years later
Sonja Karkar, The Electronic Intifada, 10 December 2007


A Palestinian youth throws stones at an Israeli military jeep in the 
West Bank city of Bethlehem, September 2006. (Magnus 
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 
<http://www.womenforpalestine.com/020403v2/index.htm>Women for 
Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.

[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.

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