Remembering the first intifada

31 May 2021
Hersha Kadkol

On 8 December 1987, at a Gaza checkpoint, an Israeli truck ploughed into a line of cars returning Palestinians from a day’s work in Israel. Four were killed, including three from the Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza’s largest.

An outpouring of collective grief at the funeral of the victims transformed into political anger. Thousands of Palestinians moved through the streets in mourning. Soon, the permanent military presence in the refugee camp was confronted with a hail of stones, bricks and bottles thrown by teenage boys. Then began a cycle of repression and resistance, with each round of martyred protesters, many of them children, becoming a spark for further demonstrations. Years of humiliation and rage burst forth.

The merciless conditions of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank had crushed the spirit of rebellion among the older generations. Gaza was overcrowded with the unemployed and destitute. The hardline Israeli government had accelerated the pace of settlements in the occupied territories, which grabbed land and water from Palestinians.

Day work doing menial jobs in Israel was the only economic prospect for many. Gaza and the West Bank had become Israel’s Bantustans. Palestinian wages were kept low—on average, just 40 percent of the Israeli wage in 1977—and while Palestinian workers paid income taxes, the Israeli state refused to provide even basic services.

No Palestinian village or element of Palestinian social life was free from Israeli control. Political and trade union organisations were intimidated and suppressed.

Previously, heavy repression had kept a lid on mass resistance—but not this time. Young people, outweighing the rest of the population in Gaza, moved to the front lines. Children as young as eleven confronted the most heavily armed military in the Middle East. They were armed with slingshots and bound their heads with the keffiyeh, the symbol of this “revolution of the stones”.

The young people had known nothing other than occupation. But as observers noted—some with appreciation, others with alarm—the new generation was no longer afraid. They had nothing left to lose.

The response from Israel was swift and sharp. In the first ten days, 27 protesters were killed and more than 250 were injured. But even this was not enough to curb the intifada (Arabic for uprising or rebellion).

Worse for the Israeli ruling class, a general strike called for 21 December resulted in profits collapsing in hospitality and fruit farming. The strike and resistance spread to Palestinian citizens of Israel—a mass, collective struggle of Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli politicians agreed that the Palestinians needed to be crushed. They had the full backing of the United States, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writing: “The Palestinian uprising must be suppressed brutally and rapidly”.

The rising had come spontaneously, but organisations quickly emerged to deepen the revolt. Local committees coordinating demonstrations, boycotts, tax strikes and economic self-sufficiency were led by the National Unified Command of the Uprising, composed of leading Palestinian organisations.

If it were down to a question of the justness of the struggle or the determination of the Palestinians, the Israeli state would have been defeated in this confrontation.

There were places in the West Bank that Israeli military personnel could not bring under control even with hundreds of troops. Settling scores with the Palestinian uprising cost Israel $526 million. But that was only 20 percent of total US aid in 1988, and there was no indication that the aid would cease to be forthcoming.

Despite strikes causing disruption in some sectors, the core industries of the Israeli economy had long been guarded from Arab labour and remained untouched by the rebellion. Israeli civil society, including trade union members, mobilised to fill labour shortages and suppress the revolt.

It would have taken an immense movement of solidarity across the region to wrest control of Palestine from the Israeli state. Masses of workers across the region did heed the call. In Egypt, activists mounted a serious solidarity movement that drew in the power of organised workers. Employees of the Mahalla al-Kubra textile plant, later the powerhouse of the 2011 revolution, faced down riot police sent to break up their solidarity demonstration.

Soon, anger was directed against the Arab regimes, which had, for their own economic and geopolitical interests, acceded to imperialist control. Moreover, the Arab ruling classes feared that a contagion of rebellion might threaten their own governments.

In 1988, Algerians launched their own intifada. The country’s greater economic integration into world markets had produced economic discontent that generated, among workers and the poor, anger against the Algerian ruling class as much as Israel.

However, the politics dominating the National Unified Command of the Uprising was not revolutionary internationalism, but Palestinian nationalism. In seeking to establish no more than another capitalist nation-state, the leading organisation in the intifada, Fatah, failed to present a viable alternative to coexistence with the Israeli state and the Arab regimes.

So when the Arab masses rose and faced stiff opposition from their rulers, Fatah leader Yasser Arafat rushed to cool tensions. The Arab rulers sought a compromise that would leave their regimes intact. And the US agreed to broker peace talks. Arafat declared a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and the West Bank and recognised the existence of Israel.

But this seeming victory for the limited, “two-state” solution was a disaster for the Palestinians, who were made to accept oppression at the hands of Israel. Now that acquiescence had been extracted from the Palestinian leadership, Israel played hardball with the intifada. It made sweeps through every village for activists, jailing 30,000 by the end of 1988, according to the Palestine Human Rights Information Centre. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, and the movement petered out.

The energy of the movement, sustained for so long against tanks and bullets, was finally crushed by a combination of the repression of the Israeli security forces and betrayal at the hands of the official Palestinian leadership. The Arab regimes watched on, satisfied that the threat to their own positions was subsiding.

In later talks, Israel and Fatah concluded negotiations that created the Palestinian Authority. Far from forming an independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority became a police force for Israel in the occupied territories.

Today, a new generation of Palestinians has risen. Their freedom one day will come. But it will be achieved by the mass of exploited and oppressed fighting in their own interests, not in peace with their capitalist rulers, but through an uprising that pushes them out of the way.

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