Thirty years ago Palestinians rose up against Israel in the first intifada. Nick Clark looks at the Palestinians’ struggle and the lessons for resisting Israel today
Palestinian resistance organisation Hamas called for an intifada—uprising—after Donald Trump described Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late December. It came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the first intifada.
In December 1987 resistance exploded onto the streets after decades of oppression at the hands of Israel and imperialism.
The rebellion lasted almost five years—and inspired similar revolts across the Middle East.
It was sparked by a shocking act of brutality. Hundreds of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were returning home from a day’s work in Israel when they witnessed a gruesome killing.
An Israeli tank transporter drove at a line of workers’ cars at a checkpoint—crushing four Palestinians to death and injuring another seven.
Funerals for three of the men that night in the nearby Jabalia refugee camp turned into a 10,000-strong demonstration that marched on the police station. The following day Israeli soldiers attacked another demonstration in Jabalia.
They killed 20-year-old demonstrator Hatem el Sisi—leading to another mass demonstration.
Palestinian journalist Safwat Khalout witnessed the protest. “We felt something new was happening,” he said. “Students gathered, surrounded the military trucks and started throwing stones.
“The Israeli soldiers hid in a house and started firing in all directions”.
Israeli soldiers tried to crush every protest with lethal violence. But with each killing came more funerals and more demonstrations until the whole of Gaza was caught up in the revolt.
Phil Marshall described those first days in his book Intifada—Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance. “Tens of thousands joined demonstrations that carried forbidden Palestinian flags and chanted nationalist slogans,” he wrote.
“Twenty years of frustration and bitterness at unemployment, overcrowding, poverty and repression was exploding in a collective rejection of the Israeli occupation.”
The revolt quickly spread across the whole of Palestine—including the parts encompassed by the Israeli state.
There were protests and riots right across the West Bank and inside Israel itself. “Arab Israelis”—Palestinians who hadn’t been forced out of Israel—joined a general strike in solidarity with the people in the Occupied Territories.
Palestinians in Israeli towns such as Jaffa, Acre and Lod demonstrated and clashed with police.
The Israeli government responded to the uprising with an “iron fist”. Defence minister Yitzak Rabin told Israeli forces to crush the demonstrations with “force, power and blows”.
Within one month Israeli soldiers had killed—by their own count—more than 20 protesters, wounded over 200 and detained 1200.
An army report was leaked to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It described how, “Officers or commanders in the field are giving orders to break property and break hands and feet.”
Halimeh Jermi remembers how her daughter, Sahar, was killed on one of the first demonstrations in the Balata refugee camp. “The Israelis started shooting. About 30 people were injured,” she said. “People said ‘your daughter’s been killed.’”
On one demonstration Halimeh herself was arrested. “I saw the Israelis fighting with young people. I grabbed stones and threw them at the Israelis.
“They handcuffed me and took me away. I got six months in jail.”
By December 1988—one year since the intifada began—the Israeli army reckoned it has used 10,000 troops a day to put down the uprising.
It imposed curfews on refugee camps, limiting supplies of food and water. Soldiers raided Palestinian homes, firing tear gas into houses and dropping gas canisters from helicopters. Yet none of this could crush the intifada.
The young Palestinians leading the revolt grew up under an occupation that treated them with utmost brutality and wrecked their society. Now they were rising up.
In January 1988 the Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post wrote, “The streets in Gaza, the West Bank and in East Jerusalem are in effective control of the youth. It is a case of our 20-year-olds battling their 20-year-olds. Ours using armour, helicopters and guns, theirs, clubs, rocks and primitive Molotov cocktails”.
Israel’s powerful military that had defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan couldn’t contain a mass uprising of ordinary people.
Everyone in Palestine had a role to play. Strikes were a major weapon aimed at weakening the Israeli state.
Israel had wrecked Palestinian agriculture in the Occupied Territories. It then used the mass of unemployed Palestinians as a source of cheap labour.
A huge proportion of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories travelled to and from Israel each day to do menial jobs on subsistence wages.
Now that Palestinian working class used its power to hit back at Israel. On selected days the majority of workers from Gaza and the West Bank stayed at home—sometimes for weeks at a time.
Palestinian shops also closed in defiance of Israeli authorities who tried to force them to stay open. And Palestinians organised a boycott of Israeli goods, growing, buying and selling only Palestinian produce wherever they could.
Everything was coordinated through a network of local activists’ committees known as the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising. “By mid-1988,” writes Marshall, “even the most remote hamlet of the West Bank was engaged in the movement.”
All this activity undoubtedly had an effect. Palestinian strikes hit some Israeli industries such as construction and textiles fairly hard.
Images of the uprising—and of the brutal Israeli response—drew sympathy for the Palestinian struggle across the world. And the sheer effort and cost put into holding down the rebellion caused some Israelis to question whether the occupation was sustainable.
But it wasn’t enough. Israel’s racist society excluded Palestinian labour from some skilled jobs in core industries including transport, manufacturing, finance or the public sector.
As Marshall pointed out, “The 11 per cent of the Israeli workforce composed of Palestinians from the territories occupied ‘dirty’ jobs and took seasonal employment on the land”.
So although Palestinian strikes did some damage, they couldn’t deliver a decisive blow. More importantly, the strikes couldn’t touch the massive aid payments from the US to Israel in return for defending its interests in the Middle East.
During the 1980s the US paid Israel some $28.5 billion, 56 per cent of which went on the military.
This relationship with imperialism is integral to Israel’s foundation and its existence today. The first Jewish colonisers in Palestine sought backing from the British empire in return for policing its Arab population. Israeli politicians saw that major support from the US was integral to Israel’s survival after it was created in 1948.
The key to victory for the intifada was the resistance it inspired in other countries across the Middle East.
Arab rulers declared support for the intifada, but suppressed major solidarity demonstrations fearing that they could turn into revolts of their own.
A mass movement against the government in Algeria took inspiration from the intifada. The opposition leaders told protesters to “unite and take measures into your own hands like the Palestinians”.
The solidarity movement in Egypt quickly turned its fire on its own government’s close relationship with Israel and the US. Workers from the giant Mahalla textile mill in northern Egypt joined a demonstration early on in the uprising. Slogans against Israel turned into demands for Egypt to break ties with Israel and the US.
There were even calls to bring down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was eventually toppled in the 2011 revolution.
The biggest fear of the US-backed regimes in the Middle East was that the revolt could spill out of Palestine.
This threat is what eventually pushed the US into dragging Israel into peace talks with the official Palestinian leadership in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Yet the PLO, led by the Fatah faction, actively helped to stop the national liberation movement from growing into a bigger revolt across the region.
The PLO had waged a heroic guerrilla struggle against Israel throughout the 1960s and 70s. Yet it never looked towards mass resistance among ordinary Palestinians, and its strategy was based on pressuring other Arab regimes into supporting its demands.
It hoped to win a Palestinian state in partnership with other Arab states. It would never encourage resistance that would challenge other Arab regimes and the status quo dominated by US imperialism.
This left it open to betrayal by Arab governments, leading to devastating defeats in Jordan in 1970 and Lebanon in 1982.
And it meant PLO leaders were prepared to make serious concessions.
In 1989 the PLO declared independence and a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.
The intifada had rescued the PLO and helped its factions put themselves back at the leadership of the resistance. But the declaration also gave away a significant concession.
Until then the PLO had never accepted the state of Israel’s claim to Palestinian land as legitimate. It had called for a single state in Palestine where Jews and Arabs would live as equals.
Declaring independence in just the Occupied Territories meant the PLO was now prepared to recognise Israel and accept a state in only part of Palestine.
Among other things this meant effectively abandoning the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land they were expelled from in 1948.
The Oslo Accords in 1993 marked the end of the intifada and the start of the “peace process”. This saw the PLO renounce armed rebellion and agree to suppress Palestinian resistance.
In return the newly-formed Palestinian Authority was given the vague hope of a Palestinian statelet under the thumb of Israel, sometime in the future.
More than 20 years later even that meagre promise looks as if it will never be fulfilled. Yet ordinary Palestinians never forgot the lessons of the intifada. After Trump’s speech ordinary Palestinians took to the streets again, once more defying the Israeli military with rocks and burning tires.
Once more they were joined by protests in solidarity across the Middle East.