Intifada then and now
By Ali Abunimah
The Jordan Times
September 6, 2001
"THE PALESTINIAN uprising still rumbles steadily along, barely
deterred by Israel's ever-changing tactics for suppressing it. But
now for the first time, Israeli army officers as well as other
leading officials are acknowledging with frustration and despair
that nothing they can do will end it."
So reported the New York Times on Jan. 29, 1989, just over a year
into the first Intifada. Now, as the first anniversary of the new
Intifada approaches, Israeli newspapers are full of similar
frustration and even mockery of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his
government who every other day announce they have found a "solution
to the security problem". Of course they are no closer to that, and
the Palestinian revolt against the occupation is, if anything,
Looking back now at the first Intifada it is startling to see just
how much more brutal Israel has become, while at the same time how
inured the world is to Israel's tactics. What were regarded as
extreme measures in the first Intifada, seem almost mild -- even tame
-- in comparison. In 1989, the New York Times reported that "the
resistance has not flagged despite the recent Israeli decisions to
use steel and rubber bullets that harm instead of merely sting, to
increase the use of plastic bullets that can injure or kill, and to
widen the judicial and monetary penalties against demonstrators."
Today it is impossible to imagine Israel fining or arresting
demonstrators, nor making distinctions between bullets that merely
"sting" and those that "harm." Now Israeli troops simply shoot to
kill, no questions asked. In response to the killing of 11-year-old
Mohammad Zurub by occupation soldiers in Gaza on Aug. 24, the
Israeli army spokesman protested that the troops did not kill him
until he presented a "danger" to them. What "danger" a small child
throwing stones could possibly be to heavily armed, highly-trained
soldiers, ensconced in bunkers and tanks, let alone one that would
justify on-the-spot execution of the child with a bullet clean
through the heart, the spokesman did not explain.
Of course Israel's policy was often lethal and deliberately cruel
during the first Intifada. One year into that uprising more than 300
Palestinians had been killed by occupation forces and settlers --
almost all of them unarmed civilians and more than fifty of them
children. But today, after Israel ostensibly "withdrew" from parts
of the occupied territories, its forces and settlers have managed to
kill almost 600 people in less then a year, again, the vast majority
unarmed civilians, and a third of them children. Injuries are
estimated to be 20,000, more than for the whole of the first
Intifada. Every human rights group that has looked has found
deliberate and indiscriminate brutality by the occupation troops.
Almost every one of Israel's brutal policies from the first Intifada
has an even more brutal corollary today. Then, tens of thousands of
Palestinians were detained in giant desert prison camps like Ansar
II, Ansar III and Ketsiot, where torture and abuse were normal. Now,
though thousands of Palestinians remain in Israel's jails, the
occupation army does not bother to haul people off for throwing
stones or spraying anti-occupation graffiti. Rather, Israel has
simply turned every city and town in the occupied territories into a
giant prison. Instead of mere thousands, Israel now holds nearly
three million people behind fences, walls and trenches in 63
separate enclaves, cut off from food, work and each other, and
unable to move without serious risk to their lives. Every
Palestinian child born in the occupied territories today is born in
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Israel would demolish or seal
individual houses as a form of collective punishment. Today, it
flattens entire neighbourhoods in the middle of the night as
terrified residents scramble for cover from the fire-spitting
armoured bulldozers and tanks.
Palestinian political leaders and activists were expelled to Jordan
or Lebanon during the first Intifada. Today, they are simply
murdered by Israeli death squads. The death squads are not new, but
their use was relatively rare in the past. According to Israel's
human rights group B'Tselem, Israeli "undercover units" killed only
five Palestinians in 1988, 25 in 1989 and a total of 114 in the
seven years up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993.
This compares with more than fifty people in less than a year in the
present uprising, with an additional eleven bystanders killed as a
result of these murderous attacks.
While Ariel Sharon openly boasts about the people he has ordered
killed, Israel's past leaders were more cautious. After the brazen
1988 murder in his bed of senior PLO official Khalil Al Wazir (Abu
Jihad) in Tunis, Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly
told his cabinet: "I heard about it on the radio, just like you,"
and the Israeli army refused to comment on the operation which its
commandos had carried out. Human rights groups could only surmise
from obvious patterns and circumstantial evidence that Israel was
engaging in extra-judicial executions in the occupied territories,
because Israel worked hard to cover its tracks, at one point even
revoking the press credentials of a number of journalists, including
from Reuters, for merely suggesting it.
Up until the mid-1990s, it was not unheard of for occupation troops
to fire anti-tank missiles into houses where they thought "suspects"
were hiding, and in September 1996, Israel used helicopter gunships
against Palestinian civilians to suppress protests which erupted
after the opening of a tunnel under Al Aqsa complex in occupied East
Jerusalem. But there is no precedent for US-made Apache helicopters
being used to hunt down and murder individuals as they routinely are
today. Nor did anyone predict that the world's most advanced fighter
jets would be used to drop 300 kg bombs in Palestinian
neighbourhoods in the occupied territories. In three months, what
was once shocking has become almost normal. When Israel used F-16s
against Nablus last May, killing 12 people, there was widespread
outrage, even from US Vice President Dick Cheney (who more recently
gave tacit approval to Israel's death squads).
Following Israel's air-raids in late August, The Independent
reported that more than 12 hours later "not a whisper of complaint
had emerged from the international community" (August 27).
As Israeli violence against Palestinians has escalated dramatically,
Palestinian violence targeting Israelis has also become more lethal.
From December 1987 to the Oslo signing, 160 Israelis were killed,
according to B'Tselem.
After less than a year of the new Intifada 150 Israelis have died.
More than half of them were soldiers and settlers in the occupied
territories, but dozens have died in gruesome suicide bombings
within the Green Line, a phenomenon which did not take root until
While every killing of a civilian is equally unjustifiable, there is
a distinction to be made between the actions of individuals and
groups on the one hand, and the actions of a member state of the
United Nations, ordered by its cabinet and carried out by its
bureaucrats and soldiers on the other.
Yet, if international, especially American, condemnation of Israeli
violence has been muted, this is not so of Palestinian violence. The
United States leads the pack that puts the onus on the occupied
rather than the occupier to "break the cycle of violence". There is
a tendency, reflected especially in the US media, to hold the entire
Palestinian population accountable for the acts of a few, while the
crimes of Israel's government are seldom left at the doorstep of
anyone let alone the people who elected it. More praise can still be
heard in the United States for Israel's "restraint" than criticism
of its growing brutality.
Where will this all end? Unfortunately the top of this escalator of
death is still not in view. If today Israel murders someone it would
once have arrested or deported, what will it do to the family of
that person whom it once collectively punished by demolishing their
house? Following the same logic it ought simply to kill the family.
This is precisely what Israel's Deputy Public Security Minister
Gideon Ezra recently proposed. The United States strongly denounced
his comments and asked the Israeli government to repudiate them, but
neither Ezra nor the government in which he serves, nor even
Israel's allegedly "doveish" Nobel Prize-winning Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres, have yet done so.
As Israel's violence has increased, its defiance of international
law becomes more brazen, and its occupation more entrenched; the
international climate and attitude towards it is not significantly
more hostile than it was the first time around. In some respects, it
is far better, as Israel is virtually assured that neither the UN
nor the Arab League nor any other international body is willing or
able to restrain it. One slight hope is that now there is a real
though very slim prospect that Israel's leaders may one day face
justice in a court of law for their crimes. But for now there is no
reason to believe that the world will not allow Israel's occupation
and its attempt to crush all resistance to it to continue
unperturbed well into the future.
Looking forward it is important not to be alarmist or to predict
disasters that are unlikely to happen. But looking back eleven
years, and even just eleven months, leads one to the conclusion that
the worst is yet to come and that if Israel possesses the means to
do something, there is a chance that eventually it will do it.
The writer is an analyst based in the United States.