This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
Growing up, Gaza was a place like any other. But then that changed one summer.
I was three when my family left Rafah. We moved to different countries for the next ten years, but we went back frequently. Most of the time we stayed at the modest house my parents built in Tal Al Sultan. When my father couldn’t travel with us we bided at my grandfather’s home in the Brazil camp. You reached it by dragging along a sand road that was good at trapping heavy vehicles or old Mercedes taxis. The structure itself was a one-story affair with two or three bedrooms that were added on as the decades wore on. The bathroom had been built separately in the yard in the 1960s or 70s I think. It’s all gone now; the Israelis demolished the house in October of 2003.
Most of my time was spent playing with my brother and other children in the sandy alleyway just outside the front gate. But sometimes for a thrill we’d sneak to the nearest intersection to catch a glimpse of the Yahud, or Jews, in their terrifying jeeps. I used to marvel at the arc-strapped antennas – for whatever reason that impressed me.
A Palestinian woman outside Gaza’s Ansar II prison camp, January 8, 1988.
(Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
I knew that the Israelis were the bad guys but as a six-year-old I didn’t really know why. It seemed natural to me that they patrolled our streets. I also knew about the mana’ a tajawwol, or curfew, and I had a vague sense that I could get hurt if I was out there. On some nights bangs or pops would come to us over our cinder block walls and I’d be glad that I was inside. But I really had no choice since my mother was protective. Her brother had been shot while participating in a demonstration. He survived but was imprisoned for several years.
That summer, I think it was in 1989, the violence transformed for me. It went from being terrifying, basically-imagined play to being real and just terrifying.
A group of older boys down the street were lobbing rocks at an Israeli jeep. I couldn’t see the vehicle since it was around a corner. From what I remember the older kids would engineer the encounters that way so they could pop in and out of the line-of-sight or over walls if they were charged. On that particular afternoon the Israeli troops did charge – and they caught one of the boys. I watched from a distance as they beat and brutalized him before I too ran away home.
It has been about twenty years since the Intifada ended. This a good time to appraise its achievements and failures, its promise and betrayal.
The series of mass protests, civic resistance actions and strikes that began in 1987 succeeded fantastically in uniting the Palestinians in their opposition to occupation. In the Occupied Territories, they empowered themselves – a unique phenomenon in the history of the Arab world – and simultaneously threatened to disempower a distant leadership. The Lebanon-borne despair that shredded the hopeful sails of the 1970s was transformed into a deep, action-oriented collective movement for freedom. For their part, the Israelis began to learn about the true offensiveness of their entire project in Palestine (something that Zionists are still learning about today).
The mistakes of the past are legion. We learned that the Israeli leadership was craftier than we had anticipated. We trusted the Americans – foolishly. And perhaps most painfully, Palestinian leaders came up short – on strategic vision, on integrity, on principles and dedication.
It is easy to regard the Intifada wistfully in light of the calamity that followed. Instead, Palestine activists have regarded it as a learning opportunity – and a blueprint for the type of struggle that could lead to the eventual emancipation of the Palestinians.
Some of the methods that arose during the Intifada have been employed by activists like Omar Barghouti and the leaders of the BDS movement. The focus on grassroots activism, boycotts and education has been internalized and internationalized in the most hopeful way. Similarly, the Popular Committees in various West Bank hamlets operate in largely independent, but loosely coordinated, ways. The popular nature of the protests makes them costly and immeasurably difficult to extinguish – something successive apartheid governors of the Palestinian Territories have learned.
The Palestinians also mostly recognize that the source of their power is the moral force of their cause. Many now know that unarmed resistance to Israel and North American Zionism is their best strategic option at this (penultimate, or close to it?) stage in their struggle. Many also recognize that the strategy is most forcefully deployed across any tactical landscape (Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora) by a unified people.
We are now closer to genuine Palestinian reconciliation than we have been for years – Fatah will be celebrating its foundational anniversary in Gaza on January 4th – which is something that deserves the support of even the most (justifiably) cynical activists. Palestinian liberation requires Palestinian unity; it’s an indispensable condition.
The slowest lesson to learn – or perhaps the most difficult to actualize against – has been that local governments that coordinate with Israel only serve Israel. Today there is no good way for the Palestinians to rid themselves of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, the shortest path to the end of official Palestinian participation in Zionist oppression appears to be through a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, maybe. But even in that scenario, the Palestinians may find that they’ve traded one tyrannical sub-type for another (particularly if Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is relied upon as a viable model for political Islam). At this stage we can only remain vigilantly watchful in anticipation of that kind of development.
Twenty-five years after the start of the Intifada and twenty years after it ended the Palestinians find that their basic, morally unassailable aspirations have not been fulfilled. They find that their forty-year detour from the equal-rights struggle has been a wasteful expenditure of lives, potential and energy. They find that their leaders must be taught to lead and that their near future will bear the grimness of their long past.
They also find that their basic strategy was the right one – and that that knowledge informs their purpose – so that finally, they find in themselves a source of hope.