Rabbani on the First Intifada 25 years later

December 10, 2012

In Blog

In Honor of Titans

by Mouin Rabbani

In hindsight, the popular uprising that erupted in the occupied Palestinian territories on 9 December 1987 and continued for six grueling yet heroic years makes perfect sense. Scholars, analysts and activists have demonstrated how a variety of factors came together to ripen conditions for the eruption of mass protest and its development into a sustained and organized rebellion. 

These conditions included accelerated colonial expansion throughout the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip, in some respects going well beyond the Allon Plan that has since 1967 served as Israel’s master plan for the occupied territories; a palpable increase in state-sponsored settler vigilantism as well as racist brutalization of Palestinian migrant workers within Israel; Israel’s self-proclaimed adoption of a ruthless “Iron Fist policy” in 1985, replete with deportations, incarcerations, town and house arrests, house demolitions and the like; a growth spurt and gradual mainstreaming of an Israeli fascism that openly advocated not only a combination of Jim Crow and Nuremberg laws but mass expulsion of all Arabs living under Israeli rule; and growing hardship resulting from the combination of increased Israeli restrictions on Palestinian economic activity and constriction of Arab labor markets. 

No less significant were the serious investments, most notably by Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), in local popular and political organization as PLO factions – mainly Fatah, the PFLP and DFLP – joined the more longstanding campaigns of the Palestine Communist Party and Islamist movement after the PLO was evicted from Lebanon in 1982. These were augmented, in mid-1987, by the end of the Palestinian schism that had plagued the national movement since 1983, and a series of bold attacks by Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the PFLP-GC in northern Israel that exposed the vulnerabilities of Israel’s military.

To these must be added the growing despair among Palestinians as the Reagan administration transformed the American-Israeli relationship from a strategic partnership in which Washington nevertheless continued to pay lip service to international law into an insufferable erotic stage show highlighted by multiple mass Congressional orgasms. Simultaneously the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was in the West Bank and Gaza Strip translated into the further institutionalization of military government in the guise of its Civil Administration, as well as a determined Israeli campaign to mobilize collaborationist Village Leagues. And there was no Palestinian who failed to notice the growing pre-occupation of Arab officialdom with the conflict between Iraq and Iran, to the point where the 1987 Arab League Summit mentioned Palestine as a passing afterthought.

The above checklist for insurrection could go on for several pages, vital statistics included, and still be woefully deficient. The point, and what is too often forgotten, is that on 8 December 1987 no one was expecting even a traffic accident at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and the Gaza Strip. When it came – accident or not – its four fatalities would the next day set off a series of protests in the Gaza Strip’s Jabaliyya refugee camp and then Nablus’s Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. Spreading like wildfire, these demonstrations metamorphosed into a popular revolt that within weeks made Intifada part of the English language.

To the extent that 8 December 1987 that morning had any political significance, it was yet another day in the buildup to Israel’s fortieth anniversary celebrations the following May. With the PLO down and out, Palestinians in Lebanon barely surviving the siege of their camps by the Syrian-sponsored Amal movement, the occupied territories more secure for Israeli soldiers and settlers than most small American towns, and Palestinians in Israel pre-occupied with the increasingly hostile rivalry between the local communist and Islamist parties, Israel was sitting pretty. So pretty, that its fortieth anniversary was confidently anticipated by its leaders as the moment when the accursed Palestinians and their damned cause could finally and unceremoniously be consigned to the dustbin of history and vanish forevermore. 

This was not an exclusively Israeli ambition. True, Palestine, sitting as it does at the nexus between East and West, North and South, past, present and future, had become a – often the – cause célèbre in much of the third world, Africa and South Asia in particular. Yet in most of Europe, North and South America, and significant parts of east Asia leaders and often peoples saw Israel’s upcoming celebration as a significant event, whether for strategic, political, religious, opportunistic and/or moral reasons. If Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War had for the first time televised the realities of Zionism into its supporters’ living rooms, even the Sabra-Shatila Massacre that mid-September had done little more than jolt those who had ecstatically celebrated Israel’s 1967 conquests into questioning if Israel was entirely blameless or merely thoroughly righteous. And in any case there was still a Cold War to be won.  The late 1980s was a very different world.

All that began to change on 9 December 1987. Whether one sees the Intifada as harvesting fruit sufficiently lowered by previous decades of struggle or the beginning of a new era, it was and remains the turning point. It is the date future historians will pinpoint as the moment when Israel in the global consciousness began to be transformed from a Mediterranean Shangri-La to a Middle Eastern South Africa. 

In order to pierce the ignorant conscience of hundreds of millions of people who either never knew or had forgotten that colonialism is nothing less than daily evil – Israel had after all successfully marketed its presence as “the benign occupation” – Palestinians first had to break through the barrier of fear. And a very formidable barrier it was. The occupied territories were not governed like the rest of Israel – which would have been bad enough – but rather ruled by a subsidiary military government which legislated by decree and was tailor-made to drive Palestinians out of their lands and out of their minds. Anthony Coon, a specialist in town planning at Strathclyde University, for example, concluded in a study commissioned for the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq that he had never previously come across a town planning agency that destroyed more homes than it authorized.

Israeli control was so pervasive and intrusive that the colonial administration bore greater similarities to totalitarian states than Israel itself.  Permits were required for virtually everything, with one benefit being a steady supply of informers and collaborators recruited amongst parents desperate to obtain medical attention for a severely ill child, university graduates eager for employment to support their existing families and start new ones, and a host of others. 

The list of prohibited items and activities – including the Palestinian flag, uncensored newspapers and unauthorized meetings of more than several people – would have made Kim Il Sung proud. Those who refused to cooperate, persisted with their thought crimes or actively resisted Israeli power with so much as a slogan could expect imprisonment, torture, the sealing or outright bulldozing of their homes and the ultimate punishment of deportation and exile. That’s the short version, and conditions in East Jerusalem, formally annexed and under direct Israeli government control were only in some respects better while in others even worse.

But break the barrier of fear the Palestinians did. And how. Not because they had nothing to lose, but because they had everything to gain and were determined to win. Salim Tamari has pointed out that what distinguished this uprising from previous post-1967 revolts was that it included not only towns and refugee camps but villages as well. And by early 1988 the uprising encompassed every town, every refugee camp and every village from the northern West Bank to those quarters of Rafah refugee camp adjoining the Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip. Their residents collectively engaged in mass demonstrations that claimed a daily toll of unarmed protestors shot or beaten to death; general and commercial strikes that Israel unsuccessfully tried to break for weeks on end with punishing sanctions including repeatedly ripping the doors off stores that refused to open and impounding everything in sight; and any variety of activities that were usually unusually creative and designed to make their homeland and themselves ungovernable. It was based on, and sustained by, numerous forms of social and economic solidarity that emerged as circumstances required and that relied first and foremost on an extraordinary and extraordinarily selfless spirit of voluntarism. 

The uprising almost immediately spawned a coherent and cohesive leadership in the form of the Unified National Command of the Uprising. Representing the main PLO factions and Islamic Jihad and reflected in a multiplicity of regional and local committees, it issued weekly communiqués exhorting the people to greater militancy and sacrifice and setting out a schedule for the coming week’s activities. Its instructions were – at least initially – unquestionably followed not out of fear but out of devotion to the national movement and the cause it represented.

One of the most memorable aspects of the uprising is that it was truly national in spirit, if not always in scale. 21 December 1987, I believe it was, was the day in which Palestinians throughout mandatory Palestine conducted an active general strike. Within Israel, Palestinian activists shut down key highways with burning tires and other obstacles. For Israel’s leaders, it was perhaps their most fearful day since October 1973. In an era when Palestinians were still led as and acted as a people rather than independent fragments of a broken whole, the uprising was as much about ending the siege of the camps in Lebanon as evicting Israel from the Gaza Strip. And indeed, within the uprising’s first month Hafiz al-Asad was left with no choice but to order his Lebanese surrogates to call off their murderous siege of Beirut’s refugee camps “in solidarity with the Intifada in Palestine”. 

Israel’s response was as furious as it was ferocious. The headlines rightly spoke of children shot through the head, stone-throwing youths having their arms deliberately broken, adults beaten to death in their homes and activists summarily executed in broad daylight. Israel’s soldiers were after all acting on Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Neanderthal exhortation to “break their bones”, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s demand to “re-establish the barrier of fear”. Away from the floodlights Israel’s finest visited 1,001 terrors upon their subjects each and every single day and night for the next six years. Yet everything the Israelis threw at the Palestinians seemed only to make them stronger and was thrown right back at them. This was particularly the case with the prison system, which became as much a rite of passage as matriculation from high school.

Collective punishment was often the Israeli weapon of choice. These included travel bans, the severance of utilities, school closures, mass arrests and the systematic ransacking of homes. Most punishing of all were the strictly enforced round-the-clock curfews that could persist for weeks on end. Overcrowded homes boiling with frustration over lost incomes, untended crops, missed classes and dwindling supplies often came to resemble pressure cookers. Many a child who managed to escape to the roof or garden to break the monotony for some playtime, along with adults foraging for food or work, or tending to the needs of relatives, friends or comrades paid with their lives. Then as now, the Gaza Strip was the collective human guinea pig for the latest developments in Israeli sadism.

At a time when Israel was rather successfully marketing itself as the only democracy this side of the Big Bang, it bears recalling some of the measures it introduced or resurrected during those years: the fax machine and electronic mail were prohibited, all international telecommunications were severed (apparently the first time a state had done so since the Second World War), and Israel began the process of severing the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, and East Jerusalem from the latter. The first victim of this separation policy was not the Gaza Strip but rather East Jerusalem, which lost its position as commercial, services, socio-cultural and political hub; since 1948 it had been dependent on the West Bank (and since 1967 Gaza Strip) “hinterland” for this role.

Israel was equally inventive with weaponry. Tear gas was transformed into a lethal weapon by firing canisters directly at the heads of demonstrators, or inundating curfewed homes full of infants, pregnant women and the elderly with copious amount of it. Its rubber bullets were actually steel marbles coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of rubber. Plastic bullets were simply hardened material shaped like the real thing, and unlike those used elsewhere for crowd control could instantly kill an adult. According to an UNRWA official in the Gaza Strip at the time, the Israeli military was constantly “improving” the material in clubs used to beat Palestinians to a pulp because victims’ skulls had a tendency to break the wooden ones and the fiberglass version tended to fray after intensive use. In a display of one-upmanship towards Palestinians armed with slingshots, Israeli army engineers developed a gravel thrower that inundated streets with large quantities of small stones delivered at what seemed to be supersonic speed. 

Throughout Israel’s weapon of choice remained humiliation. Somewhere in its corridors of power, some genius determined that if enough soldiers and Border Guards insisted on being called “Abu Allah”, and forced their detainees to chant “Arafat is a dog” and then bark like one before being urinated upon or forced to masturbate in front of them and fellow detainees, Palestinians would forget they lived under occupation or at least come to love Israel with the same devotion as its friends in Congress. (That the tactic was judged wildly successful by the Americans as they prepared to invade Iraq in the midst of yet another Palestinian uprising seems almost axiomatic). 

In what was above all a test of wills, Shamir and Rabin never succeeded in breaking the Palestinians or their rebellion. Nor did the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 1991 Gulf War help them much. They did however manage to degrade the uprising, not least by removing successive layers of ever less experienced leadership through arrest or liquidation. The PLO in exile, despite receiving insufficient credit for its role in the revolt, also undermined it in a variety of ways. And with the rise of Hamas factional cooperation gradually gave way to open rivalries. 

By the early 1990s a mass movement had increasingly developed into an armed insurgency that involved a significantly smaller number of activists. This was not by definition a negative development, although guns do always seem to bring excesses along for the ride. Rather, under the circumstances incipient guerilla warfare seemed to retard the forward momentum of the movement as much as promote it. Israel, which had responded to unarmed demonstrations and stone-throwing protests with snipers and machine gun fire, fought Kalashnikovs with helicopter gunships and anti-tank missiles. And still it failed to restore the status quo.

It would take the 1993 Oslo Agreement to terminate – or more accurately to abort – the uprising and with it the increasingly successful campaign to delegitimize the Israeli occupation while continuously increasing its cost. It remains speculative, but many have persuasively argued, and many more continue to believe, that if Yasir Arafat had not rushed into secret Norwegian negotiations with Israel and instead deferred to Haidar Abd-al-Shafi’s backbone in the formal Washington talks, Israel would eventually have acceded to a settlement freeze for the duration of any interim period. If the Palestinians had played their cards right and persevered further, it is a not unreasonable view that they could also have successfully defined the length and outcome of any interim period. Doing so would have most likely extracted an unspeakably cruel cost in Palestinian blood and treasure. But it was in 1993 already apparent and indeed predictable that relinquishing the demand for an end to occupation would be exponentially more costly.

Those who maintain that Oslo could have succeeded but for the failures of Israelis, Palestinians or both fundamentally misunderstand its nature and purpose. It was neither a peace process, nor an exam administered by Rabin and Clinton to determine if Arafat would mend his evil ways. Nor was the environment it provided for further Israeli colonial expansion the heart of the matter. Rather, Israel’s rulers and particularly its security establishment had by early 1988 concluded that the Intifada had irrevocably shattered the status quo, and began the search for a new paradigm. They chose not for annexation or a two-state framework, but rather separation. Israel opted for what Ehud Barak summarized, for those lacking a proper knowledge of Afrikaans, as “Us here and them there”. Separation reflected Israel’s assessment of reality and possibility in the context of the end of the Cold War, the transformation of its economy, and the unprecedented docility of the Arab world. Essentially, it would keep what it wanted and transfer responsibility for the rest to an enclosed Palestinian Authority. 

The West Bank Wall, the isolation of East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and the ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley are therefore not indicators of a failed process, but rather demonstrate it is working precisely as designed. Oslo was arguably never meant to reach a terminal conclusion, since Israel’s leaders must have known the maximum they were prepared to concede on any of the so-called “permanent status issues” fell considerably short of the minimum any Palestinian leader could implement. 

Few conflicts can be traced back to the conceit of a single individual. With the 2000-2005 uprising, Barak’s conviction that his powers of persuasion were such that he could convince Arafat to accept permanent suzerainty in a single tête-à-tête at Camp David is as close as it gets. To the extent Oslo has failed, this is accounted for by the PA’s failure or refusal to eradicate resistance to the occupation, and the prospect that in combination with regional transformations the model of separation under occupation is proving increasingly untenable as well.

In this context much of what currently passes for debate regarding the correct framework to resolve the Question of Palestine is extraordinarily damaging and in many cases nothing short of infantile. The issue is not whether Palestinians can or should have one or two or several dozen states. Rather, the critical question remains unchanged: can the Palestinian people achieve anything at all if they are unable to first finish the work of uprisings past and terminate the Israeli colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? A failure to do so will produce neither two states consistent with the program proposed by the PLO during the 1970s and 1980s, nor a single state that is meaningfully different than the reality that already exists today. 

Given the centrality of the struggle against occupation to any Palestinian future, and the increasingly massive international support this now has, it should come as no surprise Zionist media today welcome contributions dismissing this essential precondition to Palestinian self-determination – however defined – as an irrelevant sideshow. To re-imagine the struggle for Palestinian self-determination as one where a secular democratic state can only be achieved by abandoning the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the tender mercies of unbridled Israeli colonialism is at best criminally negligent. A more purposeful and certainly more responsible position to take is to maximize each and every opportunity that exists for the re-internationalization of the Question of Palestine. It is not BDS or UN, as if one is somehow superior to the point of invalidating the other, but rather both and ICJ and EU and much more, effectively calibrated and integrated into a meaningful strategy with concrete as opposed to rhetorical objectives.

The so-called first Intifada was neither the first uprising in twentieth-century Palestinian history nor even the first such event after 1967. Palestinians began rebelling from virtually the moment the first British High Commissioner set foot in their country during the Mandatory period. The 1936-1939 Arab Rebellion, replete with the longest general strike in recorded history, was consistently held up by the Intifada’s leaders and participants as an example to be emulated. (The former had failed, but not for lack of trying and certainly not because that previous generation of revolutionaries ever decided the struggle to end the Mandate had become meaningless and began demanding Arab unity instead). Similarly, the mid-1970s and early 1980s had seen sustained periods of unrest in the occupied territories. Nevertheless, the 1987-1993 Intifada represents – alongside the 1936 Rebellion and the 1982 Siege of Beirut – for many Palestinians their finest hour during the past century. There are many reasons for this, but top of the list may well be the abiding perception that the combination of adversity and hope consistently bought out the very best in people at the individual and collective level under the worst imaginable circumstances. And truth be told, for many of the younger generation not yet saddled with the responsibilities of job and family, it was despite the manifold horrors also an exciting era. Alongside the death, destruction and grief that could be all-consuming, it equally offered the exhilaration of freedom in all its dimensions.

As might be expected after six grueling years of rebellion many Palestinians, particularly in the occupied territories, initially welcomed Oslo and either hoped – even if against hope – that the fine print would be overtaken by events or that Israel would see the light and simply go away. When this proved to be an illusion, anger began to set in, and Palestinians directed it not just at Israel and its foreign backers, but most vociferously at their own leaders who had knowingly allowed themselves to be hoodwinked at the negotiating table. Where Salim Tamari had in the 1980s pointed out that Israel’s search for a native pillar in the occupied territories had been one of the most unsuccessful in the history of colonialism, it now seemed that Israel had recruited no less than the leadership of the national liberation movement as sub-contractor for its rule.

I particularly recall taking a ride with an acquaintance in central Ramallah during the late 1990s. As we passed the boys’ school on Radio Street a few doors down from where I lived for a time during the above events, my acquaintance, as much in exasperation as admiration, began extolling its students’ contribution to the Intifada, and exclaimed they had done more for their people than the entire Palestinian Authority had or ever would do. Damn right he was. And I will honor each of those titans until the day I die.

[An earlier version of this article was published on Mondoweiss.]