Gaza in the early days of the first intifada

Gaza in the early days of the first intifada
14 min read
09 December, 2014
The outbreak of the first intifada was spontaneous, but it spread only after a systematic effort at organisation.
Daily humiliations, threats and violence fuelled the first intifada [AFP]
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of testimonies marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. Catch up with the first installment, The first intifada from inside an Israeli prison, by Fatah leader Qadoura Fares. 

This second episode features the words of Jamal Zakout, a member of the Palestine National Council and a co-founder of the Unified National Leadership of the 1987 Intifada.

The intifada ["uprising"] started as a spontaneous event, the result of escalating violations of the rights of Palestinians in their own land, and the daily humiliations imposed by the Israeli occupation and its increasing brutality. These festering grievances all came to a head in late 1987.

Factors that contributed to the outbreak and the subsequent effectiveness of the intifada include the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had begun to unify again after the Algeria Conference; the fact that Israel was cracking down on all segments of Palestinian society without exception, imposing taxes, confiscating land, suppressing trade union freedoms and intervening in universities.

Palestinians had reached boiling point because Israel went too far in humiliating people's dignity and undervaluing their lives, especially in the Gaza Strip.

I believe the incident in which a settler killed Intisar al-Attara, a young Palestinian girl from Deir al-Balah, was no less serious for Palestinians than the incident that actually sparked the intifada, in which four workers were killed by an Israeli truck on the Gaza-Ashkelon road.

Intisar's killer was released less than a week after his arrest on the grounds that he had acted in self-defence, after he killed her in cold blood inside a classroom in her school.
[Israeli soldiers] would take pleasure in tormenting people... They would tip over stalls in the market and order people to dance.

This injustice was accompanied by conscious attempts to humiliate people. I remember the Jafaati and Golani military units, which would be deployed for a rest in Gaza after combat missions in Lebanon.

These units would take pleasure in tormenting people in Gaza in an unbelievable manner. They would tip over stalls in the market. They would force elderly people to clean spray-painted slogans, or even order them to dance on their stalls. They deliberately humiliated people, and even threatened their lives. People felt no one was safe, and that everyone was a target.

The killing of the four workers was the spark that ignited the fire. But the situation was primed for explosion because of the humiliation, the feeling among people that they were being personally targeted and that they were not safe.

The first communique

For the sake of history, I want to note that this situation had its own underlying causes that drove the entire dynamic. However, while it is true that the initial eruption was spontaneous and none of the various political factions ordered it, the organisational structures of the various forces of the Palestinian national movement were mature enough to carry the intifada forward and give it a coherent program, setting out its goals, mechanisms and organising initiatives to forward a national agenda that allowed all Palestinians to play a role.

The notion of mass action and the relationship between organisations and people's interests had begun to take shape before the intifada. I refer here specifically to the first statement of the unified leadership.

If the statement had only rejected the occupation and called for it to be resisted, then it is likely that not all segments of the people would have mobilised. I say frankly and without any pretence that I drafted the first communique of the unified leadership. Incidentally, it was called Communique No.2. There was no Communique No.1, but that is another story.

This statement had three main points: First, it considered the intifada, its leadership, and its grassroots activism as an integral part of the PLO, not a substitute for it.

Second, it identified the main grievances of citizens in various sectors, whether they were farmers, workers humiliated at their workplace, businesspeople, doctors, engineers squeezed by taxes or students whose universities had been closed.

Inside the intifada
    Feature: A testimony to Palestine's 1987 day of rage

Feature: The first intifada from inside an Israeli prison

All these elements were included in the goals stated in the first communique of the unified leadership, which explained how, without an end to the occupation, there would be no way to address all the issues these groups were pushing to resolve.

In other words, the issues related to the interests of ordinary people were linked to a supreme national interest that brought everybody together, and this is why we saw there was a broad engagement in the intifada by the people.

This is why I said this intifada was characterised by broad democratic and popular depth, because there was no segment of society that did not partake in its events, each according to his or her own abilities. Even when Israel tried to suppress various segments of society, to shut down educational institutions, this was countered through popular education.

Curfews were countered by aid and relief. Vandalism against shops was countered by neighbourhood guards, as were assaults on villages and camps.

Moreover, the unified leadership provided guidance to the people on how to endure the crisis, including on how to use wells for water, collect water by other means, grow food at home and store food supplies.

It managed the battle with the occupation by linking national strategic issues such as the intifada's slogan of ending the occupation to the simplest issues connected with how students whose schools or universities were closed could be compensated in the context of so-called popular education, or at other institutions, homes, or even mosques in some cases.

The first confrontation 

The intifada mobilised all sections of Palestinian society - Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, 1988 [AFP]

When the four slain workers were buried at the Jabalya refugee camp, angry marches followed.

The death of the four was linked to the settlers' bloodthirsty behaviour. People were outraged. Israeli soldiers opened fire on the funeral and the intifada got its first martyr, Hatem al-Sisi.

His death further galvanised Palestinians.

The second factor was the role of Haidar Abdel-Shafi and the Committee of National Institutions, which consisted of representatives from the various factions. It was headed by Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, and included trade unions and public figures. I was part of the committee.

A cable to Yitzhak Rabin

The first communique consisted of six points. It was a memorandum drafted by the Committee of National Institutions, enumerating issues directly related to people's affairs.

A colleague and I were commissioned to send it on behalf of Palestinian institutions as a cable to Yitzhak Rabin. When we went to the post office, the employee there was puzzled.

We told him it was a cable we wrote to Yitzhak Rabin, and he did not want to send it from his office. It included six demands, on land confiscation, the evacuation of military forces from residential areas, an end to harassment at universities, an end to interference in the trade union movement and the arrests of trade unionists, and the abolition of taxes. It was sent to Rabin at the request of Abdel-Shafi.

The number of martyrs increased quickly in the first month, peaking on the day we sent the cable to Rabin, when the Committee of National Institutions staged a march from the headquarters of the Bar Association to Shifa Hospital. This was the first public rally in which many influential political, social and economic segments of Palestinian society in Gaza took part, including doctors in their white coats and lawyers in their robes, with Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi leading them from the front.

The Israeli soldiers moved from their headquarters, now the Legislative Council building in Gaza, to suppress the rally. However, the Israelis could not deal with the huge number of people and the stature of the figures taking part in the demonstration.

The Israeli army had no choice but to stand aside and watch.

The march proceeded to Shifa Hospital. The organisers read out the six demands and visited the many wounded people in the hospital. However, after they came out of the hospital, the occupation forces opened fire, killing 17.

I still remember Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi at the scene. In the middle of the massacre, he did not retreat. He did not go out meaning to die but he kept moving forward, and went inside the first mosque opposite the hospital.

Unified national leadership

I represented the Democratic Front at the time. The organisational structure was unified, the organisation in Gaza was not separate from the West Bank.

Abdel-Shafi asked how the movement in the West Bank and Gaza could be developed. The result of that question was that on the eve of 8 January 1988, a communique was distributed on behalf of the Palestinian national forces, the first statement over events in the West Bank.

The statement was issued by one of the components of the Fatah movement in the central West Bank, and had a limited distribution. A decision was made to contact all the national forces, including Fatah, the Popular Front and the Communist Party at the time.

The number of martyrs increased quickly in the first month, peaking on the day of the march to Shifa Hospital.

Although no final decision had been made, we decided to test the ground. Communique No.2 was released, building on Fatah's statement without contradicting it, emphasising the six goals agreed upon in Gaza and linking them to national Palestinian goals.

This communique declared the context of the action in the West Bank was that the unified national leadership is one, in the West Bank and Gaza. We decided to distribute it across all the regions in the West Bank, signed by the unified national leadership for the escalation of the intifada.

In Gaza, it was distributed in the name of the unified national leadership in Gaza.

On the second or third day, Fatah's leadership, represented by Abu Jihad, gave its approval to the leadership of Fatah in the West Bank, represented by Samir Shehadeh, to add the slogan "no voice is louder than the voice of the PLO" under the slogan "no voice is louder than the voice of the intifada".

With this change in the third communique and later events, the factions began to come together in the framework of the unified national leadership.

Communique No.2 was distributed in Gaza but omitted the word "escalation", as the intifada in Gaza needed organisation and guidance more than escalation.

The third and fourth statements introduced further differences between the West Bank and Gaza, in addressing the daily affairs of people and guidance over issues such as barricades, guards, protecting shops, villages and roads. There were various geographical and political differences between the communiques.

The sixth communique was supposed to be issued in the West Bank, but was intercepted by Israel when its forces raided the printing presses. Israel arrested many members of the Democratic Front that night, the front being the party that handled the printing of the statement.

The statement, which was supposed to be printed in Gaza and distributed in the West Bank, was issued in the name of the unified national leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.

It was the same statement, but the language was different.

I remember it well, because there were two important things about it: the first copy of the sixth statement that was used, and not the one that was intercepted, was distributed outside Maskoubieh Prison, to send a message to the occupation: "You seized the printing press and the sixth statement, and arrested our people, but the intifada and its leadership endure."

Also, this statement was the first to be endorsed publicly by Yasser Arafat for the benefit of the unified national leadership in an interview with Antoine Nawfal on Radio Monte Carlo, when the radio station tried to get an answer about whether the intifada was organised or spontaneous.

I would say the intifada was neither completely spontaneous nor completely organised. It is not possible for an entire people to come out at the order of leaders, but at the same time, organisations were active in Palestine and throughout the intifada, and were not isolated from the broader public.

The intifada was popular, democratic and broad based, and gradually became more organised over time.

The PLO and its various factions helped organise the intifada from the very beginning, setting its goals and specifying its mechanisms and committees.

They took the initiative to organise, but in Gaza and the West Bank the people spontaneously rejected the occupation.

There was also a question as to whether the intifada was religious or nationalist in character, even though at that time Hamas had not been founded. Yasser Arafat, answering Antoine Nawfal, said Communique No.6 was in his hand, but in reality the communique was not awaiting Yasser Arafat's approval. Nevertheless, he declared the statement had been approved by the PLO.

    Palestinians were not allowed to fly their flag during the intifada - Nablus, 1988 [AFP]

The legitimacy of the unified national leadership came from the people. The intifada provided the PLO with a real opportunity to connect with the people, expressing their aspirations and hopes. It showed that every Palestinian was affiliated to the PLO.

Avoiding arrest

The Israeli army started staging raids in Gaza. This is an interesting story. I was at home, but I was not arrested. We had made a decision to avoid being arrested no matter what happens. I felt an arrest was coming, but at the same time there was a curfew and I didn't know where to go. I took precautions at home.

There are some fantastic elements about this story and an element of luck. My wife was pregnant. We had filed a lawsuit over a miscarriage she had two years earlier, and the trial was ongoing. We made a decision not to leave home and to try to make the house look as though it were abandoned in case it was raided.

We cleaned the house and removed all our documents, with the exception of the organisational hierarchy of the unified national leadership in Gaza, because it had been approved just three hours before we expected I would be arrested.

At 9pm, I learned there was a high probability I might get arrested. That night, arrests were being made in the West Bank. There was no way for me to leave and I didn't know where to go anyway.

The house was stormed at midnight. The ruse we set up for the Israelis succeeded. I had locked myself in my bedroom, and there was another room that resembled a bedroom. We locked all doors and kept the keys on the coffee table in the hallway.

The whole house consisted of two rooms, a small hallway, and a small kitchen. We took the key of the bedroom where we hid from the keys on the coffee table. They tried to enter and rang the bell before they broke the metal door. The house was clean in a way that wouldn't raise suspicions that anyone was living in it. We even dried up all water in the house to make it look like it had been abandoned for a while.

They started opening all the internal doors until they reached the bedroom door. We expected them to shoot through the door, but we stayed quiet. Suddenly, they left the house, seemingly convinced there was nobody at home.

The PLO helped organise the intifada from the very beginning, setting its goals and specifying its mechanisms and committees.

Of course, I vanished after that.

I hid at the home of a neighbour who belonged to the Popular Front. In the morning, I went to my parents' home, but when I saw the army had turned everything inside-out there, I decided to hide.

Living in safe houses in Gaza was difficult, to be honest. I moved to Ramallah temporarily, and hid in a house in Jerusalem until I was arrested at the home of a Jewish friend in Jerusalem on 16 February 1988.

This was shortly after the six communiques were issued. I was interrogated for a long time. On 11 April 1988 I was sentenced to deportation. This coincided with the deportation of seven others.

Only Ziad Nkhaleh and I of the eight sentenced to deportation were from Gaza. Nkhaleh is now deputy secretary general of Islamic Jihad. The deportees from the West Bank included Adnan Dagher from the Communist Party, Luay Abdo from Fatah, Samir Sabihat, Jamal Lafi and two others.

We contested the deportation, and there was a major political uproar. I think this was the first deportation of leaders of the intifada. The deportation decisions that were issued after that were not implemented, including orders to deport prisoners detained before the intifada.

After the decision to deport us, the UN Security Council condemned this policy and called for the decision to be reversed. I remember this well. Israel tried to bargain with us to circumvent the condemnation of the Security Council, provided we agreed to leave voluntarily for two years. Of course, we rejected this categorically.

They deported the eight of us on 1 August 1988. They took us to the south of Lebanon, where we staged a sit-in at the Red Cross headquarters in the Bekaa Valley. We asked to be put under the protection of the Red Cross, but unfortunately this did not happen. After that, we continued our work and I went to Tunisia, Algeria, Damascus and Egypt.

I eventually settled in Amman, as I was looking to live nearer my home country.

Watch out for the third installment of this series of intifada memories, which will be published by al-Araby tomorrow.