Monday, June 21, 2004

The First Palestinian Intifada

Lucas Henry

A major turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came in December 1987 when, for the first time in their history, Palestinians en masse took to the streets in the struggle for their liberation. This insurgency, which originated in Gaza and spread through the occupied territories, came to be known as the intifada—a term which Charles Smith defines as literally meaning a “shaking off” of a condition. The circumstances which brought about this uprising are of significance, not only because they are useful in explaining the genesis of the modern day political atmosphere in the region, but also because they represented the culmination of more than twenty years of continuous occupation by the Israeli military and its effects on the Palestinian national conscience.

While Israel’s actions were not representative of the world’s most brutal occupiers, the arrests of Palestinian activists, numerous security checkpoints, imposed curfews, and collective punishments all contributed to a sense of humiliation among the Palestinian people. These feelings came to a head with the onset of the intifada, but for many years the Palestinian people had been willing to tolerate restrictions on their freedoms without openly revolting. Part of the reason for this was the improved standard of living that came about for many Palestinians, especially those living in the West Bank, during the 1970s. Immediately following the end of the 1967 war, there was considerable employment of Arab labor in Israel, which led to wages that were better than those offered under Jordanian rule. A robust economy also existed in the Gulf during this period, and many Palestinians working there repatriated their funds to supplement the incomes of their friends and relatives. These conditions helped to draw attention away from the Palestinians’ subservient working status and still relatively low salaries. Smith also notes the much smaller rate of growth for Jewish settlements and their relative isolation from Arab communities before Menachem Begin took office in 1978.

The mid-1980s saw a weakening of Israel’s economy, as recession and inflation caused decline across all economic sectors; this, in turn, triggered a downfall of the Palestinian economy, as it was closely tied to that of its neighbor, affecting individuals’ purchasing power across the board. Jobs in Gulf states were cut as economic growth in this region also fell—due to steadily declining oil prices and the ramifications of the Iraq-Iran war—which resulted in diminishing repatriations. As people met harder financial times in Palestine, the Israelis intensified their strategy of building settlements under the leadership of Likud. Smith notes that average annual rates of Israelis settling in the territories increased from 770 (1967-77) to 5,960 (1978-87). Settlements ceased to be separated from Arab communities, as they were now being deliberately planned to abut Palestinian neighborhoods, constituting a visible threat to the people who lived there. The Israeli Right saw the Occupied Territories as part of a Greater Israel, so in their eyes, increased and more aggressive settlement was seen as a means to making this land more difficult to relinquish and was “legitimately” justified by their belief that they possessed the rights to the area. The Palestinians, on the other hand, could see no end to Israel’s occupation and began fearing the consequences of further appeasement.

The shifting demographics among the Palestinian people resulted in a swing towards the younger generation. This age bracket had always lived under Israeli occupation, and where the preceding generation viewed daily humiliations with a sense of fortitude or endurance (what Smith calls “sumud”), many young people now viewed as an admission of defeat or surrender. These views were the result of a host of variables, most notably the process of modernization that had occurred from the 1960s onward, leading to the growth of a new professional class of Palestinians and greater educational opportunities, fostering new and greater expectations among youth.

Internationally, the world saw a decline of Arab Nationalism after the 1967 war, resulting in a shrinking interest among governments in the immediate fate of the Palestinians. Egypt’s recognition of Israel and its signing of the Camp David peace agreement in September 1978, the negligence paid to the Palestinian Cause at an Arab Summit, and the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon in 1982 all indicated the region’s growing inaction towards helping the Palestinian people. This, coupled with the ineffectual organization of the PLO (now based in Tunis), created the conviction among the Palestinian people that it would be up to them to effect change. The rest of the Arab world could no longer be counted on as a savior in the pursuit of liberation.

As a return to Islamic fundamentals and methods of ruling was seen in Iran and elsewhere, the Islamic movement in Palestine was no less important in helping to influence the direction of the intifada. Initially, Islamic groups were encouraged by Israel to participate politically (through direct funding and imposing fewer restrictions on their movements) against the PLO in the hopes that support for these groups would undermine the nationalist ideas of the PLO, but agreement between Islamic groups and the PLO about the need to improve conditions for the Palestinian people prevented a serious division to emerge between these factions. All the same, the prestige of the PLO steadily declined during the mid-1980s—as people felt distanced from, ill served by, and out of touch with their leaders—ultimately enabling local militants to acquire more power and initiative. This led to a higher rate of locally inspired violence in the territories, most notably Gaza, from 1985 forward.

In 1987, the sequence of protest and repression had slowly intensified. When an Israeli was stabbed by a Gazan on December 7 of that year, the sparks of the intifada could be seen glowing. The next day, an Israeli tank-transport truck crashed into several Arab cars, and rumors quickly circulated that the driver was a relative of the deceased looking for vengeance. The funerals for those who were victims of the crash instigated massive demonstrations that also kindled protests in the West Bank. The intifada had officially begun.

The dynamics of the rebellion were of great importance as well. It found sustenance through a far-reaching network of local committees and through the organization of neighborhoods for mutual assistance. Certain decisions had a lasting impact on the effect of the intifada. One of the most important was the choice to restrict the protests to stone-throwing and vocal demonstrations. This action immobilized Israeli military might, as advanced technology was ineffective in combating it. The movement gained international support, as a reversal of the David vs. Goliath image took hold in many people’s minds. While at first the protests were a haphazard display of frustration, they soon became a sign of unity, leading to organized strikes, boycotts on Israeli products/working in Israel, and the development of self-sufficiency programs (such as gardens and Palestinian/Arab manufacturing efforts). These measures caused hardship for many Palestinians, but the effects were felt by Israelis, too.

Grassroots leadership also emerged; termed “organic,” when one leader was arrested by the Israelis, other individuals would appear to take command. The uprising was facilitated by women, which was also unique, as their roles included producing goods for self-reliance, educating children neglected by closed schools, and collecting and conveying information (being better relay messengers because of their position in society). Women also took leadership roles (Hanan Ashrawi), which made an impression on both America and the rest of the Arab world.

The PLO felt an organizational threat from the uprising, and its behavior became more pragmatic as a result, hoping to regain its prominence in the eyes of the people and the world community. This effect, however, is perhaps eclipsed by a result of the intifada that remains in the minds of many Palestinians to this day: the realization that there was not a need to wait for outside help… the Palestinians, in their passion towards their cause, had found empowerment.


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