This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
In September 1988, when the popular unarmed uprising of the Palestinian people to shake off the Israeli occupation was nine months old, I traveled to Israel’s occupied territories as part of a fact-finding mission.
For two weeks we moved around and between a West Bank and Gaza Strip that had not yet been forcibly separated from each other, and carved up by walls, ‘Israeli-only’ roads and hundreds of checkpoints. We visited hospitals where beds were full of young people and children who had been kneecapped and had their bones broken under Defense Secretary Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “force, might and beatings.” We participated in peaceful marches that were dispersed by huge quantities of tear gas, rubber bullets, bullets with metal cores and sometimes live ammunition. We watched as small children were chased through the alleys of refugee camps by the soldiers they had taunted with fingers held in V-signs and chants of “PLO! PLO!”
A Palestinian woman outside the Ansar II prison camp in Gaza,
January 8, 1988. (Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
We met with representatives of the hundreds of popular committees that had been set up in every village, refugee camp and town to involve the entire community in activities ranging from growing vegetables and raising chickens, to organizing blood donors, being on the watch for soldiers, covering the walls with slogans of struggle at the risk of being shot by rooftop snipers, providing the needy with food and medicine, and finding ways to surmount the crippling impact of curfews that imprisoned villagers in their homes for days and sometimes even weeks at a time. In the Gaza Strip, we heard speculation that Israel was attempting to divide the Palestinian movement by nurturing a new organization called Hamas, whose slogans were left on the walls while those of Fatah and other PLO factions were immediately expunged.
Everywhere we went, we saw evidence of America’s involvement, from the ‘Made in Pennsylvania’ tear gas canisters that were to cause at least 70 deaths and untold miscarriages during the course of the Intifada to the ‘Made in California’ billy clubs used to break demonstrators’ bones.
On the edge of the village of Beita in the West Bank, we met a woman standing behind a heap of stones that had been her house. She spoke bitterly to us of the 25 years it had taken her to build a home and of the few minutes it took the Israeli army to blow it up.
Why, she asked us, do the Americans continue to pay for the Israeli occupation? “When will the Americans see that we Palestinians are people too?”
Her question was personally life-changing. On my return, I knew I had to do more than write a report and do some public speaking about what I had seen.
My determination to undertake long-term work to inform public opinion and change US policy was bolstered soon after when American eyewitnesses reported that an 11-year-old who was shot by the army in the same village of Beita had been left to bleed on the main street for six hours, while soldiers prevented medical teams and his family from approaching him. By the time he was taken to the hospital, he had bled to death.
There needed to be a way in the United States to get incidents like this to the attention of the public and decision makers. The result was the formation of the Middle East Justice Network which I directed over a seven-year period. We coordinated local activist networks around the country to lobby Congress, informed the public through a bimonthly publication, Breaking the Siege, briefing papers and a Congressional report card, and organized delegations to visit the West Bank and Gaza. We also held well-attended annual conferences. Two of them focused on the Apartheid analogy, and the links between what was happening in South Africa and in Israel/Palestine. Speakers from liberation struggles in both regions were featured in “Apartheid’s Arc and the Palestinian Uprising: Making the Connections” (November 11, 1989) and “From Occupation to Apartheid: Israel, South Africa and the ‘New World Order’” (November 15, 1991).
It is interesting now to reflect on how we functioned in the era before e-mails, YouTube videos and widespread Internet use, when our Action Alerts had to be mailed to our thousands of members and information had to be distilled through frequent visits, faxes and phone calls, and daily on-the-ground reports and publications from a range of Israeli and Palestinian sources, and UN and human rights groups that flooded our postal box. I am drawing upon that trove of information in this remembrance of the first Intifada and our fledgling lobbying efforts.
We often hear the question: “Why can’t Palestinians use nonviolence?” The answer is that they have, since the early years of the 20th century, as Mazin Qumsiyeh has documented in his book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment.
Rarely asked is this: What happens when nonviolence is met with extreme violence, and the world (or the part of it that can make a difference) is not watching? If there had been no TV cameras to disseminate images of the brutal beating of Civil Rights Movement marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, how long would it have taken to get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act?
The American mainstream media had little interest in giving its readers and viewers more than an occasional glimpse of the Intifada – which Israelis insisted was not nonviolent, because many children and young people were armed with slingshots and stones.
The media had little interest in explaining the context out of which the uprising erupted: what it meant to live under some 1290 military orders in the West Bank and nearly 1,000 in the Gaza Strip which governed every aspect of Palestinian life, determining what Palestinians can read, where they can drive, whether they can whitewash their house or repair a window, plant a tomato or pick wild thyme. Only a few of these orders had been translated into Arabic or made accessible to Palestinian lawyers. One of them, Military Order 378, empowered any soldier to arrest a Palestinian without any reason, and hold him or her for up to 18 days without going before a court. Political assemblies and demonstrations were forbidden. Other “illegal” acts included the flying of Palestinian flags and writing of political graffiti – whether or not this could be shown to pose an imminent security threat.
What made the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza arguably unique was its methodical attention to detail and ‘legal’ justifications for blatantly illegal acts, as well as the cumulative weight of its web of bureaucratic regulations, all tending towards a common end – to ensure that Palestinians would never be masters of their own fate, or anything more than transients in their own land.
As the Intifada entered its third year, the West Bank human rights organization Al Haq called it “an expression of collective anger and frustration, a reaction to 20 years of expropriation, denial and oppression. People from all walks of life are involved, participating in a variety of acts of civil disobedience…Our Intifada is an optimistic and unified call for freedom.”
The American media tended not to trust the reports and statistics put forward by Palestinian groups like Al Haq. Conditioned to regard the Israeli occupation as ‘benign’ if it was even on their radar screen, they appeared to be skeptical of the unfolding horror of the repression: the more than a thousand killed by the Israeli army, a quarter of them children, the 115,000 serious injuries – that’s one for every 15 residents; the 40,000 people rendered permanently disabled. According to James Graff’s comprehensive study, Palestinian Children and Israeli State Violence, between December 1987 and December 1989, “one in every 22 children in Gaza has been seriously injured by gunfire, beatings or tear gas. On the West Bank, the ratio is 1:41.” The United States per capita equivalent would be in the order of 1.8 million seriously injured children. An August 1989 bulletin of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights stated that there were increasingly cases in which child leaders were being targeted by sharpshooters from ‘special units’ and instantly killed.
Some 75,000 children 12 years and older were arrested during the first three years of the Intifada for throwing stones, and at least 10,000 of them spent years in prison for stone throwing. The reports of how they were treated make harrowing reading. There appeared to be nothing random about the sadistic tortures used against them to get them to give evidence against friends and older brothers and sisters, the beating which left a boy who was deaf, dumb and mentally retarded, “looking like a steak,” the arrest of a seven-year-old boy in Bethlehem for having a box in his bookbag on which a Palestinian flag had been doodled, the detaining and blindfolding of six and seven-year-olds who were held until their parents could find the ‘child bail’ of up to $800 needed to get them out of custody.
The adults fared little better. One in five Palestinian males between the ages of 15 -55 were arrested in the first three years of the Intifada, with over a thousand women arrested on ‘security grounds.’ Military Order 1281 allowed military commanders to administratively detain a Palestinian without charges or trial for renewable terms of up to one year if the commander has ”reasonable cause to believe that reasons of security of the area or public security require that a particular person be detained.” Some 14,000 Palestinians were placed in administrative detention. According to the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, a number “appear to have been detained for nonviolent political activities.” The rate at which Palestinians were imprisoned without charge or trial during the first three years of the Intifada was nearly ten times greater than the rate at which South Africans were detained under the State of Emergency of 1985-7.
With arrest and imprisonment, invariably came torture to extract ‘confessions’ and information, or to destroy the spirit and create a cadre of informers. Some of the techniques used in Israeli jails – long-term hooding and stress positions, confinement in the ‘coffin’ or ‘refrigerator,’ severe beatings, sleep deprivation, verbal abuse and humiliation – became incorporated in the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the US against its ‘war on terror’ captives. The torture meted out to Palestinians had no age limit.
Other techniques in the Israeli arsenal of repression: the expulsion of Intifada leaders; the two-year-long closure of schools and universities as Israel told Palestinians they could not have their Intifada and education too; and curfews that turned every home into a prison, with families of nine and ten children crammed into one or two poorly ventilated rooms in refugee camps, often with no electricity and water supplies. A ‘curfew breaker’ could be shot, beaten, imprisoned for up to five years and fined $15,000.
Then there were sieges, when towns were entirely sealed off by the army to break resistance. During the near total curfew imposed on the village of Kabatiya during five weeks in July-August 1988, soldiers entered nearly every house, terrorizing and beating people, destroying food and furniture, urinating in water tanks and shooting them full of holes, shooting at people caught outside or trying to dry clothes on the roof. Animals starved and died; crops rotted on the ground.
The people of Kabatiya were being punished for killing a collaborator from nearby Camp Fahmeh, a settlement for collaborators established on an Israeli military base. The residents of Beit Sahour received similar treatment during a two month siege that began in August 1989. Their crime? They refused to pay taxes under the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
Why this ferocious response to an essentially nonviolent uprising?
One answer was given in an interview which the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy conducted with Col. Zvi Poleg, Commander of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. Thanks to the late Dr. Israel Shahak, we have the translation of this December 8, 1988 Ha’aretz piece and many other revealing articles from the Hebrew press.
“I ask him, ‘How does a march of a few dozen demonstrators bother you?’ ‘A march is a disturbance of the order,’ he responds. ‘You never know when the organizers of a march will lose control and it will become a big event…’ ‘Why does a PLO flag hanging on an electricity pole disturb you?’ I ask. ‘It is part of our ruling,’ he says. ‘To demonstrate that you are the ruler, that you are in charge of the territory, of the population, of everything everyday, you cannot compromise on even the smallest point.’”
Then there was the dehumanizing racism, which, for many, made killing easy. It was during Col. Poleg’s command that this poem was placed on the wall of a senior officer of the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip
“Yes, it is true that I hate Arabs
I want to take them off the map.
Yes, this is all (my} work.
My life passes pleasurably
One shoots a bullet and a head is flying…
There are beautiful places in the territories
There is sea and sand and many palms
It is a pity that there are Arabs there too.”
(Ha’aretz, June 16, 1989. Translated by Dr. Israel Shahak).
But some of the most haunting descriptions of the repression of the Intfada came from Israeli soldiers who could not stomach what they were being commanded to do.
There was a report of a “Captain A” being sickened by the new policy to “bring calm to the area” which required soldiers to round up and shackle all the men in a village, take them to an orchard, stuff their mouths with flannel and then carry out the orders:
“To break their arms and legs by clubbing the Arabs; To avoid clubbing them on their heads; To remove their bonds after breaking their arms and legs, and to leave them at the site; To leave one local with broken arms but without broken legs so he could make it back to the village on his own and get help. The mission was carried out as ordered. In the course of carrying it out, most of the wooden clubs were broken.”
(Yossi Sarid, “The Night of the Broken Clubs,” Ha’aretz, May 4, 1989. Translated by Dr. Israel Shahak.)
There was this description of a home invasion written by 23-year-old Pvt. Yehuda Maor:
“We stormed a house and nobody understood why this particular house was chosen…The company commander smashed the window glass and ordered three soldiers to smash the windows around the house…The owner of the house and his wife stood in a corner of the room embracing each other, protecting the little children, trembling with fear. And all the time you heard the soldiers shouting and cursing, some of them laughing a wicked, frightening laughter. You could see them beating people, smashing windows, breaking things for no reason, behaving like beasts…
“I stepped aside, into a dark corner, so that the chaps won’t see me. That they could not see the same soldiers changing uniforms, putting this time black uniforms on, with high black boots, shining, polished, and the same soldiers were also smashing, breaking, cursing, beating, outraged like wild beasts in the streets, inside the houses, in the alleys. I told myself it cannot be. I saw, I swear, that night I saw the Nazis again.”
(Davar, October 20, 1990. Translated by Israel Shahak)
The Nazi allusion appears in a wrenching piece by a young reservist, Ari Shavit, about his time guarding the Gaza Strip’s Ansar II detention camp which was full of teenagers arrested for stone throwing:
“N…an unsentimental Likud supporter, tells anyone who is willing to listen, why this place looks like a concentration camp. I’m like that too…when I simply survey my surroundings…the association burst out of their own accord. And like a believer whose faith is cracking, I find myself going over the list of arguments, the list of differences: There there were crematoria and here there are not, I remind myself. There there was no conflict between the peoples, I remind myself. The Germans were in no danger, and so on and so on.
“Until I catch myself understanding that the problem is not one of similarity….The problem is that there is not enough dissimilarity…
“And maybe the fault lies with the detentions done by the Shabak: almost nightly, after interrogating a number of youngsters to the breaking point, the Shabak passes out a list of the youngster’s friends to the paratroopers…And you see them going to the curfew-bound city at night, to arrest the people who endanger the security of the state. And you see them returning with 15 and 16-year-olds, teeth chattering, eyes popping, often already beaten and manacled. Even S…can’t believe his eyes. ‘We’ve come to this?’ he says…’The Shabak run after children like these?’
“Or perhaps the fault lies with the screams…from this moment forth you will have no rest…because other people – wearing the same uniform as you – are doing things to them that make them scream. They are screaming because your Jewish state, your democratic state, in an institutionalized, systematic manner and definitely legally – your state is making them scream…
“After a day or two at the installation, the people caged behind the wire fences are already a natural sight. The interrogation wing is part of the routine…In the three-and-a-half years of the Intifada, thousands of Israeli citizens in uniform have walked around within these fences, have hard these screams…And the country is silent, prosperous…
“And despite the fact that there is no room at all for comparison…you start to understand some of those other guards, who stood in other places, guarding other people behind other fences. Other guards who heard other screams and didn’t hear a thing…
“It has become impossible any longer to ask, as good Israelis love to ask, ‘Is this what we were educated for?’ Because after 40 months of Intifada, after the Lebanon War, the answer is: apparently so.”
(Ha’aretz Weekend Supplement, May 3, 1991)
At the Middle East Justice Network we endeavored to educate not just the public, but also elected officials about the reasons for the Intifada and how it was being brutally suppressed. If they wouldn’t believe what Palestinians were saying, what about these Israeli voices of conscience?
We often encountered disbelief and an unsettling level of ignorance. Several Members of Congress flatly refused to accept that Israel could be destroying Palestinian homes. At a time when members of the Congressional Black Caucus were pushing for an end to the Israel-South Africa arms connection, not all of them could accept the fact that Israel was engaging in Apartheid practices in its treatment of Palestinians. The US State Department seemed to have a better grasp of things when it wrote in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1988:
“Jewish settlers in the occupied territories are subject to Israeli law while Palestinians are subject to Israeli military occupation law. Under the dual system of governance applied to Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians are treated less favorably than Jewish settlers in the same areas on a broad range of issues, such as the right to legal process, rights of residency, freedom of movement, sale of crops and goods, land and water use, and access to health and social services.”
As we built a network of legislative district coordinators around the country, we embarked on efforts to get Congress to take steps (even baby ones) to acknowledge that there was more than one side to the story. We encouraged Members to support the resolution by Rep. Howard Nielson (R-UT) calling on Israel to reopen Palestinian schools. On the day it was passed (July 17, 1989) Israel declared it would open the schools in the West Bank within two weeks.
Next, we helped Rep. Nielson get more than 80 co-sponsors on a concurrent resolution demanding that Palestinian universities be opened. It didn’t have the clout of the European Parliament vote to suspend all scientific cooperation with Israel until the universities were reopened, but it was a small indication, we hoped, of larger things to come.
Those larger opportunities arrived when Senator Bob Dole in a January 16, 1990 New York Times Op-Ed recommended a 5% reduction in US aid to Israel (as well as to Egypt, Philippines, Turkey and Pakistan), which the first Bush Administration reportedly regarded as a “trial balloon.” In a January 20th interview on CNN, Senator Dole stated that the total aid we have given Israel “amounts to about $10,000 for every man, woman and child in Israel – which is a fairly substantial amount of aid.”
We took up the role of educating elected officials and the public about how US aid to Israel was in violation of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act prohibiting military and economic assistance to any country engaged in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the US Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 that stipulated that US allies that break the UN arms embargo on South Africa should not receive US military assistance. We hoped that such a cut would be a signal that American taxpayers would not indefinitely subsidize Israel’s military occupation.
The subsequent battle over Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to settle Russia’s Jews opened the door to new lobbying opportunities as it raised the possibility that the Bush (Sr.) Administration would use economic leverage to force Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to abandon his settlement expansion program. With Secretary of State James Baker telling the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on May 22, 1991 that “I don’t think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace,” some Members of Congress seemed prepared to go along, no doubt reassured by poll results that showed that the majority (and in one poll 86%) of the American public agreed with the Administration.
Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) declared on October 19, 1990: “I did not cast my votes so that Israel could disregard longstanding United States policy on the settlements and use those funds to construct housing in the occupied territories,“ while Rep. David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, stated on February 6, 1991: “How much more of our foreign aid budget should the Middle East be allowed to devour? My answer is none, until those dollars are provided in the context of a sweeping re-evaluation of basic policy.”
Can you imagine statements like these coming out of the current Congress?
The campaign to tell Israel that it cannot have loan guarantees and settlement construction too caused the Israeli electorate to abandon Prime Minister Shamir in June 1992. The new prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of “force, might and beatings.” Eventually, Israel got its loan guarantees without abandoning its settlement project.
The Intifada ebbed but the killing of protestors continued, as did the mass arrests, house raids and demolitions, and expulsions. Nine desultory rounds of a “peace process” kicked off by the Madrid Conference in October 1991 ended in May1993 with the parties being unable to agree on a statement of principles. Nothing in a draft produced by the US suggested that the Americans were prepared to pressure for Israeli withdrawal from the territories and an end to the occupation.
Then came the Oslo surprise and Yasser Arafat’s announcement to Palestinians on September 16, 1993 that “they have found a valuable friend in the White House.” We at the Middle East Justice Network took a close look at the Declaration of Principles and subsequent agreements and had our doubts. We described what was on offer as “Apartheid with Joint Patrols.”
The situation today could hardly be more bleak. But when I reflect on my first-hand experience of the creative resilience of the first Intifada, I know that if the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, the Palestinian people shall surely overcome one day.
Here is how the late Mahmoud Darwish described their irrepressible spirit:
They shut me in a dark cell.
My heart glowed with sunny torches.
They wrote my number on the walls.
The walls transformed to green pastures.
They drew the face of my executioner.
The face was soon dispersed
With luminous braids.
I carved your map with my teeth upon the walls
And wrote the song of fleeting night.
I hurled defeat to obscurity
And plunged my hands
Into rays of light.
They conquered nothing.
They only kindled earthquakes.
- “The Reaction,” Mahmoud Darwish