Eyewitness to the Palestinian Uprising

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

an interview with Marty Rosenbluth

THE PALESTINIAN uprising in the West Bank and Gaza continues without letup after more than five months. Recent dramatic developments have included the Israeli death-squad murder of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Khalil el-Wazir (Abu Jihad); continuing mass commercial strikes in the Occupied Territories; the detention of over a thousand Palestinians in concentration-camp conditions, most notably in the newly constructed prison called “Ansar 3.” Israeli troops blew up a dozen Palestinian homes in the village of Beita after an Israeli teen-age settler, Tirza Porat, was killed by a bullet from an ultra-rightist settler, bodyguard; and the Israeli army staged a new massive incursion into southern Lebanon.

Marty Rosenbluth is an American activist who has lived in Ramallah, a West Bank Palestinian city, for three years. He works as a researcher for the Palestinian legal service agency Al-Haq (Law in the Service of Man). He witnessed the first three months of the uprising at first hand. While visiting the United States in March, Rosenbluth was interviewed by ATC editor David Finkel.

As much as possible, the discussion focused on issues not covered adequately, or at all, in the mainstream daily media.

Against the Current: How has this mass uprising sustained itself for so long? No ma ter how angry people are, they can’t carry on such a movement for so long without some powerful organization and a clear perspective.

Marty Rosenbluth: The general strike has been more or less continuous since Dec. 9. On TV you see stores closed, but you don’t realize that’s been going on every day.

Different grassroots organizations have played a role. The uprising is much more than kids throwing stones. It involves the entire Palestinian community, from kids five or six years old throwing stones to ninety-year-old grandparents. It cuts across religious, class, generation and political lines.

There’s a coordinating committee of one representative from each major political organization in the Occupied Territories — the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Palestine Communist Party (PCP), Fateh and the Muslim Brothers.

Unlike the past, there was no fight for domination of the coordinating committee. This was always a fight in the unions, on campuses and in the grassroots organizations. But in this case no group demanded additional representatives-it was never raised.

The reason why the committee has this composition is that these are precisely the groups most active in the grassroots organizations, which are the backbone and the sustenance and the real centers of the uprising. For example, in the unions and the women’s committees, these are the most active groups, except for the Muslim Brothers, who have their own network.

So to be able to mobilize people, to know what’s going on, a leadership would have to be connected to these popular organizations. The real initiatives don’t come from the Unified Command but precisely from the mass-based organizations; the Command is more of a coordinating committee than anything else.

The uprising is so big that five people couldn’t possibly tell 1.5 million what to do. They find out what people in the streets are doing, then coordinate it so there isn’t chaos.

ATC: What do people feel they can win?

MR: On the simplest level, if you talk to Palestinian workers and farmers, most people will say they want to live on their land in peace, without an occupier over them.

Palestinians who are still alive have lived under the British, Jordanian and Israeli regimes. They are sick and tired of it. They want to open businesses, engage in trade, develop an economy and society without having to get permits from a foreign government.

The average Palestinian isn’t concerned with elaborate political arguments but wants the same freedoms as everybody else, including the freedom to make their own mistakes.

Palestinians have no faith in Jordanian King] Hussein, in [Egyptian President] Mubarak, and even though people may disagree with some policies of the PLO they clearly see it as their representative.

If you talk to Palestinians about whether an independent Palestinian state is viable, their basic argument is that you can see how many Palestinians have accumulated wealth (in the Gulf oil states or abroad) and are willing to invest it. They anticipate there would also be a certain amount of international aid.

The harder problem comes when you talk about the refugees in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestinians in the diaspora. Within the independent state, provision must be made for rehousing and repatriating hundreds of thou­ sands of refugees. But while the exact formulation needs to be worked out, the feeling is that once Israel is brought to the negotiating table, any solution is possible. And unless Israelis forced to negotiate with the PLO, no solution is possible.

ATC: You’ve mentioned unity across class and political lines. Please explain.

MR: The heart of the Palestinian middle class — the storekeepers – have thrown in their lot 100 percent with the uprising. They were always the most hesitant.

At the beginning, the storekeepers would tell me they felt caught between the military, demanding they keep their shops open, and the kids. They felt trapped and confused.

The military brutality changed that situation. By the second week they were telling me, “they can force my store open but they can’t make me sell anything.” Seeing the military club store owners — throwing tear gas into a store with the owner locked inside!-galvanized them. The uprising was such a powerful thing they were caught up in it, feeling for the first time they could make a difference.

Another point is the cooperation between the storekeepers, striking workers and farmers. Farmers are donating food to the relief committees for the refugee camps; landlords aren’t collecting rent from people who can’t pay; the metal workers’ union has been fixing the doors of stores that the military bashes in; local restaurants bring food for the workers fixing the doors.

It’s amazing cooperation all around. Doctors donate their services to injured people who are afraid to go to the hospital where they might be arrested. It’s not spontaneous, it’s definitely organized-a tremendous surge of grassroots voluntary solidarity.

When the agricultural relief committee and medical relief committee went to Jalazoun camp after a four-day curfew, the people there wouldn’t accept the food. They took the medical supplies but said, “Take the food to Gaza, we’re hungry here but the people there need it more than we do!”

ATC: Do the Palestinian unions in the Occupied Territories play a significant role in the uprising?

MR: Definitely, they are playing a key role. Of course the scale of the uprising is beyond them-it’s bigger than all the grassroots organizations. The unions have been important in organizing the workers, distributing aid to strikers and cooperating with other grassroots organizations.

The unions have been weakened by so many years of repression that they couldn’t really lead this struggle. But if you look at the Israeli reaction, you’ll see many union leaders have been detained or put under house arrest during the uprising to restrict their organizing activity. So the authorities certainly see the unions as a threat.

Many union offices have been raided and files confiscated. In Gaza, the offices of the six unions were razed and almost every piece of paper seized.

ATC: How do you perceive the role of the Israeli left and peace forces in this crisis?

MR: Basically, from what I’ve seen and from fairly extensive discussions with Israeli friends, the right-wing backlash in Israel is stronger than the left-wing response. But people have been moved to react.

A march is being planned from Galilee to Jerusalem; there’s a little more cooperation between progressive Jewish and Arab groups. Most important, I think, is that there are Israelis helping the relief efforts, with medicine and food especially, in the Territories.

The problem is that the mainstream Peace Now movement is hopelessly wedded to the Labor Party. Its calls for demonstrations are very weak; they don’t even call for an end to the occupation but for a “more humane” occupation. They have failed to take the Labor leadership to task: the lron Fist and orders to break Palestinian bones is [Defense Minister ltzhak] Rabin’s policy, and he’s part of the Labor Party.

The difference between this uprising and the war in Lebanon is the absence of Israeli casualties. Only one Israeli soldier has been killed since the uprising began, so you don’t see the degree of response from the peace movement that took place in 1982.

Coverage of brutalities in the Israeli media is less than here. You don’t see beatings on Israeli TV. The TV news, where most Israelis get their news, will say, “Quiet prevailed in the Occupied Territories today,” on a day when two or three Palestinians were killed.

ATC: Do you see changes in the U.S. Jewish community as you travel and speak here?

MR: I’ve been surprised by the level on which mainstream Jews I speak to have been truly shocked. I think the mainstream Jewish community-not the organizations but ordinary people-are reexamining. Some elements have responded by circling the wagons and calling all protest “anti-semitism.” B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League have come out with full-page ads praising Israel’s role in the Territories. But certainly folks like my parents and their friends are really questioning what’s happening.

ATC: I’ve avoided asking for details about brutalities; it’s such a painful topic I’m not sure how much readers can take-and some of it’s covered in the media anyway. But perhaps at this point we should discuss it.

MR: I mentioned before the case in Ramallah where the storekeeper was locked in his shop and tear gas thrown in. He would have died if the people in the street hadn’t smashed in the windows and pulled him out. Hours later in the hospital, he was in an oxygen mask and convulsing so that it took several men to hold him down. And many hours after the gassing, even with the windows smashed, you could not go into the store because of the gas.

It’s not clear how much of the brutality is under orders, how much is isolated and how much is controlled.

First, the policy of beatings and creating fear in the population didn’t begin in December but long before. Al-Haq and other organizations have documented a consistent policy of unrestrained beating. Al-Haq held a press conference in October after documenting a case in which soldiers took youths and beat them so that they needed operations. These beatings were done with the knowledge and certainly the consent of middle- and high-level officers.

The change that occurred in December is that it became an announced policy, and certainly the scale intensified. But beatings of unarmed civilians aren’t new.

The scary thing is that a certain level of brutality is now known to be actively encouraged, so that Rabin’s policy led to soldiers realizing they could get away with beating up people. Once you allow that, you will get soldiers burying people, crushing their arms with rocks, and soon. You can’t tell soldiers to break people’s hands and expect it to stop there.

A group of American doctors went into the Occupied Territories and looked at x-rays of broken bones. They document a pattern so consistent, over so broad a geographic area, that the soldiers must have been trained, systematically, in how to break bones by stretching out the arm and subjecting it to repeated blows with a blunt object.

Americans, American Jews particularly, and Israelis have to look at this and say, how do we stop it-immediately? The dehumanization of the Palestinian population in the soldiers’ minds, that enables them to lock a storekeeper in his shop and throw tear gas in, to take people from their homes, stand them in the cold all night or beat them for hours, is very dangerous. It is not that far removed from the mentality that allows someone to lock the door on a gas chamber.

ATC: How has the uprising affected the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel?

MR: The dynamic began well before this uprising. As the Green Line between Israel and the Occupied Territories became blurred for Israelis, it also became blurred for Palestinians: over the past five years, people who called themselves Israeli Arabs increasingly call themselves Palestinians.

A change of consciousness culminated in the Dec. 21 strike, when the Arabs in Israel in places where it never happened before, such as Bedouin communities that serve the Israeli military and places that were quiet since 1948, engaged in solidarity with the Occupied Territories. And at the same time, the message was that they are sick and tired of discrimination. They wouldn’t have taken a solidarity stand if they were happy with their own lot.

This really shook things up. A lot of Jewish Israelis really thought everything was fine with the Arabs in Israel! People were not surprised by a demonstration in Nazareth or Umm al-Fahm (the largest and most militant Arab municipalities in Israel) — but Israeli Jews were shaken to see Arabs demonstrating in Jaffa.

ATC: You referred to relief efforts. How difficult is this work?

MR: The military has really tried to block the relief efforts. One example: a guy in Bir Zeit village (West Bank) — just a truck driver and not a political leader by any stretch of the imagination — came up with the idea of organizing truck drivers for relief caravans to the camps.

The military came to his house at two a.m. They smashed his house, beat him up and threatened to arrest his kids if he didn’t stop taking food to Gaza.

ATC: Ina National Public Radio broadcast on Jan. 2.5, you were mentioned as an eyewitness to an incident involving Palestinian teenagers, the media and the military. Give us your account.

MR: Four kids from the village of Beit Uhr had been severely beaten, taken to a military base near Ramallah, then released and taken to Ramallah hospital. They spoke to a lot of journalists, including correspondents from New York Newsday, NBC and NPR.

They were released from the hospital. I went with an NBC crew to interview them. We were driving them home when, inside their village, an Israeli jeep stopped us. They told us to drop the kids off, outside the village limits.

The kids were frightened of what would happen to them there and asked us to take them back to Ramallah. A mile or two from Ramallah, an Israeli jeep pulled us off the road. The officer told us in English that we had to wait for the commander.

Half an hour later the commander came-a top military officer for the whole West Bank. On his orders the four kids were arrested from the back of the NBC film crew’s car. They were taken away to Jnaid prison.

These Palestinians had been released by the military without charge. Clearly, they were re-arrested for having spoken to the media. Two of them had broken arms from the previous beating. But they were handcuffed, blindfolded, and forced to lie down with their arms behind them on the floor of the military jeep.
The last heard of them was that they were in Jnaid prison.

An excellent source of information on human rights violations, Law in the Service of Man, can be reached at: Al-Haq (LSM), P.O. Box 1413, Ramallah, West Bank, via Israel.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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