This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
Looking back from today’s vantage point leads one to affectionately remember the first Palestinian “Intifada” as “the good old days.” After all, it pre-dated the violent second Intifada, the Apartheid Wall, the disastrous Oslo Accords, and so much more. For me, the journey into the first Intifada began with my family’s arrival in Cyprus in mid-November, 1987, as I began a sabbatical that I assumed would be spent writing a book and volunteering for the Middle East Council of Churches.
As soon as we arrived at our apartment, the kids turned on the television and we were amazed (in the pre-cable and pre-satellite era) we could pick up stations from Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, and Beirut. I was eager to see how these varied perspectives would cover the Arab Summit underway in Amman. The Egyptian station observed that when Yasser Arafat arrived at the Amman airport, there was no official delegation to meet him, a serious insult in the Arab world. Moreover, the issue of Palestine had fallen to the very bottom of the Summit agenda. That’s the way it was in November, 1987.
Palestinian woman outside Gaza’s Ansar II prison camp
(Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
Everything changed on December 8th when an truck plowed into a group of poor Palestinian laborers, who had lined up for menial day-jobs in Israel. Most Palestinians believed this was a deliberate act of revenge after an Israeli was stabbed two days earlier. It was actually the spark that unleashed pent up anger that was channeled into tremendous creativity after twenty-two years of military occupation. Immediately, massive demonstrations erupted across the Gaza Strip and spread immediately to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Israel responded with the usual brutal force, sending the Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF, which was trained for military combat), to attack small and large demonstrations comprised mainly of youth throwing stones. As the casualty rates mounted among the Palestinians, the western media parroted the familiar Israeli narratives that pitted the tiny Jewish State defending itself against the violent Arab masses. By late December, the MECC decided to send me to the Palestinian territories for the month of January to assess how they might respond.
Arriving in East Jerusalem, one could see and feel how the air itself seemed to breathe a new spirit of confidence and defiance. IDF patrols seemed to be everywhere but they were regularly confronted by the “Shebab,” groups of young men and occasionally women, who seemed utterly fearless. The “Intifada” was beginning to capture the imagination of most Palestinian factions, religious communities, and I sensed an emerging unity that had not been evident in my ten years of regular visits.
The contagious energy generated by the “Intifada” was guided, at least in part, by an anonymous, underground leadership. It took several weeks for the PLO hierarchy in Tunis to catch up with events. The underground leadership issued “bayans”, or directives at least weekly. I recall having my morning coffee with friends and discussing the new “bayan” that was slid under the door or posted on the windshield in the middle of the night. Multiple strategies were spelled out, including boycotting all Israeli products, organizing local relief committees, marches commemorating an important date in Palestinian history, tax revolts, and rotating store closures. Like clockwork, Jerusalem merchants might be told to close their doors at noon, Bethlehem at 1 pm, Ramallah at 2 pm, etc. If shopkeepers did not comply, the “shabab” would pay them a visit.
But there was a dark side as well. Casualties mounted and the “shabab” carried the brunt of the IDF abuse, with exceedingly high numbers who were martyred or seriously wounded. When Israeli Defense Minister Itzhak Rabin called for “beatings and the breaking of bones,” the “Shabab” were the main targets. Shortly after Rabin’s declaration, the Red Cross and Red Crescent documented the case was of three young men who were buried alive by the IDF after a demonstration in Jericho, supposedly as a warning to future protestors.
A meeting with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Director of the Union of Medical Relief Committees, revealed another important dimension of the first “Intifada.” Barghouti described the Medical Relief Committees that were being organized not only in cities but in all refugee camps and remote villages. Their primary role was to provide medicine, food, and humanitarian services to those in need. Over 1000 medical professionals volunteered their services, including over 300 trained physicians. Mobile clinics were sent out to replenish the medicine and when requested, medical teams were deployed with nurses and physicians. The Local Relief Committees were a vital component of the grass-roots mobilization and support of the “Intifada. “
After two weeks in the West Bank, we drove down to the Gaza Strip where the energy and level of organization was equally impressive. I was staying with a human rights field-worker from Jabaliyeh refugee camp who drove me around crowded refugee camps and cities in the northern part of the Strip. Small bands of youth seemed to rise up throughout the crowded streets, confronting the IDF patrols a barrage of rocks or taunting them by flying kites with the colors of the Palestinian flag—which were illegal according to military regulations. The youth were chased or attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets (steel ball-bearings covered by rubber). They were fearless in their provocative games of confrontation and retreat. Again, the sobering aspect included visits with wounded young men, teen-agers, and children 12 and under in Shifa and Ahli hospitals. Upon arriving at Ahli Hospital, we saw my friend Dr. Swee Ang, all 4’11” of her, chasing three IDF soldiers out of the operating wing where they attempted to seize a young boy who was about to undergo surgery. Dr. Swee had served in the refugee camps during the Sabra/Shatila massacre and wasn’t about to put up with the IDF behavior. Returning from Shifa Hospital, we passed several IDF patrols and noticed a demonstration in front of a new mosque. Strangely, the IDF patrols completely ignored the protest. I asked my host why this was the case and he said: “Oh, it’s a new Muslim group called Hamas, and we suspect there might be some connection between them and Israel.”
Returning to Jerusalem, I met with Faisel Husseini and his staff at Orient House in East Jerusalem. Faisel was recognized as a key leader in the Jerusalem district and had gained the respect of all the factions. I was impressed with his vision for a disciplined, sustained, non-violent movement that needed the support of the international community. Faisel and I had signed an agreement a year earlier between his Palestine Information Center and our Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the U.S. He had hired and trained eight human rights field workers who were deployed throughout Palestine, and directed by Dr. Jan Abu-Shakrah in Jerusalem. Our Chicago office, directed by Dr. Louise Cainkar, received and organized the reports, sometimes daily, on the dead, wounded, and of the extensive human rights violations. Their work became a staple of reliable information for a broad network of journalists, academics, attorneys, human rights organizations, and NGOs.
In retrospect, there are many legacies of the first Intifada that might be mentioned, but let me highlight two. The first observation is the power of organized, persistent, non-violent resistance. The 2004 call by Palestinian civil society to employ boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, including humanitarian flotillas and other creative challenges to Israeli power appears to be gaining momentum throughout Europe and North America. As more campus organizations, church bodies, and secular movements take up the call to boycott products made in Israeli settlements and move toward divestment, a movement for justice in Palestine is emerging. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, American Muslims for Palestine, and Students for Justice in Palestine, are beginning to cooperate using grass-roots organizing around these non-violent campaigns. In time, Israel will feel the pressure if the movement can expand significantly.
A second observation is the absolute importance of unifying our efforts on peace and justice. The unity of Palestinian factions, classes, and popular organizations broke down at points but was sustained for over four years. We are beginning to see some modest signs of unity emerging among secular and faith based groups, however embryonic it may be. If a broad based movement can be organized and sustained in North America and Europe, not only would it be a first, but it could have a far reaching impact.
A final lesson from the first Intifada was how it ended. The first Intifada forced Israel and the international community to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership was seduced by the illusion of peace and the false promises of the Oslo Accords. The power of grass-roots resistance was lost, perhaps in part by four to five years of exhausting sacrifice, but also because everyone’s hopes shifted to support the negotiations. Perhaps the lesson here is to remain suspicious of negotiations, expect little, and keep the pressure on both Israel and the leadership, both in Palestine and globally. Perhaps there is no better component for a just peace than a unified and sustained grass roots international justice movement for justice in Palestine, both inside the Palestinian territories, one day within Israel, and globally, with no let up until there is a sovereign Palestinian state.