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.
The beginning of the First Intifada left an indelible impression on me. I can see myself watching the first initial television footage of young people throwing stones against the Israeli army. This image has never left me.
My late husband, Edward, and I were in Europe, where he had been invited to participate in a meeting in Geneva. I remember vividly that we switched on the TV in the morning to watch the news and suddenly a “Breaking News” ticker flashed on the screen. Images of young Palestinians throwing stones appeared as the correspondent described what was happening. We were both taken by surprise, as the protests looked entirely spontaneous. When we went down to have breakfast we saw our Palestinian friends and acquaintances, all of whom were part of the group attending the meeting. The participants were a microcosm of the Palestinian experience. Some had come from the occupied Palestinian territories, some were Israeli citizens, and the rest were all living in exile in the Arab countries and elsewhere in the world.
What was happening was unbelievable, a welcome surprise. And even a joy. Everybody was elated and remarking on the courage of those rising against oppression and the brutal occupation. Unarmed civilians – mostly young people – whose political, civil and human rights have been repeatedly violated for 40 years, were expressing their feelings and anger in a new and powerful way.
Do you know what the word intifada means? It is translated as “a shaking off.” It comes from the root nafada, which means getting rid of excess. The word symbolizes the actions and aspirations of those Palestinians trying to free themselves of the burdens of military occupation.
There was very little information about what sparked the uprising and Edward of course was very interested to find out more about what was happening. We wondered whether someone was behind it all? Edward kept asking questions and he even called a few friends with knowledge on the ground. The popular nature and non-violent core of the Intifada were novel developments in the history of the Palestinian struggle through that period.
I think first and foremost the Intifada helped to mobilize younger generations of both Palestinians and Arabs. They were jolted and woke up to a new reality. They realized for the first time that people under occupation can be a force to be reckoned with and should not be discounted. Also for the first time in the history of the conflict all Palestinians, regardless of place of residence, felt they are in this together. The First Intifada united all Palestinians – those of the Diaspora, those inside Israel, and those under occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza.
It was also the first time that the Palestinians inside Israel voiced their support. They led a strike in solidarity with the people of the intifada.
The First Intifada gave us hope. Everybody thought this was the turning point. You have to remember that before the Intifada erupted the Palestinian national movement had reached an impasse. The PLO had been forced out of Lebanon in 1982, creating a big disruption and much confusion in the movement. Despite the plurality of factions and their advisors, Arafat was still in command, the PLO was still alive, and that was about it. The First Intifada served as the impetus for the historic 1988 Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers, leading to the issuance of a declaration of independence of Palestine, authored by the late Mahmoud Darwish and my husband.
I also recall that the First Intifada made Edward very proud of the young Palestinians. He was a positive man, and instantly understood what was happening to be new and creative. The Intifada took the Israelis by surprise too, eliciting a type of knee-jerk hyper violent response, underscored by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s pledge to “break their bones” with “force, might, and beatings.”
Edward also considered the First Intifada as a challenge by the shabab to the Israeli leadership. He said, there was a time when prominent Israeli military and political figures would describe Palestinians as two legged beasts, as nonexistent, as cockroaches. The response that came was: “You’re trying to humiliate us, but we are a people. We have feelings, we are resisting, and we are standing up to you.” People began to hope and think of a better future.
There were other great effects of the First Intifada. Most importantly, it sent a message to the PLO and the leadership that the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and those in Israel have essential roles to play in the Palestinian national movement.
I think the real lesson is one should never take anything for granted. I think that the Israelis had developed a belief that, despite the occasional flare-up of conflict, ultimately the Palestinians will eventually just give up in the face of superior military force. Most Arab leaders also refused to take the Palestinians’ claims seriously, preferring to use them cynically for political advantage. But both the Arab leaders and the Israelis learnt how powerful a politically isolated and unarmed people could be when united toward a common goal.
You can see the echoes and trajectory of the first Intifada in the ongoing Arab uprisings. While they all have their faults and missteps, the risings in the Arab world all speak to the strength of the people in overcoming unbalanced odds and violent oppression in the name of freedom. While the Israelis continue to treat every Palestinian act of resistance as terrorism by employing disproportionate force, eventually their tactics will backfire on them. To me that is the great lesson of the First Intifada.