Saturday, April 10, 2021

Lessons and legacies of the First Intifada

By Mike J.C. - December 17, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Opinion]
Tags: [Palestinian civil society organizations] [Popular Struggle Coordination Committee ]

This month marks the 26th anniversary of the spontaneous outbreak of the First Intifada—literally, “shaking off”—a revolutionary, mass, popular uprising that dramatically altered the way the world saw the Palestinian struggle and transformed the dynamics between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel. But today the Intifada is shrouded in myth and misperceptions. What was the Intifada? How was it waged? What were its goals, and what did it achieve? Most relevantly, what does it tell us today about the prospects for finally ending the occupation and achieving an independent Palestinian state? 

The standard narrative is well known. On December 8, 1987, four Palestinians were killed in a traffic accident when an Israeli army truck struck their vehicle. Many thousands turned out for the funeral, sparking unusually brazen clashes with Israeli troops. More deaths produced more funerals, and soon most of the population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank seemed to be in the streets, hurling stones and sometimes Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers and settlers. The unplanned outburst caught everyone by surprise, including the PLO. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded forcefully, but Palestinians had lost their fear. The Intifada could not be stopped, continuing for weeks, months, and years, finally waning in 1991 with the beginning of formal negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The Oslo Accords of 1993 officially put an end to the resistance and brought a triumphant Yasser Arafat out of exile and back to the territories, ensconced in the newly minted and internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. 

The problem with this narrative is that it fails to scratch the surface of what the Intifada was about, how it came to be, how it was sustained, and how it was ultimately betrayed.

The uprising was much more than just stone-throwing youth and flaming barricades. The resistance was constituted by labor strikes, general strikes, tax revolts, consumer boycotts, flying illegal flags, political graffiti, hunger fasts, defying school closures and education bans, reclaiming land through agricultural projects, resigning from jobs and offices connected to the occupation, and more. By all accounts, it was no half-hearted effort; every man, woman, and child had a role to play, from the cities to the countryside. 

While the Intifada was a period of social upheaval and often divisive disputes over strategies and goals, the result was a united front, coordinated and held together largely through a series of stylized leaflets that began appearing in the streets a month into the revolt, printed in the hundreds of thousands and broadcast from radio towers across the region. The leaflets were issued by a new underground body called the Unified National Command, made up of little-known members from the main political factions working together as equal partners, themselves representing the needs and wishes of the grassroots from which they came.  

One of the most remarkable features of the Intifada, and perhaps least understood today, was the radically decentralized community-based organizations and self-governance networks that encompassed and constituted Palestinian society. Nested layers of participatory and democratic committees, with women often at the forefront, managed all aspects of life from the local level up, including sanitation, health and medical services, sports and leisure, labor and trade, gardens and agricultural production, food and seed distribution, education and information sharing, charitable work for families in need, and more. These neighborhood committees were the origin and basis of the famous “popular resistance committees” that would characterize the Intifada, and they made it possible for the occupied population to withstand the social and economic shocks of prolonged strikes, boycotts, and military-enforced curfews and school closures. 

This bottom-up infrastructure was not created in 1987, but developed over two decades of intensive and competitive organization efforts. A stateless people, Palestinians had no centralized government, and the “Civil Administration” run by the IDF was inadequate and unacceptable. Within this void, Palestinians struggled to establish independent, alternative governing structures, and on the eve of the Intifada, these were robust, covering all aspects of life. More, they were a source of national pride. Palestinians believed they had constructed and demonstrated the basis for political independence. And when protests began erupting across the territories in December 1987, this advanced network of committees shifted into open resistance. The popular committees of the First Intifada, driving and enforcing the printed directives of the Unified National Command, were anything but spontaneous; they were the product of years of historic circumstantial development. 

Similarly misunderstood today, the First Intifada was predominantly and deliberately an unarmed uprising. The infamous armed struggle and terrorist operations of the PLO during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s were orchestrated from outside the territories, and when the mass uprising began inside the territories, the armed groups called off their attacks, understanding they would only undermine the strength of the popular struggle; high Israeli fatalities would have legitimized more vicious crackdowns and dampened the unprecedented surge of international sympathy for the Palestinians. 

In evidence, despite the massive daily street confrontations, a total of 12 Israelis were killed in Israel and the occupied territories during the first year of the uprising—a figure lower than the total loss of Israeli lives in either 1985 or 1986, before the uprising began—and after three years, the Israeli death toll for the Intifada stood at 65. In striking contrast, more than 300 Palestinians were killed at the hands of soldiers and settlers in the first year, and close to 800 by the end of the third year. 

Thus, despite pervasive misconceptions today, and even at the time, the First Intifada was not a particularly bloody period—except for the Palestinians. On the contrary, it was a powerful example of organized civil resistance, obeying the logic of direct nonviolent action and alternative institution building. This reality was tragically obscured by the symbolic violence of stones and masked youth, and, more than anything else, by the subsequent years of armed conflict, especially the suicide bombings that characterized the Second Intifada (2000-2005) as an era of terrorism that most Palestinians involved in the Popular Struggle today lament as a catastrophic failure of strategy and vision.

It should also be stressed that the uprising was not against Israel, but against the occupation. In official statements and press conferences in 1988, the PLO unequivocally recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted the West Bank and Gaza Strip—just 22% of historic Palestine—as the basis of a future Palestinian state. 

Yet no such state was ever created, and the occupation is now more entrenched than ever. In this sense, the First Intifada must be deemed a failure. 

Its accomplishments, however, must not be overlooked. The Intifada put the Palestinian struggle on the center of the international agenda and generated support from world powers; uncharacteristically, Washington did not veto UN Security Council Resolutions critical of Israel and put unprecedented pressure on Tel Aviv to resolve the Palestinian issue. The popular uprising also caused intense debates and divisions within Israeli society—most of Israel’s leading human rights groups were formed during this period—and cost the Israeli economy as estimated one billion dollars during the first year alone. Most importantly, the Intifada smashed the status quo and generated the conditions for radical change. In the final analysis, then, the failure must be ascribed to the international community, for failing to implement the two-state solution at this most opportune historic juncture.

So what are the lessons of the First Intifada for the Palestinian struggle today? The prognosis is not good. Since the creation of the centralized and undemocratic Palestinian Authority, and with the internationally funded neo-liberalization of Palestinian life that characterized the Oslo years, the grassroots self-governance structures that empowered Palestinian communities to sustain popular resistance were dismantled and lost. The new “popular committees” that emerged in recent years in villages like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh are tellingly confined to the rural areas outside the reach of the Palestinian Authority, and the urban centers have yet to be engaged. Barring dramatic sea changes in Middle Eastern politics, or an awakening of North American consciousness, Palestinians can expect the occupation, land expropriation, and a slow but study ethnic cleansing to continue. And the international community can expect the decades-old conflict to continue feeding security threats around the globe.



For more on the First Intifada:

Souad Dajani, Eyes Without Country: Searching for a Palestinian Strategy of Liberation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

Joost Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada: Labour and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton University Press, 1991).

Mary Elizabeth King, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance (New York: Nation Books, 2007).

Zachary Lockman & Joel Beinin (eds.) Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (Boston: Southend Press, 1989).

Mazin Qumsiyeh, Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment (London: Pluto, 2011).

Glenn Robinson, Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (Blookington: University of Indiana Press, 1997).

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