Beyond the ‘war of stones’: Saga of the First Intifada

Palestinian Children Defend Against the Israeli Imperialists During the First Intifada in 1989

December 9 this year marked the 32nd anniversary of the First Intifada which broke out in the Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza, which, in 1987, had been under Israeli military occupation for 20 years.

The Intifada, meaning “shake off” in Arabic, was a mass uprising for Palestinian independence, which lasted for six years, in the course of which Israeli forces killed well over a thousand Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza, 237 whom were children, according to Israeli Human Rights organisation, B'Tselem. 

Over a hundred thousand were injured and around 175,000 Palestinians were locked up in jails, where torture was a common practice. Thousands of homes were destroyed in retribution. Olive trees and agricultural crops were that were crucial to feed the Palestinians were burnt, and water sources were redirected away from the besieged territories. 

These measures were consciously adopted by the Israeli occupation force to subject the Palestinian population to high levels of “unemployment and a shortage of land and water”, so that “we can create the necessary conditions for the departure of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza,” General Shlomo Gazit, Israel's former military intelligence chief, had said in 1988, one year into the uprising.

Having already evicted around 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland over which state of Israel was created in 1948, the Jewish state was reiterating its intention to capture the promised land by force. 

However, all the might of the Israeli army - with its tanks, bombs, armoured vehicles, detention camps and torture chambers - could not crush the uprising, whose foot soldiers were armed with no more than sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails.

Behind the foot soldiers, captured in the iconic images of teenagers hurling rocks at tanks and barricading the streets, there were in action a network of trade unions, youth organisations, women’s movements and neighbourhood committees, which formed the backbone of the uprising.

Author Phyllis Benis noted in Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer:

“Women’s, workers, medical, students, agricultural and community organisations took on new tasks--growing food in home and community gardens to replace the Israeli goods now being boycotted; guarding village streets at night with whistles to warn of soldiers on their way; mobile clinics to provide emergency medical help to villages or towns under curfew; tax protests; enforcement of... daily commercial strike that shut down Palestinian businesses at noon.”

The building of mass organisations before the uprising

These grass root organisations and trade unions had been built over the two decades by the left parties which - unlike the national leadership in exile headed by Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arrafat - had been actively working on the ground under military occupation.

“It is undoubtedly true to say that if the Palestinians of the two occupied areas had not had a rich experience in mass organizational work prior to December 1987, the political leadership would have issued its leaflets in vain and the eruption of early December would have been over within weeks or days,” noted Helena Cobban in an article in the Middle East Journal in 1990.

“In both the West Bank and Gaza, the communists held the longest record of support for the building of mass organisations. Communist-supported labour unions and various women's organisations had been active in the West Bank since the 1920s...”

Many of these unions were banned and its leaders arrested after Israel's military occupied West Bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-day war. However, by the end of the decade, the union leaders from the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) had bounced back into action, and expanded the union membership throughout 1970s. “During the early 1970s, communists remained the most active in broadening the membership in the union movement,” she added.

Other left parties, including the Marxist–Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and its Maoist splinter Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), also took to building trade unions and mass organisations by late 1970s. 

The nationalist social democratic party of Fatah founded by Yasser Arrafat, which held a majority representation in the PLO, had mostly ignored mass organising, focussing mainly on building military capability on one hand and engaging in elite political negotiations on the other. After the PLO’s defeat by Israeli forces in the Lebanon war in 1982, the Fatah also took to mass organising in the occupied territories. 

By 1987, a well-organised network of grass roots organisations had been formed in Palestinian territories under Israeli military occupation, against which a bitter discontent amongst the people had been mounting over the two decades. 

On December 8 that year, when an Israeli settler on the occupied land ran his truck over four Palestinian workers outside a refugee camp in the Gaza, killing them in what the Palestinians perceived to be a terror attack, the tinderbox had been sparked. Over 10,000 marched to their funeral.

The next day, spontaneous protests and clashes with Israeli soldiers erupted across Gaza and the West Bank. Young people barricaded the neighbourhoods to stop the armoured vehicles of Israeli army. 

Building an intifada from a spontaneous outburst

Quickly, the mass organisations took charge of organising and coordinating the uprising, which had begun in a spontaneous manner. Even though the Israeli occupation forces had either deported or arrested most of the known leaders of these mass-organisations soon after the uprising had begun, “the principles of community action had become deeply enough internalised” among the masses whom these organisations had engaged, Cobban argued.

“Informal divisions of labor emerged in many areas: a merchants' committee would deal with commercial questions; youth committees would be responsible for engaging or diverting the military; the women of every neighborhood would act as watch committees or organise the distribution of emergency rations; labor committees would supervise strike observance or help organise efforts in the “alternative economy”; “reconciliation committees” of trusted community members would replace the work of the boycotted court system in resolving inter-family or intergroup disputes.”

A clandestine leadership that had emerged from these mass organisations began issuing communiques soon after the Intifada was sparked. These were secretly printed on leaflets and distributed by the neighbourhood committees. 

In the second communique, issued on January 13, 1988, the leadership took the name of “National Command for the Escalation of the Uprising”. This communique was broadcasted by Al-Quds Palestinian Arab Radio, a station newly formed with the backing of the Syrian government.  

On January 20, the third communique was issued in the name of “The Unified National Leadership of the Uprising” (UNLU). The UNLU was formed by the coming together of the leadership of PCP, PFLP, DFLP and the Fatah. 

The grassroot organisations of this umbrella, which gave the on-ground leadership to the mass uprising, had accepted the exiled leadership of the PLO to be the legitimate international representative of the Palestinian cause. 

From the sixth communique onwards, which was broadcasted on February 4, a unified plan of action was in place. All the communiques issued since contained timetables for coordinated strike actions, guidelines for boycott of Israeli products, measures to be taken to deal with those in the occupied territories collaborating with the Israeli forces etc. 

The next communique, which was released on February 22, was signed off as “The Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, The PLO”, indicating a formal understanding between the leadership in exile and organisers on the ground.   

The schedules laid out in these leaflets elicited a high degree of compliance from the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The importance of these leaflets in perpetuating the intifada can be assessed from the measures the Israeli occupation authorities took against it. The military arrested those it thought to be authors of these leaflets, and often claimed to have busted the 'ring leaders'.

Nevertheless, by the time a communicated schedule came to its end, the next communique appeared without fail. Israeli authorities then took the desperate measure of printing and distributing fake leaflets with wrong information in the name of UNLU, in an attempt to disrupt the coordinated action and sow confusion on the ground. 

However, this had little success as the Palestinians soon began to identify those leaflets which were not backed with a radio broadcast to be fake. 

Neither did the “breaking bones policy” prescribed by Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin have any success in achieving the objective of deterring young people from throwing stones at Israeli forces. 

In some refugee camps “during the first intifada, all its young men were hopping on crutches or were in casts because they had thrown stones at soldiers, who in turn chased after them and carried out Rabin's order,” Israeli journalist Amira Hass noted

Within the first two years of the uprising, Save the Children estimated, at least 7% of all Palestinian children below the age of 18 in the occupied territories had suffered injuries. Almost 30,000 children needed medical care as a result of breaking bones policy. 

The vast network of prisons and detention centres - where masses were held under inhuman conditions without trial and tortured - was turned against the occupation by the leadership of the uprising, who used them as an opportunity for political education. Necessary books were smuggled in. 

Abdel-Alim Da’na, a PFLP leader who was in prison at the time, recollected in an interview, “We had many educational programs inside the prison; for example, the leftist organisations like PFLP or DFLP had programs in philosophy, political economy, Lenin’s books, and all of the Marxist-Leninist texts.”

Das Kapital, he remembered, “was large, and very difficult, but we studied it... Also Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. And we read [Che] Guevara. '' Thus, frustrated teenagers put in prisons for hurling rocks came out as marxist revolutionaries with a sound theoretical understanding of imperialism and Israel’s role in it, committed ever more to the continuation of the intifada until the liberation of Palestine.  

By 1991, Israeli author Moshé Machover argued, it had become clear that using the Israeli military to police the occupied territories, where the uprising had refused to die down despite all the brute force, was not going to be feasible in the long run. 

Oslo Accords: “a Palestinian Versailles”

Israel finally came to the table to negotiate with the PLO, and the First Intifada came to an end by 1993 with the signing of the Oslo accords after long and arduous secret negotiations, presided over by the U.S. president Bill Clinton. 

As per the agreement, which was originally envisioned to be transitional in nature, the West Bank and Gaza was divided into three separate areas: one of which was to be administered by the PA, another jointly by the PA and Israeli military, while the final area, which had the illegal Israeli settlements, remained under the control of the occupation authorities.

In an article called the Morning After, published soon after the Oslo accords were signed, Palestenian author and activist, Edward Said sharply criticised the PLO's exiled leadership, which was desperate to reach an agreement with Israel, in part, for its own survival. 

Calling it “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”, he wrote:

“Neither Arafat nor any of his Palestinian partners who met the Israelis in Oslo has ever seen an Israeli settlement. There are now over two hundred of them, principally on hills, promontories and strategic points throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Many will probably shrivel and die, but the largest are designed for permanence. An independent system of roads connects them to Israel, and creates a disabling discontinuity between the main centres of Palestinian population. The actual land taken by these settlements, plus the land designated for expropriation, amounts – it is guessed – to over 55 per cent of the total land area of the Occupied Territories.”

However, the minor territorial concessions and the recognition of PLO by Israel was seen by its far-right as a capitulation to Palestine. Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of breaking bones policy, was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist in 1995. In the early elections that was called the following year, Rabin’s labour party lost, and Benjamin Netanyahu, candidate of the right-wing likud party, was elected as the Prime Minister.

In 2001, he was filmed bragging before a group of Israelis who had illegally settled on occupied West Bank, about how his manipulations while in power ensured that Palestinians did not get the little that was promised in the Oslo accords. “I de facto put an end to the Oslo accords,” he said triumphantly.  

Today, illegal Israeli settlements in West Bank - with all its infrastructure of connecting roads, water supply and apartheid walls to keep out the Palestinians - has expanded to an extent where the very continuty of this strip of land is at stake.

The Gaza strip, which is choked from all sides by Israel, is in control of the radical islamist organisation of Hamas - an offshoot of the Muslim bortherhood which became a force during the Intifada, with the tacit support of Israel which was hoping it would serve to counter the power of secular-nationalist and left forces.

Mass-arrests of Palestinians, detention without trial, systematic use of torture, beatings of children continue in the West Bank. Israel repeatedly carries out airstrikes in the Gaza strip killing civilians indiscriminately.   

“Still, the 1987 intifada remains one of the brightest moments in Palestinian history. It erupted as a mass movement to end decades of systematic oppression and subjugation under occupation,” recollected Khalid Farraj, a foot soldier of the intifada who was imprisoned and tortured multiple times. 

Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 2017, he said, “Despite the years of agony that followed, and the advent of self-governance depicted as the crowning glory of the uprising, the intifada’s vision and dreams were far greater than Oslo. The absence of hope, and the accompanying indifference and even apathy among Palestinian youth induced by Oslo, won’t stop rising generations from renewed attempts to secure Palestinian rights. Periodic rebellion.. since October 2015, are all signs that we have not entirely lost our way.”