issue 199 - September 1989
Beneath the apparent turmoil of the Palestinian uprising, clarity of
purpose and discipline prevail. Zeidan El Ramahi explains
how this remarkable system of co-operation works.
Youths hover anxiously outside a door in Ramallah Hospital, waiting to hear if their friend will live: he was shot in the chest while on a demonstration. Soldiers obstructed the car that was bringing him in and by the time he arrived his heart had stopped beating. He was revived amid fears of brain-death. Half an hour ago youths fought to prevent soldiers dragging him from his bed. A violent incident, but a common example of Israel's response to the Palestinian popular uprising which began 19 months ago.
The intifada took the world by surprise. It began on 8 December 1987 in the Gaza Strip, when an Israeli truck smashed into cars carrying Arab workers home from Israel. The truck killed four Palestinians and seriously injured seven more. It triggered an explosion of demonstrations - the most sustained in over 20 years of Palestinian resistance to occupation.
Over one-and-a-half million Palestinians live in the Israeli-occupied territories. Their lives are constrained by thousands of military rules which forbid them even to plant a tree or dig a well without permission.
Israel had done quite well out of these territories before the intifada started. For one thing the territories provided a captive market for Israeli goods; they bought $780 million worth in 1986 alone. This dependence on Israel blocked the development of local Palestinian industries.
Taxes further swelled Israeli coffers. In 1987 the territories paid Israel $100 million more in taxes than Israel spent on services in these areas. Money was also squeezed from the wages of the 120,000 Palestinians who had been forced to work in Israel to compensate for expropriated land and reduced employment opportunities elsewhere in the Arab world. They had no union protection and received about 40 per cent of what Israeli workers earned.
But Palestinians were most angered by the strangulation of their culture. They are not allowed to sing their national anthem, to display the colours of the Palestinian flag, to elect their own leaders or to carry a Palestinian passport. A Gazan can only travel with an Israeli travel document on which his or her 'nationality' is declared 'undefined'.
Their frustration was evident by 1985, when an escalation in house demolitions, deportations and Palestinian arrests forced even the most apolitical Palestinian to take a stand. A visit to any military court at this time revealed a massive increase in incidents involving teenage boys.' They had grown up under Israeli military rule and saw no hope for the future. Most went to prison for stone-throwing or participating in demonstrations. They spent months with adults serving life sentences and with teenagers from refugee camps who taught them the tactics of street-fighting.
By December 1987 things were ripe for mass protest. The truck accident sparked an anger which sent hundreds flooding onto the streets. Within weeks Palestinian nationalists transformed the headless riots into a guided rebellion with clear-cut aims.
The first leaflet came from Gaza. It was signed 'The National Forces in the Gaza Strip' and called for continuing protests and strikes. Three other statements were subsequently released in Gaza asking for popular organization and declaring the intifada's aim as the establishment of a Palestinian State. They were widely distributed in the West Bank and the Unified National Leadership of the Intifada was formed - a coalition between the four main political groups operating in the Territories.
Today people in the West Bank walk with eyes lowered to spot the latest statement from the Leadership - often found in the streets or tucked under a car windshield. They shape their daily lives around announcements of general strikes or demonstrations. And if individuals have ideas for actions, these are incorporated into the Leadership's plans. The intifada is a democratic affair.
The Leadership has repeatedly called for disengagement from Israel's administrative and economic structures. Palestinians in all spheres of life are participating in acts of mass disobedience including strikes, tax revolts and more recently the boycott of Israeli produce in favour of Palestinian goods. The emphasis is on Palestinian self-sufficiency at all levels.
Today public committees exist in every region. They comprise young men and women elected by the community to implement the Leadership's plans and meet their community's needs. They supervise smaller popular committees which control agriculture, education, health care, finance, popular courts, women's committees and demonstrations. Every Palestinian in the occupied territories is actively involved in the intifada through some committee or other.
Each group decides its own aims and how to achieve them. The agricultural committee may plant a piece of land and ask local people to take care of it. The food produced is given to those suffering most severely from curfews. The aim is to make the intifada continuous, and to train people in running their future State.
Because Israel has strengthened its hard-fist policy, the committees operate in secret. At various times education has been banned in the West Bank; some schools and universities are closed. Young men and women risk up to five years' imprisonment by surreptitiously running popular schools in basements and private homes. They create curriculums related to the intifada - like teaching biology through first-aid.
The committees even operate in prisons, drawing on the expertise of whoever happens to be detained. At one point after the start of the intifada over 2,500 people were in detention without trial or charge. Lecturers frequently find themselves imprisoned with their students and continue classes in jail. In one case three economics professors were imprisoned together, enabling them to exchange ideas on the economic implications of the intifada. Doctors are put in charge of prisoners' health care, teachers in charge of education. Everyone has a job whether it be running a prison newspaper or organizing food.
Attempts are made to swap information between committees so that different regions can benefit from the experience of others. Today demonstrators are no longer an angry mob. Clarity of purpose and discipline prevails.
Israel's leaders have failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. Initially they declared the uprising to be the work of outside agitators and Muslim fanatics. Later they said it was a spontaneous movement. Recently Israeli Chief of Staff, Dan Shomoron, concluded: 'It is a popular uprising and cannot be put down by force. The solution has to be political'. Some Israeli politicians have reached the same conclusion but so far they are in a minority. As one Israeli activist puts it: 'We are now in the position of someone climbing a burning ladder. We cannot go down to where we were - the only way out is up.'
For the last 17 months Israel's response has been 'more of the same - a lot more': more shooting, more arrests, more administrative detentions, more house demolitions, more fines, more beatings, more restrictions on travel. None of these measures are new; what has changed is their intensity.
But for all the suffering, a new attitude is emerging amongst Palestinians - an attitude of confidence and pride. Traditional prejudices against women and the young have been overturned as women and children go out on the street side by side with men, marching, throwing stones and erecting barricades. A Gazan activist recently caught his son writing slogans on house walls. He took the boy inside and asked what was going on. The boy said: 'You have your role and I have mine. If you want to talk about what I am doing, we must talk as equals, not as father and son'.
This child was one of a group of 26 aged between nine and 13 years old who had set up their own organization - The Cubs of the Palestinian People. They had elected a central committee and a general secretary, and their activities ranged from writing on walls to distributing leaflets, erecting barricades, burning tyres and throwing stones.
School girls at Beach Refugee Camp in Gaza set up a similar organization to participate in demonstrations and daily clashes. One 15-year-old became famous for her ability to extricate boys from military detention. Her friends called her El-Shinnara - the partridge - because of her speed and elusiveness. She was shot dead during a demonstration in her camp. Some 40 days later, women and girls staged a commemorative march during which her best friend, 15-year-old Asma Abu Abada, was also killed.
Today Palestinians are ready to die when they go onto the streets. They want the world to realize that the conflict is between Israel and the Palestinians, not between Israel and other Arab countries. Their cry is for a state of their own, so that the massive imbalance in power, wealth and world influence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians can be redressed. They are not calling for revenge or destruction. They are calling for justice.
Zeidan Al Ramahi is a freelance journalist working in the occupied territories.
1 Gaza: Israel's Soweto, Joan Mandell, October-December 1985, MERIP.
2 Facts Weekly Review,, 'Chronology of the uprising -the first year', December 15, 1988.
3 Punishing a Nation - Human Rights Violations During the Palestinian Uprising, December 1987-December 1988, AI-Haq - Law in the Service of Man.