Iyad Rishmawi appears to be an older respectable kind of gentleman, balding, neatly dressed, but the guy clearly has a sense of humor. He wants to talk about the First Intifada from the point of view of the people rather than the politicians, but first he wants to show us a documentary film, “The Wanted Eighteen.”
It seems that in 1987, the people of Beit Sahour wanted to protect 18 cows so their children could have milk during the Intifada. They established a cow farm, represented in the film by cute cartoon cows with very human expressions. Real human old men tell the story of the cows, “We can produce our own milk if we have cows.” When the first calf was born, people were thrilled and celebrated as if it was a firstborn child. Now the 19 cows made the Israelis unhappy because they symbolized Palestine self sufficiency. A large Israeli force took pictures of the cattle farm, pictures of each cow, threatened the men, and told them they had 24 hours to shut down the farm or the place would be demolished. The men were told, “Those cows are a serious threat to the national security of Israel!!” (I am not kidding! Really!) So the people of Beit Sahour decided to hide their cows in different homes, basements, wherever it was possible (not an easy task as you might imagine) and people who knew nothing about cows or milking took the animals into their homes and figured it out. Israeli troops and helicopters were sent in looking for the cows but they could not find them. It became patriotic to protect the cows from the IDF and the cows obviously agreed because they continued to produce milk. Bottles of milk were distributed secretly from house to house despite curfews and incursions and the milk kept coming. The IDF searched for four years and never found the animals and the people of Beit Sahour stood proud, with a feeling of dignity and accomplishment. A true story of bovine resistance.
When we got over chuckling, Iyad made some serious points which I will focus on here. The First Intifada was a spontaneous, public mass movement of the entire community; a tipping point that started in 1948 and finally exploded in 1987. He reminds us that Ilan Pappe wrote that the Israeli generals in the 1950s called the War of Independence, “the incomplete war,” so the ’67 War and the seizing of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem had been on the to do list for a long time. After 1967, Iyad asks, “What kind of practices would Israel take, given that our memories have not faded about ’48?” The Intifada was the answer to all the Palestinian questions.
“Why are they making hell for us, business, life, so many difficulties, permits, drivers license multiple permits. You must be cleared by intelligence service, true for phone line, or if want to start business. Then value added tax.” The Israelis made selective use of Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and international laws and if there was no law they needed, they issued a military order that became law.
At the end of day, people were fed up and couldn’t live under these conditions. He explains that he established the first pharmacy in Beit Sahour and it took ten years to get a phone line, because the intelligence service would not give approval. All these measures were to complete the incomplete war and Palestinians responded with, enough is enough; no to occupation! Iyad states that Palestinians must restore their pride; Israelis cannot make peace with slaves.
Beit Sahour was an important center for popular resistance. There was a unified leadership in the First Intifada, made up of all the factions of the PLO except religious movements. There were weekly leaflets explaining activities and Palestinians responded positively, forming neighborhood committees. Despite the central leadership there was a high level of democracy.
In 1988 there was a call to stop paying taxes to Israel and 90% of the population responded. Iyad was involved and was rounded up with three other pharmacists, arrested, taken to military headquarters in Ramallah and then to military court for ten days. After his arrest, the tax revolt started and he was arrested a few more times. In 1989 there was a major attack on Beit Sahour. Tax collectors and soldiers removed everything from people’s homes. When they came for his pharmacy, there was nothing to take, so they went to his house and took everything. He refused to be bribed to get his possessions back. He recalled a lady ran after the soldiers, yelling that they forgot something. When they stopped, she threw the TV remote at them.
Iyad talked about how the IDF demands to see IDs first and if you do not follow orders, they will not return your ID. The people of Beit Sahour started bringing all their IDs and throwing them onto the table of the military governor. Iyad was there. He called friends in Jerusalem and in one hour, TV stations, CNN, NBC, piled into Beit Sahour. He was translating for reporters and by 4 pm, thousands and thousands of people had gathered in front of massive piles of IDs. The military governor sent soldiers around 5 pm, the army surrounded the town and all the streets full of people. When the soldiers arrived, Iyad noted special squads, headed by a military deputy who told the people to go home. But the people sat down, no stones were thrown, and the deputy was stuck, so the deputy ordered his soldiers to start beating people, using tear gas, putting people in prison and administrative detention. He smiles, “But they never figured out the leaders.” Iyad’s son adds this was a rare instance for Beit Sahour when Israelis were reacting rather than Palestinians. At all levels of society there was a feeling of dignity. He boasted in school that his father was in prison and his little sister tried to break curfew a few hours later. She wanted to go into the street, to get arrested to see father. I am reminded that some Israeli official recently remarked, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”
Because the goal was to break the people’s will, their pride and dignity were the biggest threats, so that even intelligent resistance was intolerable. Thousands were killed, mostly children. Iyad recalled one child was shot for writing graffiti. Another innocent young man was caught by two soldiers who shot him point blank with rubber bullets and he died.
In 1988 the Rapprochement Center was established when 35 Israeli families came to visit Beit Sahour. “We celebrated breaking bread, not bones. Accepting the other was part of us.”
Iyad clearly mourns for those days, “That feeling is now gone. Today is totally different, we had hope and dignity then, we believe in what we are doing and we are right, behaving according to humanitarian law, we are here to exist and not meant to harm your existence. This was part of inner feeling…Today we are not like that, internal unity within community is gone. We moved back to a tribal system of community, reactions for self protection of each family.”
When we asked him if he saw signs of hope, he thought long and hard but the inspiration in his voice was missing. Clearly the struggle has changed and the people have experienced several more decades of oppressive occupation with all of its negative consequences. I suspect that it is time for younger generations to bring their creativity and steadfastness to the forefront and time to internationalize resistance as well. This time, in our global community, it is clear we are all responsible.