Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
Of late I am busy writing a fictional saga of a mixed Palestinian-Israeli couple. In an attempt to gain a sense of the intimate charm that must inhabit the life of such couples, I spoke recently with a pair of lovers.
“Our love bloomed first during the promising years of Rabin’s premiership, when peace and coexistence beckoned brightly on the horizon,” the good doctor explained.
I cringed. Rabin commanded over the ethnic cleansing of Lydd and Ramla in 1948. And he oversaw the calling up of Israeli crack troops into our villages in Israel in 1976 to prevent us from striking for one day in protest against his government’s confiscation of our land.
“Wasn’t Rabin the one to order the systematic breaking of Palestinian children’s bones in the First Intifada?” I asked in objection. No wonder the fictional love story in my novel ends in divorce, I thought to myself.
“But it is all relative,” my young Arab colleague answered. “Imagine how Sharon would have reacted.”
Of course, I could imagine that. Sharon sparked off the gore and violence of the Second Intifada. I pondered my friend’s relativist view: He was young, relative to me, even a child who knows little of our history. And yet, unlike his beautiful Jewish wife, another young colleague, he recognized all the references I made. For Palestinians anywhere, and likely for all generations to come, few historical landmarks stand out in their collective memory more distinctly than the Nakba, Land Day and ‘The Intifada.’ At least in my own memory these stand out sharply with a clear connecting thread, not because of the level of ‘gore and violence’ but because of the meaning.
Historians have traced and will continue to trace the common thread between these mass resistance highlights in Palestine and from them onward clear through to the Arab Spring. Here, I will attempt to reconstruct the way this thread has insinuated itself through my own life as Palestinian and as citizen of Israel: Israel was declared an independent state on my eleventh birthday. The attendant ethnic cleansing left 135,000 of us, Palestinians, confused and leaderless. It was my luck to be among the first of this vulnerable, indigenous group to get a professional training and return with a clear commitment to service. For six years I tried my best to fulfill my self-imposed obligation through the state system as the highest-ranking Palestinian professional in the Israeli Ministry of Health at the time. Then Land Day dawned on us with its two main lessons: (1) Israel covets all of our land, and (2) Israel will not tolerate peaceful resistance by Palestinians and will kill to stop it. I resigned from my government job to escape the castrating contradiction it embodied: a civil servant in a system that denied me services on equal basis. It denied my people’s collective existence and rights altogether.
Two years later I returned with a new determination: to use my official position to seek an alternative route for my community’s development and better health. I recruited three other local colleagues and we established a nongovernmental organization (NGO), The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services. Eventually I took leave again from my government position and worked full time as director of The Galilee Society. Quickly the Galilee Society morphed into a lead civil society organ active throughout the Palestinian minority within the Green Line. It became the focal point of health related activism within our minority including hosting the First Arab Health Conference in Israel and a permanent public committee on Arab health issues. Overseeing these activities inevitably put me in direct contact with similarly minded development-oriented NGO leaders in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).
Then came the Intifada and emboldened us to call ourselves Palestinian, a term prohibited at penalty of loss of employment. Let me now quote some selected and edited entries from my recently digitized audio memoirs recorded in real time:
“May 1, 1988:
In every Palestinian village, town, and city within Israel, as well as in Arab neighborhoods in mixed cities, a popular committee for the support of the Intifada has spontaneously sprung into existence. Such committees, popularly called ‘Local Relief Committees,’ are usually made up of active young people from the different clans or neighborhoods with a smattering of trustworthy and perhaps religious elders. They collect money, food, clothing, blankets, medications and other items of humanitarian aid for Palestinian brothers and sisters rising up in peaceful resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
As the coordinator for the Standing Committee on Arab Health Issues in Israel I found myself at center stage in this theater of activism with the whole world as audience. We called for a meeting of interested physicians, nurses and other health professionals and obtained a mandate to act at the national level to coordinate medically related humanitarian aid from our public to Palestinians in the oPt in their hour of need and glory. We do not only collect drugs per se but also receive some of the money collected by the various local committees to purchase required medical equipment and supplies, including basic medications such as analgesics, sedatives, chronic disease meds, antibiotics, and iron and multivitamins.
At the start I had the occasion to revive some contacts that I had made previously with a group in Jerusalem, the Union of Medical Relief Committees (UMRC). I had previously invited leaders of this group to attend our First Arab Health Conference in Nazareth in 1986, long before the Intifada. Since then we have known of each other but not much more. Now, with this most significant development for Palestinians on both sides of the green line, I found it appropriate to use the occasion to rekindle the spontaneously warm relationship between us. I called and invited myself to their headquarters in Jerusalem where I met again with their chairman, Dr. Mustafa Bargouthy, and his aids. From my above-mentioned public position, I made the offer of extending to them some assistance, even if token, both professionally and materially. The offer was graciously and thankfully accepted. I came back and alerted the SCAH to the opportunity of extending humanitarian assistance to our Palestinian brethren and sisters in the oPt and through our professional counterparts who are actively involved in providing medical relief to their Palestinian sick and injured and the challenge was accepted enthusiastically.
The UMRC has about a thousand professional members, over three hundred of them physicians trained by-and-large in the Soviet Union. The organization is quite active on the public relations front and maintains an extensive network of international contacts. They are very active at the community level as well, especially in the outlying villages. More recently, with the outbreak of the Intifada and the breakdown of what health care system there was under occupation as well as the inability of many of UNRWA’s medical facilities in the refugee camps to function, the UMRC and similar community-based bodies came into their own. They have become very active in the camps, in rural communities and in the inner cities as well. Following on the heels of the closure of communities by the Israeli armed forces or the imposition of curfew or, oftentimes, during such curfew periods, UMRC volunteers manage to enter the communities and offer emergency medical relief to the patients most in need and to the injured.
On our side we have been supplying them with some basic medications and first aid equipment and supplies. We do this openly and over the board as a humanitarian function that nobody really dares question. More recently we have been able to offer some assistance to a wider range of groups active in emergency health care other than UMRC. For example, UNRWA in Jerusalem and Gaza has asked us to supply them with spare oxygen tanks. The standard one oxygen tank per clinic arrangement is no longer adequate because of the greater need for oxygen and the difficulty they now face in replenishing the oxygen supply. With a single tank it has to be taken some distance to be refilled, a task often not possible because of curfews, closures and roadblocks. So we have provided them with dozens of spare oxygen tanks to distribute to their outlying clinics as they see fit. Another example is the Ahli hospital in Gaza that, much like the hospitals in Nazareth, though it is a missionary hospital, functions as a community hospital. It is the only community hospital available to the population of Gaza and the surrounding areas for providing first aid to the Intifada wounded or carrying out needed surgical procedures. Palestinian youth feel safe seeking help there. This is unlike the situation in the Shifa government hospital whose attendance is extremely limited because all patients are reported regularly to the Israeli military authorities who are responsible for running it. Obviously, any injured person does not want his or her name to appear on the hospital’s daily roster. No such registration is maintained at the Ahli hospital or at any of the several active volunteer community medical facilities. All is done clandestinely and false names and addresses are provided if at all. The injured are given first aid instantly and clear the seen to be followed up at home. The Ahli hospital management has issued an appeal for some equipment and supplies. We supplied them with ten thousand shekels worth of sutures for example.
The Ahli management had also issued an appeal for assistance to install an elevator in their surgical department. The hospital was built in 1920 and since then that department with its three stories has been without a lift. Patients are carried up and down the stairs bodily on stretchers. My wife and I happened to witness how this is done on one occasion when we were visiting there, courtesy of a friend at the Gaza UNRWA office. The patient, after being operated on the ground floor, had to be taken to his bed on the second floor. Four orderlies stood at the bottom of the stairs, yelled loudly “clear the stairs, a patient is coming up” and charged up full speed with the stretcher and the post-op unconscious patient on their shoulders, apparently confident that no other patient would be carried down the stairs that same instant. I thought their plan to install a lift in the surgical department was a logical and justifiable one. Unfortunately, so far I have not been able to convince anyone on this side of the green line to donate the needed money. Everyone I have discussed the subject with wanted something that is more directly related to the immediate needs of those involved in the Intifada, be it oxygen needed for people exposed to tear gas and poisonous materials used by the Israeli forces, needles and sutures to saw up Intifada wounds, or first aid salves and bandages to dress them. The important thing is that their donations are used to provide items directly used for intifada participants short of arms, arms being banned by the leaders of the intifada. Mysteriously, one generous donor offered to buy us a sacksful of onions. I hadn’t known till then the beneficial effect of onion juice for eyes exposed to teargas. [As the man said, it is all relative: I have read that in Gaza they now use a mixture of cow manure and sugar to propel their missiles.]
What is striking is the overwhelming readiness of members of our public, men and women, old and young, to donate blood if only our brothers and sisters in the oPt would accept it. We have to remember that this comes from a group known in Israel to be particularly problematic when it comes to donating blood, so much so that health education programs have been specifically devised targeting Arab schools on the topic. But how effective is health education against rampant rumors that blood donations in Israel go mainly to the IDF?
Apparently the local response to calls for blood donations in the oPt is such that it precludes any need for such donations from our side. In fact, early on, the head of Al-Maqassid hospital in Jerusalem allowed few busloads from our side to arrive and donate blood merely as a token of solidarity. He was clearly doing us a favor when he instructed his blood bank staff to give us first priority in donating blood. That way we can be satisfied that we have participated in an active and direct way; one’s conscience can rest assured that he or she had shared in bearing the ‘blood burden’ of the uprising. People want to pay this ‘blood tax’ and to feel that they are actual participants in this Intifada, the ‘shaking off’ of the Israeli occupation. We have managed to take few groups from this side to visit there and to see where their donations went.
My colleague, TS, is actively involved in this matter at the local level in his village. He was gloating to me about the large donations of milk from local Israeli suppliers including Tnuva, the national Israeli quasi-governmental milk industry giant, and including a kibbutz-based producer of infant milk formula. In both cases, apparently stocks approaching their expiration date were donated to him by his contacts from the Mapam party, the leftist Zionist party in which he is active at election time. This is an election year and Mapam must think that in this manner it may secure some Arab votes. So every time I speak to him in person or on the phone, he pipes up about how many liters of this grade milk his group had delivered to Qalqilia, how many cartons of infant formula they have transported to Tulkarim, how he had just finished convincing this official in that Israeli institution to give him a cut off rate on these materials, etc. etc. Somehow he gets so carried away and forgets that he is acting strictly as part of the system. It gets to be embarrassing in the presence of Palestinian activists who are calling for boycotting all Israeli products while this guy, my friend, is spouting off about his conquests and the loot of goods with nearly expired dates.
At least in terms of medical supplies and drugs we have managed from the start to avoid such pitfalls saying to recipients of our assistance: “Look guys! You have your own local suppliers. You fax us a list, we order it for you from your own supplier and cover the cost. It also avoids the very tough task of delivering the materials physically to their destination. This opens the way for possible graft. Therefore we spend much time on verifying the deliveries and the prices and the like.
The boycott movement in the oPt is catching on despite the difficulty it involves. Intellectuals and leaders of the Intifada are serious about it and several have been jailed by Israeli forces for holding meetings in which self-dependence techniques such as rooftop gardens and rabbit hutches are explained and advocated. [Here were the seeds of the BDS, now a worldwide movement.]
There are several groups who prefer to act in parallel with us, the National Relief Committee, as the intermediaries between their local population and some preferred community or institution in the oPt. Sometimes the link is through a family connection or through political party affiliation or whatever. The Nazareth Local Relief Committee, for example, has decided to act on its own. It is headed by several heavyweight and well-recognized community leaders. Who am I to butt in on their turf? They have gone to Gaza with a good amount of collected donations and managed to buy and distribute a considerable amount of medical and food supplies through the good offices of the local member organization of the World Council of Churches there. Dr. Sami Geraisy, head of the Middle East section of the WCC, led the group and they met various active groups and institutions, such as the Red Crescent Society, UNRWA and the Ahli hospital.
When I visited there with another delegation we were received and thoroughly briefed by three prominent local figures: the head of UNRWA’s medical services in the Gaza strip, the head of the local branch of the WCC and Dr. Haider Abd-el-Shafi, the solid community leader and head of the Red Crescent Society. Dr. Abd-el-Shafi had been strongly recommended to us by colleagues at the UMRC as one of the most experienced and best-informed medical professionals in Gaza. I found him to be quite clear-headed about his vision of the future, competent and experienced as a health professional, a sympathetic father figure even for me at fifty and a confidence-inspiring pillar of the community, a natural leader if I ever saw one in Palestine.
December 10, 1989:
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the Intifada. The Israeli armed forces are getting even more aggressive and brutal in their desperate attempts to control what goes on in the oPt. The chief of staff declares that if he were to try to control the Intifada one hundred percent he will not have an army left. On the Palestinian side, life goes on with the Intifada becoming an integral part of it. NGOs, local committees and volunteerism have taken root replacing the Israel-imposed civil administration in people’s mind.
This all has had a significant impact on our status within Israel as well. An example I am happy to report is the new development for us at the Galilee Society in accessing funding from the EC, the first such precedence for any NGO in Israel. The Dutch organization ICCO, has submitted a proposal on our behalf to the EC using my argument that we, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as a group, represent an underdeveloped enclave within the developed country of Israel. Therefore an exception should be made in our case and we should be supported directly on that basis and not through bilateral aid to Israel, since that automatically excludes us and its benefits hardly ever trickle down to our communities. In promoting our cause to EC officials we flaunted our significant role in working with Palestinian NGOs active in the Intifada. And lo and behold, the argument stuck. I suspect that the current level of world awareness of the term ‘Palestinian’ and of the distress signals sent by the Intifada somehow fed into this decision in such a way that it worked to our advantage. Apparently EC officials at the Directorate General for Development and at the Political DG both discussed our project proposal and approved it in principle. This is a very significant gain in strategic terms. It gives us a glimpse of hope. We can build on this initial gain for further reaching out to the international circles. And everyone will recognize us when we call ourselves ‘Palestinian,’ thanks to the Intifada.
I suspect this has been my secret plan all along. We at the Galilee Society have managed well at the local level within the Palestinian community in Israel. There is little space for us to gain favor at the larger national level. We have no chance of being accepted for what we are, of being granted any leeway, as long as we do not plan to sell out or to turn to party politics, another form of selling out the way I see things. When you get to the level of Israel as a nation, the Palestinian minority does not place at all in the leadership’s consciousness or plans except as a negative variable, as a problem to avoid or to overcome if you have to face up to it at all. We can’t possibly build on that. Therefore, the next level for our growth and development has to be the international community. The logical thing is to bypass the national arena and go from the local level directly to the international one. That is what I have been trying to achieve consciously in the decade since I hit on the idea of establishing a nongovernmental organization: to internationalize our issues as a large national minority. This first recognition by the EC bureaucracy did not come out of thin air; I have been attempting to do that for the last four years; I have stopped at the EC Brussels headquarters twice before for that purpose; and I alerted ICCO to the specific aid item in the EC budget that could be targeted on our behalf. Now the atmosphere is just right, thanks to the awareness-raising effect of the intifada On behalf of all of us Palestinians. The iconic images of ‘the children of the stone’ have reflected positively on us as well. The EC precedence is very significant, and we plan to make a big media event of it once we have the money in the bank and the decision cannot be rescinded.”
The Intifada, Arabic for shaking oneself awake and clean of accumulated shag and dirt, seemed to work both ways: On Israel’s side and at the public policy level, an attempt was made to stem off the wave of NGOs that sprouted across the civil society landscape of the Palestinian minority in Israel like mushrooms after a blessed rain. It took the enlistment of Jewish human rights organizations in Israel and, through them, the pressure of hundreds of American, mostly Jewish, academicians and legal experts to shelf a Knesset law proposal that would have put the fate of NGOs at the mercy of the local police chief in each district. (In the oPt, military ordinances to that effect were already on the books, of course.) Had the law been approved, the ground had already been prepared for the closure of the Galilee Society with accusation of suspect funding resources abroad, the accusation coming from two well-connected journalists in a book about the Intifada.
At the personal level, at about the same time as the Madrid Conference, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Minister of Health at the time, personally interfered to terminate any association I still had with his ministry. “Good riddance,” I was able to say then. Not now! There are laws and draft laws about how ‘Israel’s Arabs’ should feel and think. And their civil society leaders better learn their lesson from Ameer Makhoul, one of my friends in the current generation of activists who reached out and attained prominence in international circles. He sits in jail serving ten years for the alleged treason of divulging information to enemies of the state, information that you and I can find on Google Maps at the touch of a button.
How many times need my friend repeat: “It is all relative?” Israel is a Jewish and Democratic state, you see! If you don’t like it, find yourself an Arab and democratic state if you can. Did I hear you say Saudi Arabia? Or Qatar?