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Revisiting the First Intifada

Nearly 27 years after it began, the First Intifada remains etched in the Palestinian pysche and collective memory. It was a time of hope and unity which has not been replicated in the long years since it faded away as the Oslo process took hold. Events have been held in Ramallah this week which looked back at the uprising and re-examined its evolution and strategies.

At a round-table debate held at al-Bireh municipality's cultural centre on Tuesday, Birzeit university's Abaher el-Sakka reminded people that when the intifada broke out it was a collective grassroots action which acted against normalisation:

"People in the streets did not fight the occupation because they were part of the PLO. The intifada broke the system of normalisation with the colonisers. Normalisation breaks the diagnosis of the occupation as the colonisers."

Today, Palestinian fragmentation is evident on various levels including factional, geographic and in the models of resistance. Palestinian academic and First Intifada activist, Alaa' al-Azzeh acknowledged the negative impact this has had on building a new collective uprising:

"Colonial geography leads to fragmentation. Today we discuss Gaza, the West Bank and '48' as though they are separate issues. We focus struggles now on specific issues such as the Wall or the 'war in Gaza' rather than a collective anti-colonial struggle."

Colonialism itself has taken new forms since the 1980's. Whilst the Zionist settler-colonial project has developed at speed, participants in the round-table discussion believe that Oslo has reinforced that process with newer complimentary models. Haifa based children's author Donis Assad talked about her work trying to bring a Palestinian focus into children's literature and the Palestinian school curricula. Having worked on a project with the PA in this context, she later found her work sidelined in preference to swedish books that were translated into Arabic and distributed to children via 'community organisations' as well as schools:

"Community organisations are a new form of colonisation. Nobody knows who [Ghassan] Kanafani is anymore. NGO's adapt their policies to the whim's of donors."

Other speakers referred to the PA itself as another "new form of colonisation".

Some of the many students and young activists who attended the discussion took the opportunity to respond. One young activist challenged the speakers on their many negative inferences about the 'post-Oslo generation', when she reminded people that today's NGO leaders and PA representatives were themselves amongst the First Intifada's activists:

"It was your generation that allowed this to happen".

Amongst the most telling responses from the audience was the final comment of the day, when one young activist posed a question which remained unanswered:

"Who should the new intifada be against… is it the Occupation or the PA?"

The First Intifada meant many things to many people. Critical debate is essential within Palestinian society in order for constructive progression to evolve. What is clear, is that even if only in the first two years or so of the intifada, before the PLO leadership managed to gain control of the uprising and lead it into Oslo, was that the intifada represented a grassroots attempt by Palestinians to regain some elements of control in their own individual and collective lives. It was in this context that the round-table discussion was followed by public events in Ramallah's streets in which artists and activists 're-appropriated the public space' again, even if only briefly and symbolically. Doing this in modern-day Ramallah meant that the street-based cultural activities, entitled 'Mapping the First Intifada' and including circus and parkour performances, were staged in front of the PA's security services and various symbols of capitalist enterprise, and supported by NGO funding. Israeli soldiers were nowhere to be seen, yet the colonial project remains more deeply entrenched than ever.

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