Taking stock of the first intifada, 34 years on
On 8 December 1987, an Israeli military vehicle ran over and killed four Palestinians in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp. The ensuing public anger soon developed into a full-scale rebellion, much to the surprise of Israel's officials.
Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, initially shrugged off the protests, while the coordinator of the Israeli government's activities in the Occupied Territories, Shmuel Goren, downplayed them as "merely the peak in a periodic cycle of unrest."
Little did they know that "Intifada" - an Arabic word meaning "to shake off" - would enter the world's lexicons denoting the Palestinian people's revolt against Israel's occupation.
The first Intifada lasted for six years, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed, 120,000 were wounded, and nearly 600,000 others were imprisoned.
"Little did they know that "Intifada" - an Arabic word meaning "to shake off" - would enter the world's lexicons denoting the Palestinian people's revolt against Israel's occupation"
As children in the Intifada, none of the political complexities building to its eruption meant much. We were, after all, born into the occupation, and we knew very little about alternative lifestyles. Yet, it did not take much analysis to know why we needed to protest - the occupation was brutally visible in the roadblocks, the curfews and strikes, the skirmishes, the shootings, the arrests, and the frequent raids into our homes.
We used to march out of school, burn tyres, and throw rocks at the IDF patrols, with some of us involved in anti-occupation graffiti painting and the distribution of political manifestos. Our zeal and dedication were only exceeded by the IDF's capacity for cruelty.
In the beginning period at least, clashes with the IDF occurred weekly, especially on Fridays. The shooting and killing of Palestinians were common, not only by the IDF but also by Israeli settlers.
What seems to resonate particularly in the collective memory of those who lived through the First Intifada were the scenes of the Israeli soldiers' relentless beating of young protestors. They would arrest youngsters, then literally and systematically smash their limbs and break their bones using wooden clubs, gunstocks, and even rocks.
Breaking the Intifada's morale by "breaking the bones" was a policy envisioned in February 1988 by Israel's then defence minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was diligently overseen by his army general Amram Mitzna. Both leaders would later be presented as "peacemakers," Rabin as the champion of the Oslo Accords and Mitzna as Haifa's dovish mayor.
The IDF's modes of violence were so omnipresent that they impacted almost every household and family, and unified nearly everyone - active or passive resistors - behind the Intifada. Even for those of us who were fortunate to escape the IDF's direct crackdown, the Intifada remained a defining element among both the larger Palestinian collective and on individual levels and heightened a conscious state of national existence. Resilience and the glorification of defiance became the answer to an otherwise abnormal and suppressive situation.
Up until the first month of the Intifada, most Israelis were still deeply immersed in the old narratives of Israel (and the Jewish people) as a beleaguered community that are under existential threat. The Palestinians, who were somewhat unnamed at that point, were presented as only a minor nuisance in the background and Israelis felt no need for peace or co-existence, let alone any form of guilt.
The United States, the various Arab governments, and the Soviet Union did not seem to go past the actionless handwringing in regards to Palestinian concerns. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership in the diaspora was relatively divorced from the nationalist forces on the ground inside the Occupied Territories, because of diminished logistical and financial support, in addition to revolutionary fatigue, after the Lebanese civil war.
The Intifada would change all of that.
Since it was primarily directed at the settlers and soldiers within the territories, the Intifada polarised the Israeli political elite and public. It forced them to stop ignoring the future of the territories and engage with this question more concretely and realistically than they had in the past; hence, why many argue that the Intifada was the primary force behind Oslo.
Its disciplined scope of violence also limited the IDF's military options, rendering most military interventions ineffective. This is in contrast to the Second Intifada (2000-2005), where Palestinian armed resistance and suicide bombings inside the Green Line unified the Israeli public and politicians thereby allowing the IDF war machine to fully unleash itself against the Palestinians; this resulted in a 350% increase in Palestinian fatalities, loss of territorial control and significant restrictions on the freedom of movement compared to the first Intifada.
Palestinian women sew Palestine flags to be used by protesters during the First Intifada, 1989. pic.twitter.com/YTfZcX94QB— Palestinian Women (@Wom4en9xx) November 17, 2021
A significant achievement for the Intifada was the shift in the world public opinion, not necessarily in the direction of blatant support for the Palestinians, but chiefly in the recognition of the Palestinian struggle under Israel's occupation after decades in which the Palestinian people were present-absentees and the entirety of the Palestine cause was exclusively and narrowly associated with the PLO and its armed struggle against the Israeli state.
The footage of the stone-throwing children fearlessly confronting Israel's heavily-armed soldiers de-stereotyped the Palestinians as "terrorists" within Western media, forcing a reframed perspective on the Palestinian struggle that is more realistic. For Israel, the Intifada was the watershed moment that firmly transitioned the country from being represented as the David in the conflict to becoming the Goliath.
Furthermore, despite the initial disagreements between the diaspora-centred PLO, which sought to ride the Intifada's wave, and the newly emerged local United National Leadership (UNL), the Intifada was perhaps the zenith of Palestinian national unity since the struggle against Zionism had begun eight decades prior.
It rescued the weakened PLO by re-centring the struggle from the diaspora to the heart of occupied Palestine. In contrast, the second Intifada accentuated the differences among the multiple Palestinian factions over the modes of resistance and national goals and also led to the most catastrophic division in Palestinian history.
"Whichever way to view the First Intifada, the majority seem to agree that most of the Intifada's goals remain unrealised: Palestine continues to live under a colonial continuum and is dwindling in geographical space"
Today, we look back with nostalgia at the First Intifada as the most successful mobilisation in modern Palestinian history. The idealists among us consider it a time of true unity and revolutionary purity, while the realists may evaluate it as a grassroots movement that firmly placed Palestine on the map, garnered global support, and above all, heightened the Palestinian nationalist self-confidence.
Whichever way to view the First Intifada, the majority seem to agree that most of the Intifada's goals remain unrealised: Palestine continues to live under a colonial continuum and is dwindling in geographical space. Israel's intransigence and excessive suppression methods as well as international pressure, particularly by some Arab countries and the United States, have indeed been major contributors to blocking the Intifada's aims.
Much of the blame, however, should also be assigned to the Palestinian leadership for failing to develop sound, sustainable, and unified strategies. The ongoing political fragmentation must not be underestimated.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.