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The first intifada from inside an Israeli prison

The first intifada from inside an Israeli prison
7 min read
08 December, 2014
Qadoura Fares was behind bars when the first intifada broke out. He remembers setting the stage for the growth of Palestinian activism, two decades after the occupation began.
The first intifada was sparked after the deaths of four Palestinians in Gaza [Getty]
Editor's note: The first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993) was sparked by anger over the death of four Palestinians who were run over by an Israelimilitary vehicle near the Jabilya refugee camp in Gaza.

The day after their 7 December funeral saw the largest Palestinian uprising since the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank in 1967.

This is the first in a series of personal testimonies by Palestinian activists, describing their role in the first intifada.

Qadoura Fares is a Fatah leader, and a former state minister of the Palestinian Authority. He joined Fatah at the age of 16 in 1978, and was later detained by Israel and sentenced to 15 years in jail. Here, he recounts memories of the prisoners' interaction and engagement through the first intifada.

For a brief moment at the beginning of the intifada ["uprising"], Palestinian prisoners felt that it was just a temporary thing.
     The Palestinian movement in the occupied territories was in a miserable condition.

It had, after all, been preceded by other, smaller, uprisings. The prisoners followed the news with great enthusiasm, even though they did not think it was going to grow into a fully-fledged intifada.

However, a month after it began, the inmates felt we had entered into a new and decisive battle against the Israeli occupation, one which would bring us closer than ever to achieving the hopes of the Palestinian people for freedom and independence.

The inmates were mostly young men who had taken a personal initiative at a time when the national movement was in a relatively weak position. They reacted to the events with a great deal of emotion and interest.

I remember at the beginning of the intifada, every time we heard news about another martyr, we would perform the martyrdom rituals and ceremonies as a celebration in the prison yard. We often clashed with the prison administration, which tried to ban any act of a patriotic nature.

We responded to the events by making statements from inside the prison and sending them out through friends, and passed on suggestions and other remarks.

Arriving in jail
[In 1980] the occupation was only 13 years old, and people felt hopeless and defeated.

I was 18 when I was imprisoned in 1980. At that time, only a few cells were active, and there was a general lack of Palestinian activism.

I am talking about a time when the occupation was only 13 years old and people felt hopeless and defeated. People were afraid of the occupation.

When I was in prison, an intelligence officer could go into a village alone, in a small Renault, sit in a cafe and talk to people, sometimes impolitely.

At other times he would beat people. He would be able to leave the village in his car, unchallenged and unharmed. This was the general atmosphere at the time.

This was the situation when we started. The Palestinian movement in the occupied territories was in a miserable condition. The youth movements had not yet been formed, it was mainly armed cells, and of course their arms were primitive.

We formed a cell in Ramallah in 1979. We bombed a crowded area in Netanya, an Israeli army bus, and killed agents. This is what the cell did, and, in 1980, after nearly a year and a half, we were imprisoned.

Our methods were simple, most members had not yet turned 20 at the time.

The pre-intifada

I think the pre-intifada phase, from 1980 to 1987, was the most important period. This is when the Palestinian movement rose and managed to unite the Palestinian people.

During that phase, youths fresh out of Israeli prisons were entering universities. Student councils acted as unions for university students. In 1981, 1982 and 1983, prisons released young people who were already university students. They learned from their years in prison, and went out to continue their education.

They were known for and categorised by their political affiliations; Fatah, the Popular Front or others. Keeping affiliations a secret was not necessary. This helped the former prisoners and earned them the students' trust. They were older and had more political and intellectual awareness, and thus got elected to the student councils.

Look at the names of student council members in all universities at that time, you will find that most of them were former prisoners.

These youths transformed the role of university student councils, from that of a union to a national organising role. Universities and prisons became incubators for the Palestinian movement, producing new leaders and cadres defying the occupation.

Unlike their parents who witnessed the 1967 defeat, these youths dared to speak against the occupation and wear the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, raise the Palestinian flag, write slogans on walls and publicly insult the occupation.

But, of course, they paid the price. Some were imprisoned, others were placed under home arrest or suffered other punitive measures. This is when the defiance began, and it culminated in the intifada.

Israel's prisons acted as preparatory schools for activists, and even though no one was prepared for the intifada, preparations were made for the formation of a national movement to unite the people, the aim of any national movement.

During the 1980s, prisoners frequently made statements and took part in elections of unions, societies and all the activist organisations that were emerging.

The prisoners remained in contact after they were released, and sometimes they would even receive guidance on which university or union to join.

There is a compass that guides Palestinians, regardless of our affiliations. There is also benign competition between different factions, who watched each other's activities. The diversity in Palestinian politics really was then benign, unlike the confrontation between factions in today's Palestinian politics.

These factions all produced new cadres in prisons and sent them to universities. Prisons and universities became the two main focal points for the Palestinian movement.

And so it began.

Soon after, groups were created to support the national movement. In Fatah, for example, the shabiba ["youth"] committees were formed. They became a turning point in the history of Fatah and the Palestinian movement, because we engaged with a broader public.

We embraced student movement prisoners and listened to them. We learned from their experience and realised the value of our presence in al-Najah National University or Birzeit University, for example. We had influence in the street, and student movements were an extension of our power.

Before being deported, union members would be sent to prison, especially Junaid prison. I remember the first group to be deported in January 1988 during the first intifada. The young prisoners were transferred from Atlit to Junaid prison.

I remember when they were released, we would sing them a national song. This is a powerful and touching memory for me, how we said goodbye to them and how we felt victory.

Even though we were in a tragic and desperate situation, I think we were more certain about victory then than we are today.


     Even though were in a desperate situation, we were more certain about victory then than we are today.

Most of the leading members of the united national leadership committee were fellow inmates.

We used to send them suggestions and information about arrested cell members. We would tell them the reason why those members were arrested, and who was at risk if they confessed. They would wait for our information.

We were constantly in touch with the command. In addition to the statements we made to encourage the people to work with the united national leadership, we called on the people to comply with the committee's decisions.

We only had one visit per month, and we would use it to send messages with anyone leaving the prison. Anyone could visit us, unlike today, with visits limited to close relatives.

Messenger to matchmaker

Al-Hajja Afifa, who is almost 87 years old today and unfortunately very ill, used to carry secret messages in and out of prison. Through her, we sent messages to Fatah in Amman, where comrades would send them to Yasser Arafat.

She was a true fighter who could smuggle out messages like no one else. She would carry messages herself to Rafah or Jenin if we asked her to.

Even though we were not related, she visited me for years.

She would put seven or eight secret messages inside a falafel sandwich and eat it as she crossed the bridge. And because of her old age, her peasant dress, easy conversation and normal behaviour, no one ever suspected her.

Her brother was sentenced to life in prison, but he was released in a prisoner swap in 1985. Despite that, she continued to work with us and visit us.

When I was released, Hajja Afifa chose my wife for me.

Each day this week, al-Araby will be publishing more first-hand accounts of life during the first intifada.