Chris Gelken: Debating the Palestinian Uprising

By Chris Gelken
Special to

Twenty years ago this month a popular uprising began in the occupied Palestinian territories. Images of stone-throwing Palestinian youths confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers are burned into the collective memory of Western television audiences.

It became known as the Intifada – an Arabic word meaning “uprising.” It was also known as the “war of stones” – rock throwing youngsters pitched against a professional army of occupation.

Beginning in the Jabalya refugee camp in December 1987, the intifada spread quickly and soon affected all the occupied territories from Gaza to East Jerusalem.

Arguments persist as to the actual cause or trigger for the uprising that lasted for five years, and claimed the lives of 1,100 Palestinians and 160 Israelis. What began with rocks against guns escalated as the intifada progressed, but it was never an even contest.

It was a one sided battle says Palestinian-American author Ramzy Baroud, one born out of deep frustration.

“It was very much a spontaneous grass roots uprising,” he told PressTV’s Middle East Today. “I was born and raised in a refugee camp near Jabalya. In fact in my refugee camp we claim that the intifada started in our refugee camp. My headmaster of the school was the founder of Hamas. So very much I sensed and lived that experience day in and day out throughout the entire first intifada.”

Baroud, author of ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada – A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle’ said it was the spontaneous action of ordinary people. “For the first time in many years Palestinian residents basically took the lead on how to handle their affairs and how to deal with the situation. This as opposed to having the PLO taking charge of Palestinian affairs, running it from Beirut, Amman or Tunisia or elsewhere. It was a reclaiming of Palestinian rights over their own national struggle, taking the struggle back to the refugee camp as opposed to fighting the good fight from five star hotels.”

There have been persistent attempts to deprive the ordinary people of that achievement and turn the intifada into a political tool in the hands of the leadership outside, he said, and unfortunately they eventually succeeded in doing so.

According to Rev. Stephen Sizer, author of the groundbreaking ‘Christian Zionism – Roadmap to Armageddon?’ the ferocity and spread of the rebellion took the Israeli security forces by surprise.

“The first intifada really put the Israelis on the defensive, they didn’t know how to handle the resistance from children throwing stones. It was a really a public relations disaster,” said Sizer, “especially when Western television audiences saw the brutality with which Israeli troops put down many of the disturbances. It forced the Israelis to revise their strategy for continuing the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

Sizer said following the first intifada the Israelis began to proactively expand the settlements, and build roads for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers so they would not have to go through Palestinian villages. Ultimately, he said, this policy led to the construction of the controversial protection barriers, often dubbed “apartheid walls.”

But syndicated columnist and contributing editor to National Review Online, Deroy Murdock, dismissed the suggestion that the intifada was simply a spontaneous uprising, saying it formed part of a long standing pattern of violent Palestinian resistance.

“ I look at this uprising not as an isolated incident, just a spontaneous group of people rising up in 1987,” Murdock said, “It was part of a pattern of a much longer period of violence related to the cause of the Palestinians, going back if you will to the attack on the 1972 Olympics.”

Murdock said, “You had somebody like Abu Nidal claiming to speak out for the Palestinian people by blowing up a TWA jet killing everyone on board; the PLO group that hijacked the cruise liner the Achille Lauro leading to the death of one passenger – so as an American I look back on that as part of a long pattern of decades of violence related to the Palestinian cause.”

Murdock argued that the Palestinian cause would have been better served through civil disobedience or passive resistance, rather than violence.

“To me it’s always a mystery, a tragedy that the Palestinian cause was not fought through the tools of non-violence, which you saw Mahatma Gandhi use in India and Martin Luther King Jr. used here in the United States. Standing up to oppression through non-violence, through peaceful protest.”

By using violence and targeting civilians, Murdock said, the Palestinians lost the moral high ground and they have largely lost a lot of the sympathy they would otherwise have had.

“Gandhi,” Sizer responded, “was only able to conduct his non-violent resistance because of the British approach to diplomacy. If he had been living in Gaza he would have either have been arrested, kidnapped or disappeared. He’d have been shot.”

Baroud said the intifada actually did begin as a peaceful protest. “I disagree with Deroy,” he said, “the intifada was not a continuation, it was a new non-violent resistance and that is exactly what it was. The fact that Israel responded so harshly and so brutally in so many different ways, I can’t imagine what any other response would be except to counter violence with violence.”

Watching American television, Baroud said, you will not get the realities of what is actually taking place in Palestine.

“The Palestinian people have been dehumanized; have been mistreated so brutally throughout the years. They have been treated less than animals, they are literally caged, people are dying at Israeli checkpoints, they are being sniped at daily by Israeli snipers – it just shows me how little people know about the reality of living in the Palestinian territories.”

When the intifada began the Palestinian leadership was mostly living in exile, but a consequence of the uprising, Baroud said, was a short lived unification of different Palestinian factions.

“The first intifada managed to end the state of factionalism among Palestinian groups. There was, for the first time, internal Palestinian cohesion. We saw parties forming some sort of a unity group through which they coordinated their resistance. Unfortunately it did not last for long. But my hope is that they will be able to do that once more,” he said.

The energy that came out of the first intifada, Baroud continued, could have been channeled in a way to empower the Palestinian leadership to negotiate as a strong party, not one with a posture of defeatism. “That was an opportunity that was squandered.”

Murdock isn’t convinced there was Palestinian unity, and pointed out that in addition to the 1,100 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, more than 1,000 were killed in factional disputes.

“A big part of the intifada was the moderate Palestinians who were targeted, assassinated, by the PLO,” Murdock said, “Yassir Arafat went through this group of 120 who had been killed and said ‘We have studied the files of those who were killed and found that only two of them were innocent.’ The others, according to Arafat, were guilty of collaboration with the Israelis and were executed.”

Arguably the uprising contributed to the Madrid Conference of 1991, a three-day meeting that attempted to forge the beginning of a peace process between Israel and its Arab enemies. It also marked the return of the PLO from its exile in Tunisia. The conference was the first of several rounds of negotiations throughout the 1990s, and formed the basis of the 1993 Oslo Accords – the first direct agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The Accords set out the structure for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Israeli didn’t leave Gaza until 2005, and Murdock isn’t impressed with result.

“Israel turned Gaza over to the Palestinians and the Palestinians had every opportunity to turn it into a trade zone to attract investment. And instead you’ve seen violence, destruction, Palestinian on Palestinian. The Palestinians came in and they destroyed it. They had a great opportunity to show we now control Gaza and make something of this, and now we just have mayhem and chaos,” he said.

Sizer, is equally unimpressed with the Israeli withdrawal, but for quite different reasons.

“The Israelis have not left Gaza, they merely moved from inside the jail to outside the jail. The Israelis control the air, the land, and the sea. Gaza is a prison, and they control it, they go in whenever they want and they are strangulating the Palestinian population.”

Sizer expressed deep pessimism over the creation of any future Palestinian state.

“The Israeli agenda is very clear,” he said, “they have no intention of sitting down and agreeing to share the land. That’s been their agenda since the 1920s, and it has followed a doctrine of the iron wall which is to seize the maximum amount of land from the Palestinians and deny any rights for the Palestinians to exist alongside Israel.”

He cited the construction of a “security” wall around the city of Bethlehem, designed to deter suicide bombers, as evidence of what lies in store for the Palestinians.

“Bethlehem is an experiment, a prototype, surrounded with a separation wall,” he said, “If the West and especially the Christian West doesn’t object to what Israel is doing in Bethlehem we are going to see the same in Jericho, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and we’re going to see the expansion of this strategy of using ghettos, some call them zoos or reservations for the Palestinians. And so we must come back to international law and say this is illegal, immoral and unjust, and the Palestinian intifada is a legitimate resistance to this illegal occupation.”

Sizer also squarely holds Israel responsible for the Second Palestinian Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada that began in September 2000 after a controversial visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

“In my opinion it was the Israelis that provoked the second intifada because they did not want to follow through on the Oslo Accords and the roadmap to peace. They provoked the Palestinians in order to continue their illegal occupation.”

Describing Israeli operations in the occupied territories as genocide, Sizer blames the United States for failing to restrain the Israelis and for preventing the intervention of international peacekeepers to keep the warring sides apart.

“Why no peacekeepers? A very simple reason, the American establishment supports the Israeli agenda in Gaza and the occupied territories unconditionally. The American establishment is funding the settlements, the separation roads and the wall in complete disregard to international law,” he said, “and so you will never find the international community being enabled to intervene.”

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