In the afternoon of December 8, 1987 a lethal car accident would take place in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. An Israeli truck driver would hit two cars causing the death of four Palestinians and the injury of seven others. The victims were returning to their homes in Jabalia refugee camp after a day of work in Israel. The practice of Israeli employers hiring Palestinian labour from the territories was quite common at the time. Hence, many speculated that the truck driver did not accidentally fall on the car convoy that every afternoon was carrying Palestinian workers from Erez Crossing southbound to their homes. On the contrary, rumours circulated that he did it on purpose to avenge the recent stabbing of a relative by a Palestinian. Thus, in the early evening, and after the funerals of the deceased, many of the residents of Jabalia instead of heading home marched against the local army outpost. It was hardly the first time that the territories saw a riot. Yet, this time there was something distinctly different in the air. Among other signs, the demonstrators showed no willingness to disperse. The Israeli commanding officer tried to encourage his men with reassuring claims of the kind: “You know these men! They will go home soon and tomorrow head to their works as if nothing happened”.[i] Needless to say very few went home that night and the following morning the protests not only did they continue, but also spread in other areas of Gaza. In this context of escalating tension a young lieutenant would lose his nerve, shoot in the direction of the crowd, and fatally wound Hatem Abu Sisi, a 17-year old protester. The news of the killing of the young demonstrator would travel in light speed across the length and breadth of the territories and give the protests a new momentum. By that time the popular Palestinian uprising was a fact and for its description the name that prevailed was the Arabic term “Intifada” which originally pertains to the shaking that dogs perform to get rid of fleas or other unwanted bugs.
The revolt spread quickly and affected both Gaza and West Bank. Instead of petering out it acquired a sort of normalcy for the next two years. It is worth mentioning that Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian president and then Arafat’s lieutenant, estimated that the uprising could not last more than three months.[ii] Intifada was a peaceful revolt in the sense that, although protesters sought confrontation with the army and the police, they did not bear other arms than stones, slings and Molotov cocktails. Had this not been the case the vast majority of casualties would not have come from the Palestinian side. Indicatively, in 1988 the Israelis who lost their lives as a result of the ongoing violence were 15, only a small fraction of the 290 Palestinian dead. What is more, most of the slain Israelis were soldiers that have been ambushed away from the riot arenas. In essence Intifada lost momentum only after the announcement of the 1991 Madrid peace talks initiative and the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. And it is fair to say that both developments might not have supervened had the Intifada not demonstrated the need for a settlement.
Why it happened and why Israel did not see it coming
Intifada’s tense, stamina and duration indicate that Palestinians had deep and sound reasons to rise up. But if the revolt was the end of a predestined process why and how the Israeli leadership was caught off guard? Israel, in the capacity of a state structured in accordance with modern western norms, has established those institutions and agencies which periodically produce detailed advisory reports for the decision making leadership. Hence, as early as 1985, a committee consisting of security officials had estimated that the probability of a revolt in the occupied territories was considerably high.[iii] A number of other reports reached the same conclusion but the top tier of Israeli leadership dismissed them as inaccurate and exaggerating. To this attests the fact that until the outbreak of the uprising the Israelis undertook no serious planning or preparation on the field of crowd containment. It is worth mentioning for instance that in December 1987 there was no sufficient stock of tear gas in army depots. Furthermore, in the wake of the first riots the Israeli government underestimated the seriousness of the situation. To be sure, the then defence minister Yitzhak Rabin neither canceled, nor cut short a ten-day official visit to the US. Rabin returned on December 21 and, after he was briefed on the latest developments, he held Tehran and Damascus responsible for the violence.[iv] Of course, as the next months would clearly show, things were far more different and complex.
What mainly made Palestinians rise up in 1987, and at the same timedeluded the Israelis, was the financial situation in the territories. What the Israelis saw as steady and slow improvement was in reality a form of stagnation exacerbating the feelings of anger and wrath that any population under occupation is expected to harbour for its occupier. 1987 marked 20 years not only since West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli control, but also since the initiation of a process that Sara Roy has described as de-development. When the Israeli army moved inside West Bank and Gaza it appropriated land where, after a while, settlements, bases and Israeli authority infrastructure were built. The result was a considerable reduction of the available agricultural land. This was matched with the introduction of strict new regulations for the existing manufacturing and factory units which hindered entrepreneurship and healthy growth. Agriculture could hardly balance the losses from the industrial sectors as farmers not only lost a significant part of their property, but also had to operate within a more limited and competitive market. To be precise, they could no longer export their products to neighbouring Arab countries. On the contrary, they had to direct their harvest in Israel where local farmers could sell in rather low prices as they were eligible to sufficient state subsidies. Against this dim backdrop the only viable solution for many young Palestinians was to work temporarily for Israeli employers and subcontractors, just as they did the four young men whose death ignited the Intifada.Finally, due to the restrictions that the occupation imposed on the economic activity in the territories, Palestinians often had no other option but to funnel their earnings back to Israel through purchase of goods that could be found only in Israeli markets. This was a distorted economic model which not only kept the society stagnant, but also rendered it observer of the growth that was taking place next door. What is more, although the de-developed society had contributed to the growth of its neighbour, there was no way it could claim its fair share of the concerned growth.
However the Israeli side held a fundamentally different perspective. This phenomenon is not new. It is well known that during the colonial era colonialists did not perceive themselves as usurpers of natural resources and raw materials. On the contrary, they thought they were enlighteners paying great service to the natives who otherwise would have remained ignorant of the achievements of the alleged civilized West.Similarly, many Israelis believed that after 1967 were acting as Palestinians’ benefactors and therefore they had coined the term of Benign Occupation. In order to sufficiently grasp the Israeli perspective one should read the following passage from Moshe Dayan’s autobiography.
In the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, there was a veritable economic revolution. Refugees who for 19 years had spent their time sitting outside their huts playing backgammon and talking politics… began going to work… Thanks to the high wages in Israel, they were able to improve not only their standard of living but also their way of life. For the first time, they could acquire new clothes, furniture and kitchen appliances.[v]
Hence, there lies the reason why the complacent Israeli leadership was detached from reality, showed no interest for warning reports, and finally was taken aback by the outbreak of the uprising. And if many soldiers showed no hesitation to apply Rabin’s infamous urgeto “break the protesters’ bones”, they did so because in the demonstrators’ faces saw a spoiled Arab generation which ,without good reason, was taking on its benefactors.
Implications and legacy
Palestinians paid a high price for their Intifada. To begin with, their economic situation worsened as the access to Israel for work became more restricted and as a result the gap between the two peoples increased. Occupation itself became harsher as Israelis set more checkpoints and conducted more raids than before. Beyond the hundreds of dead and the thousands of wounded there were also the tens of thousands of Palestinians that were arrested and detained for a certain period of time. As far as the political scene was concerned, the lack of emergence of new undisputed leaders is owning less to Arafat’s charisma and more to the efficiency of the Israelis to quickly track and arrest those who organised and headed popular protests. In the domain of Political Islam, the leadership of the local Muslim Brotherhoodbranch hailed the uprising and, out of security concerns, decided to join it via a new collective body. This is how the Islamic Resistance Movement was founded which became largely known with its Arabic initials, Hamas. It is worth mentioning that although Hamas appeared for the first time in early 1998, its cadres insist on putting its establishment in December 1987 in order to further stress the connection with the Intifada.
The children of the stones did not bring about liberation. Nevertheless they managed to corner morally the Israelis thereby forcing Rabin to reach a settlement with Arafat which granted Palestinians limited autonomy. The peace process eventually collapsed but this did not lead to a full reversal of the Palestinian gains. In this regard, the conviction that the uprising was the best available negotiation asset was instilled in the collective mind. Consequently, many Palestinians believe that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 is owning to the 2000 Intifada. Such claims largely rest on the notion that Tel Aviv has yet to produce a credible counter measure to the contingency of popular uprising. Israel emerged victorious from all the wars and today no state in the region poses a real threat to it. Even when controversy with Iran was at its peak the main question was not whether Israel would be hit by Iran, but rather the extent of Israel’s preemptive strike on Iran’s facilities. Both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza take extra measures so as not to provoke thesuperior Israeli army. And yet in this context of Israel’s quasi omnipotence, just a few months ago, hawkish Netanyahu was forced to a humiliating political retreat during the Jerusalem Mosque crisis. What did he fear? But of course the ignition of a new uncontrolled and unmanageable Intifada. And if there is something that currently makes Trump invoke logistical reasons in order to delay the moving of his embassy to the newly recognized Israeli capital Jerusalem, it is this very same fear
[i]Ze’ev Schiff &Ehud Ya’ari, Intifada: The PalestinianUprising - Israel’s Third Front(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 26.
[iii]Yehuda Lukacs, Israel, Jordan, and the Peace Process(New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 59.
[iv]Schiff &Ya’ari, Intifada,123.
[v]Moshe Dayan, Dayan, Story of my Life (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1992), 401-402.
* Georgios Rigas holds a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Edinburgh.
* Georgios Rigas holds a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Edinburgh.