The first intifada in the context of Palestinian history

This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.”

Ever since the early ethnic cleansings of 1947-48, the Palestinian people have suffered from the linked horrors of dispossession, dislocation, the breakup of families and communities, and the dispersal of communities and even of different family members among different jurisdictions, often with little or no easy way to reconstitute families or even to conduct normal family visitations.

These facts of dislocation and dispersal have had a huge impact on the Palestinian people’s ability to conduct anything resembling the “normal” political life of a nation still centered in its own homeland (as, too, on their ability to have “normal” family lives.) The Palestinian national movement, in its post-Nakba incarnation, grew up first and foremost among the Palestinians refugee communities—whether those inside the historic homeland (in Gaza or the West Bank), those in the surrounding Arab countries, or those in the Arab countries of the Gulf. In the post-1948 period, the pre-eminent national movement Fateh was first incubated in Gaza, more than two-thirds of whose population was made up, then as now, of refugees. Gaza has always, until today, been a central engine of the nationalist movement whether in its more secular-nationalist form (Fateh), its more Islamist form (Hamas), or its more Arab-nationalist form (the PFLP). Of course it was no accident that the First Intifada was first sparked in Gaza. But let’s go back a little to see what the impact of that development was.

Fateh’s founding fathers all engaged in their first nationalist activism either in Gaza or in the emerging Arab state-lets of the Gulf (primarily Kuwait and the emirates that later became the UAE.) The unifying slogan of those activists was always that of “Return”, and the means they chose were based on the population-based armed struggles waged by Algeria’s FLN or the Chinese Communists. However, they always found it hard to gain any solid foothold for their armed struggle inside historic Palestine. Until 1967, Gaza was tightly policed by the Egypt, and the West Bank by Jordan–which had also formally annexed it back in 1949. Both those states acted ruthlessly against any Palestinian militants who might want to “spark” a war across their respective ceasefire (armistice) lines with Israel—and against any unarmed Palestinian-nationalist organizations whose ranks might incubate such militants. So the founders of Fateh and the PFLP and its Arab nationalist precursors and affiliates found it very hard to organize in either Gaza or the West Bank. Fateh’s founders spent most of their time organizing amongst the sizeable populations of Palestinian professionals and workers in the Gulf countries, instead.

The 1967 war brought the expansion of Israel’s control over the West Bank, Gaza, all of Sinai, and Golan—and also, a new wave of Israeli expulsions of Palestinians from the West Bank to the East Bank of Jordan. Sentiments of Palestinian-nationalist grief and outrage ran high among all diaspora Palestinians, particularly those in the vast refugee camps of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Palestinian refugees from those countries flocked in the hundreds of thousands to Fateh and the other guerrilla organizations. The Arab states, which many Palestinians had previously hoped would somehow “deliver” their return, were now completely discredited.

Jordan had always been conceived of by the British as a sort of holding pen for Palestinians who were unwanted in the area that became Israel—a quintessential Bantustan, established long before the Apartheid regime in South Africa had even coined that term. (It was also designed as a substitute sinecure/tax-farm for the Hashemite carpet-baggers whose promised tenure in Damascus the British had been unable to secure…) By 1969-70, the Palestinian guerrilla movements had come close to challenging the Hashemites’ grip on power in Amman. That had not been the intent of the Fateh leaders, though it was of the Arab nationalists. Regardless of those leaders’ intentions, in 1970 King Hussein judged he needed to clamp down hard on the guerrillas. Washington and Tel Aviv also urged him to move. In ‘Black September’ of 1970 and for the six months that followed his army hunted them down. Many of the guerrilla survivors ended up in Lebanon which then in turn became the epicenter of their struggle. They became deeply entangled in the civil war that erupted in Lebanon in April 1975 and continued for many years. Israel was always a powerful player in that fighting, intervening sometimes openly (as it did in 1978 and 1982), and sometimes through well-armed local proxies.

The single most dramatic Israeli intervention was the large-scale invasion of Lebanon that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon orchestrated in 1982. After ten weeks of very damaging fighting, including a lengthy siege of West Beirut, he was able to force the leaders of Fateh and its allies in the PLO to conclude a ceasefire whose terms mandated their departure and that of their remaining armed followers from Beirut to destinations very far indeed from Israel—namely, Tunisia and Yemen.

That dispersal of the Palestinian guerrillas marked the definitive end of Fateh’s (never terribly well-grounded) hopes of “liberating” Palestine through the direct application of armed struggle. Some Palestinian groups, including a split-off from Fateh, did remain in place in Syria and in Syrian-occupied parts of Lebanon. But those “Palestinian” movements were always totally under the control of the Syrians and never had the ability to represent an independent Palestinian will.

The 1982 dispersal of the Fateh/PLO guerrillas from Beirut led to anguish and soul-searching among Palestinians inside the homeland. From 1948 through 1967, many of those Palestinians had entertained hopes that they could be “liberated” by Arab armies. Those hopes were dashed in 1967. Then, from 1967 through 1982, many hoped they might somehow be “liberated” by Fateh and its PLO allies. In 1982, those hopes were dashed in turn. The response, for people in many sectors of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza, was to start seriously to figure out how they might become the agents of their own liberation. The key, they realized, was through mass civilian organizing. Thus, throughout the five years following 1982 there was a steady growth in organizing activities in all sectors and at all levels: women’s organizations, labor unions, professional organizations, relief organizations, student movements—you name it.

In 1987, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza realized they had been living under Israel’s often draconian military occupation for twenty years. It felt like an inordinately long time.

The “spark” for the First Intifada—as for so many other seminal turning-points in Palestinian history—was lit in Gaza. But throughout all the cities and towns of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the tinder of massive popular resistance had been well prepared; and after that initial precipitating incident of road deaths on December 8, all the popular movements swung into action. Defying the orders of the Israeli commanders, the Palestinians staged huge public demonstrations and sit-ins. The Israelis countered with rubber-coated metal bullets, tear-gas, waves of baton-beatings, and mass arrests. Many forms of the resistance were carried out far from the eyes of the Israeli and Western MSM. One of the central forms of resistance used during the intifada was the commercial strike. From the very early weeks of the intifada, its leaders issued regular leaflets that laid out an entire calendar of events for the coming 2-4 weeks. In any given month, between three and eight days would be designated for strikes: Workers were called on to abstain from going to their jobs, business owners from opening their businesses; and students from going to school. The Israelis would respond by trying to force businesses to open by breaking the locks on their doors. Or, they would play cat-and-mouse with striking students by themselves ordering the closing of schools and colleges for lengthy periods of time. (Palestinian families responded by organizing classes in private homes.)

The entire population of Beit Sahour used the traditional Gandhian tactic of a tax-strike to protest the onerous system of taxes and expensive “permits” that the Israelis wielded against the whole population of the OPTs, and as an effective way to dissociate themselves from the occupation. After the Sahouris had refused to pay taxes for several months, Israeli forces raided their homes and businesses, stripping them of all their valuables—even home furnishings—which were taken to government warehouses and auctioned off to Israeli buyers. But still, the Sahouris did not cave.

The IDF’s response to the intifada was brutal and far-reaching. Dour, longtime warrior Yitzhak Rabin was the Defense Minister continuously from 1984 through 1990. He used massive force, including rubber-coated metal bullets, tear gas, home demolitions, mass arrests, and a deliberate policy of bone-breaking to try to break the will of protesters who were very frequently quite unarmed, or on occasion “armed” only with stones. And in many areas, there were curfews: mass, in-home lockdowns enforced by often deadly force, that would last from 8 pm through 7 am. In Gaza, the entire Palestinian population was locked down like that every night from 1987 until the conclusion of the Oslo Accord in 1993.

But oh, how different the OPTs’ geography was back then! During the First Intifada, a person could frequently find it easy to drive—in daytime–between Gaza and nearby Hebron. Or, from Jerusalem to Gaza. The drive from Jerusalem to Gaza took just over 45 minutes. When I would drive down with friends we would park the Jerusalem car (with its Israeli plates) in an abandoned chicken coop on the edge of Nahal Oz and take a short walk through low bushes over to “the Gaza side,” where a friend with a Gaza-plated car would be waiting. There was no fence, no barrier. Those would come after Oslo. Or, on all except the most tension-ridden days during the First Intifada, during the daytime you could easily drive—or take a servees—between all the great cities and towns of the West Bank: From Hebron to Beit Laham, to Jerusalem, to Ramallah/El-Bireh, to Nablus, and all points in between. The IDF or the “Border Patrol” might establish some flying roadblocks; and on occasion longer-lived ones that could last for weeks or months. But savvy Palestinians knew where to find them, and how to hike or drive round them.

In those days, occupied Jerusalem was the central organizing hub for nearly the whole intifada. Activists from the different cities and areas would convene there, hammer out their plans, and then communicate them through leaflets that would then be distributed throughout all the OPTs. The main secular coalition that issued leaflets was called the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU). It comprised representatives of Fateh, the PFLP, the DFLP, and the Palestinian Communist Party. In parallel with the UNLU, the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas issued its own set of instructions; and the much smaller Islamic Jihad wavered between joining the Hamas calls and issuing its own. Fairly soon, most Palestinian areas settled down into a rhythm of obeying both sets of calls—from the UNLU and from the Islamists. But crucially, all the organizations involved on the Palestinians side planned for this to be a longterm confrontation. They did not call for any “open-ended” strikes or other actions, but rather, dug in for the long haul.

Two notable political events marked the first year of the intifada. One was Israel’s assassination of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), who as head of Fateh’s networks in the West Bank as well of its military wing, was a key organizing point for Fateh’s whole participation in the intifada. Wazir was gunned down in his bedroom in Tunis, as he slept. He was very clearly neither in combat, nor directing it, at the time. Three years later—in January 1991—another historic leader of Fateh, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) would killed by one of his own bodyguards, while in Cairo. (The bodyguard had most likely been subverted by Saddam Hussein, and conducted the killing at his behest.) The killing of these two senior Fateh leaders left the mantle of leadership firmly and unchallengedly on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat, a man who was a master of small tactics but whose personal vanity and lack of any understanding of strategy would later bring the intifada to a paradoxical and ignominious end.

The other notable event of the first year was the public announcement that King Hussein made in mid-1988 that he relinquished any claim to represent, rule, or speak for the West Bank. That brought to an end 39 years in which the Hashemites claimed to do all three. It left Israel and its friends in Washington with no alternative but to find some form of Palestinian interlocutor with whom they could deal regarding the now-burning Palestinian question.

Their first thought—and one that was sustained for four years after King Hussein’s “abdication” from the Palestine Question—was to try to build up personalities from within the occupied territories to act as alternatives to the PLO. Hence there started a whole series of trips that U.S. diplomats made to East Jerusalem, where they would meet with figures like Faisal Husseini or Hanan Ashrawi in an attempt to persuade them to negotiate in the place of the PLO. But these individuals and everyone else associated with the intifada activists all remained adamant: They would not speak in the place of the PLO. They could convey messages to it from Washington or Tel Aviv; or they could convey the views of the PLO to those destinations. But they were not an alternative to the PLO: The Americans and Israelis should, they urged, deal directly with the PLO.

This struggle of wills was maintained even through the first months of the all-party peace talks that the Americans launched with the Madrid Conference, in October 1991. At that conference, the Palestinians were represented in a “joint” Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The chief Palestinian representative was the revered leftist social activist from Gaza, Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafei. Dr. Haidar and all the other Palestinians in the “joint” delegation continued to say they would not negotiate in the place of the PLO; the United States and Israel should deal with the PLO directly.

In spring 1993 (as became clear only later) the Israeli government—now led by Rabin as Prime Minister—started to do just that. That was the origin of the Oslo Accords, which were concluded directly between the Government of Israel and the PLO, and were signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

One early result of the Oslo Accords was that in May 1994, Yasser Arafat and all the other surviving members of the PLO leadership who accepted the Accords (some didn’t) were allowed to exercise, in a limited way, the “return” to their homeland for which they had fought for so long.

Oslo very speedily turned out to be a disaster for the Palestinians. Among its first results were that the various, Palestinian-populated parts of the OPTs were speedily walled off from each other. In 1994, a fence was put up around Gaza; and a rigorous ring of checkpoints was laid down around East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank more thoroughly than it had ever been cut off during the intifada. Meantime, a massive new highway system was built for the settlers; and the settlements started to grow throughout the West Bank faster than ever before.

But for many of the Palestinians of the OPTs, one of the worst effects of Oslo turned out to be something that they had fought for the hardest during the six years of the intifada: the “return” of the PLO leaders to Palestine. Arafat and his cohorts, once they did return, acted more thoroughly and more effectively than the Israelis had ever been able to, to dismantle the grassroots organizations and networks that had grown up in the OPTs over the preceding 20 years, and whose organizing strength had indeed—by powering the whole intifada—brought about his return!

Over the years that followed Oslo, the strong sense of disillusionment with which many OPTs Palestinians viewed those accords spilled over to color their views of the tactics they had used during the intifada. During my visits to the West Bank and Gaza since 1999 or so, I’ve heard many, many thoughtful Palestinians say with a sigh things like, “Well, the first intifada felt like it was a good thing at the time—but then, it brought us Oslo…”

When the second intifada came, in September 2000, the means used ended up being notably different from those used during the first intifada. But that is a different chapter of the Palestinian story.


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