Today marks the 29th anniversary of the First Intifada. The mass uprising, which began in the refugee camps in Gaza in 1987, went on to become one of the longest protest against occupation and the bravest campaign for human rights that has been seen in recent history. Yet looking back and surveying the Palestinian political landscape, it’s hard not to conclude that the First Intifada, like the previous uprisings and mass protest by Palestinians, was another false dawn.
Civil disobedience and rebellion against colonial rule was of course not new to Palestine. Palestinians began protesting nearly a century ago when they realised that Britain planned to deny them their right to self-rule and democracy by promising Palestine to another people. Fearing that their right to self-determination had been sabotaged, Palestinians organised their biggest rebellion in history during 1936-1939, which many view as the First Intifada (uprising) against colonial rule. Though it proved to be a disaster for the Palestinians, it set the tone for Palestinian rebellion against foreign rule and occupation.
Like the 1936-1939 Palestinian revolt, the factors which sparked the uprising in 1987 are less complex than the reasons for its dismal failure to end their subjugation. In both cases, Palestinian frustration of living under repressive military rule and their sense of hopeless with the political process led to mass revolt.
The First Intifada erupted on December 1987 because Palestinians had had enough. Having been victims of a colonialist project that denied their existence and their rights to self-determination, Palestinians had to endure decades of dispossession followed by subjugation under a brutal Israeli military occupation. The spark may have been the murder of four young Palestinians at a Gaza checkpoint and the killing of Hatem Abu Sisi by an Israeli soldier who opened fire on a group of peaceful Palestinian protesters, however, the conditions for years of protest had been building up over decades.
The underlying reasons are neatly summarised here: Generations of Palestinians experienced nothing but the indignity of occupation. Not only did they have to put up with being treated like inferiors and prisoners in their own homeland, they were also grossly exploited for their labour. They were paid half the wages of Israeli workers, taxed higher and had few benefits. Palestinians were also seeing their confiscated land being illegally settled by Jewish settlers who were allowed to carry machine guns and were protected by the Israeli army when they terrorised Palestinian families. Palestinian families were constantly under threat, not only for continuing to live on their own land and properties, but also for any expression of their cultural identity or nationalist feelings.
Palestinians had also become deeply frustrated at the growing number of prisoners. Many were deported from their country and thousands were imprisoned for resisting Israeli occupation. By 1987, there were still some 4,700 political prisoners in Israeli jails, out of the 200,000 Palestinians arrested since Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967.
Similar to the uprisings in the “Arab Spring”, there were no political parties and leaders to organise the mass uprising. It was in every sense an organic revolt which began with mass civil disobedience, which included the boycotting of Israeli goods, refusal to pay tax, organising strikes and demonstrations, unarmed confrontations with the Israeli military, famously by stone throwing youths, establishing their own mobile medical clinics and providing social services as a measure to take back some control of their lives.
Israel’s response was as brutal as it was shocking. Israel’s defence minister, who went on to win the Noble peace prize, implemented the infamous “broken bones” policy, ordering security forces to break the limbs of Palestinians throwing stones. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir also demanded to “re-establish the barrier of fear”. Their orders were brutally enforced by Israeli occupying forces.
More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the First Intifada, including 237 children under the age of 17. Many tens of thousands more were injured. According to an estimate by the Swedish branch of Save the Children, reported here, as many as 29,900 children required medical treatment for injuries caused by beatings from Israeli soldiers during the first two years of the intifada alone. Nearly a third of them are aged ten or under. Save the Children also estimates that between 6,500 and 8,500 Palestinian minors were wounded by Israeli gunfire in the first two years of the intifada.
There were also reports of torture by the Israeli security forces. The Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet, used systematic torture against Palestinians and regularly lied about it, according to an Israeli government report covering the four year period of the intifada. It was released five years after it had been written. The Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, estimated that thousands of Palestinian detainees – some 85 per cent – were subjected to torture during that period.
Israel’s punishment of choice over the years has been collective punishment, which it deployed most cruelly during the First Intifada. As is clear from eyewitness accounts, the impact was far reaching. Collective punishment “included travel bans, the severance of utilities, school closures, mass arrests and the systematic ransacking of homes. Most punishing of all were the strictly enforced round-the-clock curfews that could persist for weeks on end. Overcrowded homes boiling with frustration over lost incomes, untended crops, missed classes and dwindling supplies, often came to resemble pressure cookers. Many a child who managed to escape to the roof or garden to break the monotony for some playtime, along with adults foraging for food or work, or tending to the needs of relatives, friends or comrades paid with their lives.”
The First Intifada shattered the myth that Israel’s occupation was benign. The brutality of its occupation; a new and modernised form of colonial dispossession and ethnic cleansing became apparent to a worldwide audience. Palestinians, armed with nothing but stones, had exposed Israel’s true colours. The situation called for a political solution that would end the humiliation of millions of people.
In hindsight, the intifada was inevitable just as Israel’s brutal response to it was predictable. Politically it was a turning point but not in realising the hopes and aspirations of Palestinians but instead in furthering the cause of Israel. It did not lead to a new era free of Israeli subjugation and dispossession but rather marked the beginning of a new period of suppression, brutality and indignity that came in the guise of the Oslo Accords. The 1993 Oslo Accords aborted the intifada and handed Israel a fig leaf to cover its creeping colonisation of Palestine.
The accords were extoled as a landmark compromise but it was nothing of the sort. The PLO, bruised from years of exile and suffering from war fatigue, was in no position to make deals. Their detachment from the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank proved historically fatal as Yassir Arafat gave up Palestinian claim to 78 per cent of historic Palestine and recognised the State of Israel for merely the right to sit on the negotiating table. Many had warned of the dire consequences of such a deal. Devoid of any sense of historical rights, international law and justice, it became another instrument to the ongoing colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine just as the Balfour Declaration had been eight decades earlier.
The post Oslo years have been characterised by aggressive construction of Israeli settlements that have all but destroyed any hope of a Palestinian state. Israel has been able to further consolidate its matrix of control over Palestine; annexation of Jerusalem; separation, segregation and further division of Palestinians into Bantustans.
Predictably, Oslo has proved to be another false dawn for Palestinians. Israel’s occupation has become irreversible and the dispossession of Palestinians has been an ongoing reality for many decades and Palestinians are further now than they have ever been in their historical struggle for freedom and self-determination.
It is striking how little has changed for Palestinians over the century. Though the uprisings of 1936 and 1987 were separated by decades, they were fighting the same fight: to end colonial subjugation. Despite untold revolts and protest, the Palestinian condition, instead of improving, has been pushed further and further back. Conversely, Israel’s historical ambitions to maintain its foothold on Palestine have gone from strength to strength.
The best way to mark the anniversary of the First Intifada is to recognise the root of Palestinian dispossession. The intifada, like many other revolts by Palestinians throughout the past century, is a response to an aggressive political project that seeks to displace one group of people in favour of another. The intifadas are the tremors of Palestinian resistance to the colonial project born over a century ago that is still unfolding in the 21st Century. Faced with an implacable and relentless force, the intifada was doomed to fail.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.