An Assessment of the Intifada

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Michel Warshawski

THE PALESTINIAN UPRISING in the occupied territories constitutes a historical turning point, and not merely in relation to the populations’ struggle against occupation. It is also a turning point in the overall relationship between Israel on the one hand, and the Palestinian people and its national liberation movement on the other.

Even now, the uprising can claim to be of even greater significance in its long-term ramifications than in its immediate impact. The uprising in the occupied territories has altered the balance of power between the state of Israel and the national struggle of the Palestinian Arab people.

1970-1986: Equilibrium and Status Quo

After a relatively short period of confusion and uncertainty regarding the future of the territories occupied in the June 1967 war, and after harsh repression by means of mass deportations, wholesale killings in the Gaza Strip and jail sentences far more savage than those imposed nowadays, a kind of equilibrium was created between the occupation forces and the local population.

This equilibrium provided the base for the myth of a ”liberal occupation.” With the military government banning all overt political activity and the security hindering clandestine organization, the Israeli occupation authorities were free to reduce substantially their resort to force against the masses and to restrict repression to those designated, justly or unjustly, as political activists.

However, in addition to the repressive regime, there were also political reasons for the relative tranquility prevailing in the occupied territories over the past two decades. The strategy of the Palestinian national liberation movement assigned no more than a marginal role to the struggle of the inhabitants of the occupied territories.

Liberation was to be the outcome of a campaign from without – armed struggle initially, and subsequently, a combination of armed struggle and diplomatic initiative. The principal task of the inhabitants of the occupied territories was “to hold out” (sumud) and grant continual legitimacy to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestine Arab people.

By definition, sumud is a defensive strategy: holding out, clinging to the soil of the homeland, establishing national institutions and structures to safeguard everyday life-all these were capable of preventing mass deportation and annexation, but they could not put an end to the occupation.

The existence of the PLO, and the firm stand of the inhabitants, saved the West Bank and Gaza Strip from a fate resembling that of Galilee and the Triangle in the early fifties: Israel was unable to annex these territories or expel most of their inhabitants. But the balance of forces that sufficed to prevent such actions was inadequate to dislodge the Israeli forces from their 1967 conquests.

The strategy of all the PLO’s constituent organizations rested upon liberation of Palestine from without The Palestinian armed struggle, aided by the progressive Arab regimes, was almost the exclusive means whereby the liberation of Palestine-in whole or in part-was to be achieved. When this strategy reached an impasse it was replaced by another, but the overall view remained unchanged. Palestinian diplomacy, aided by Arab diplomacy, would offer the Palestinian people that which the armed struggle was unable to provide.

In both instances-whether armed struggle or diplomacy-the Palestinian organizations rather than the masses were the principal standard bearer. The Palestinian masses were of course accorded an important role, but this was limited to exerting continual political pressure as a means of promoting the work of the PLO and its components.

With Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, this strategy came to a dead end. The invasion, and its destruction of the Palestinian national movement’s political and military infrastructure in Beirut and southern Lebanon, fundamentally changed the balance of forces between Israel and Palestine – to the detriment of the latter.

With no other alternative, the Palestinian national movement was now obliged to change its strategy and lay the stress upon the occupied territories and mass political action. But a few more years were required before this strategy picked up momentum, to erupt al the end of 1987. In the early seventies, with the establishment of the status quo, Israeli policy hinged upon three No’s: no withdrawal to the 1967 borders, no negotiations with the PLO, and no to an independent Palestinian state.

This totally negative Israeli policy never rested upon any positive political program, the principal reason being the realization that there was no possibility of repeating the1948 solution of mass deportation of the Palestinians.

While the Likud and the right wing continued to hanker after such an option, the Labour Party and the Zionist left were dimly conscious that Israel would ultimately be required to withdraw. Between the two sides, they agreed on the policy of the three No’s -the essence of Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue and the occupied territories.

As long as Palestinian resistance to occupation was not significantly sensed by the people of Israel, Israeli opponents of occupation could wage nothing more than a rearguard action that had no influence upon the course of events. The status quo had an appearance of stability, and there were no factors in sight capable of overturning the existing balance of power.

The Uprising Erupts

The uprising toppled the status quo. It demonstrated to the whole world, and to the people of Israel, that it was indeed a matter of occupation, that is, the united resistance of an entire people and the cruel and barbaric repression of their most fundamental human rights. It was the end of the delusion of imperceptibly creeping annexation. Israel has had to resort to warlike means to force the Palestinians to accept its dominance, and there is no further value to the pretense of “meanwhile” or “provisional state of affairs.”

The uprising has chalked up numerous achievements: Israel has been effectively forced to declare war, with the call­up of tens of thousands of reservists, the doubling of the period of annual reserve duty, Ordinance 8 [emergency call-ups), novel military tactics and repeated “conquests” of villages. It is no longer a matter of policing details; it is an armed confrontation with the entire population. The number of detainees-far exceeding 15,000) – also indicates a state of belligerency, the detainees in effect being prisoners of war taken in battle.

The price Israel has had to pay so far – in financial terms, in terms of its image, external and internal, in the altered role of its army, in domestic stress – is extremely heavy.

But the uprisings most important achievements in its lust year relate to the Palestinian population itself, principally the unity attained between city, village and refugee camp, between various social strata and different political groupings. This unity was a vital prerequisite for the other successes achieved by the uprising. This unity explains the failure of the Israeli authorities to stamp out the uprising, and likewise, the ability of the uprising’s leadership to dictate the tempo of the struggle and its changing objectives.

The unity of the Palestinian masses was facilitated by the emergence of a united leadership at the head of the uprising. For the first time since the Israeli occupation, the inhabitants of the occupied territories have an autonomous political leadership of their own. This leadership, which arose in the course of the struggle of the past decade, represents the various resistance organizations. Maintaining constant contact with the external leadership, it does not regard itself as a substitute for the PLO. Unlike previous national leaderships, this one has emerged from the mass movement and its struggle.

Thus, there is no further distinction between “1oca1” activists and those who issue the orders. Having emerged under Israeli occupation, this leadership is free of many of the illusions and fear that characterized its predecessors. It is a leadership confident of the masses, skeptical about external aid, familiar with Israel and its weaknesses. Above all, this is a leadership aware of the great responsibility it bears and conscious of the price of factionalist divisions.

The Strategy of the Uprising

In itself, the uprising is not designed to remove the Israeli occupation. Its principal aim is the creation of a new balance of power, whereby to enable profound changes in the regional international political arena and simultaneously to deepen divisions within the Israeli people.

In the general strategy of the uprising, the village occupied a central role. The village is designated as the basis upon which Palestinian autonomy is being constructed, as well as new relationships within Palestinian society and between Palestinians and the occupation authorities.

The principal objective is overall civil disobedience, or in other words, the greatest possible measure of dissociation – political and economic – from the occupying power. The united leadership lays the ground for civil disobedience by preparatory measures, strike days, and above all, by constructing the organizational and economic infrastructure that will enable the Palestinians to conduct their struggle and their daily lives.

The popular committees constitute the infrastructure of the uprising and its most significant achievement hitherto. Health committees, sanitation committees, supply committees, neighborhood committees and self-defense groups – all these are vital for constructing the infrastructure for general civil disobedience.

The authorities, of course, endeavor to hamper the organization of the committees by arresting anyone they consider a potential member. However, recent months have shown the Palestinian population uncovering dozens of replacements for every leader, real or imagined, confined to the Ansar detention camps. Yet again, we see popular mobilization releasing the energy, resourcefulness, responsibility and devotion pent up within the masses, to a degree unimagined before those masses occupied center stage in the political arena.

The Palestinian uprising is no short-lived outburst. The struggle may persist for years, with ebbs and flows, with periods of subdued activity and other of expanded organization. The objective of the uprising is to make occupation militarily, politically, financially and morally intolerable, and thereby motivate forces inside Israel and in the international arena for the removal of the Israeli Defense Forces from the occupied territories.

A further objective of the uprising is to mold the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip into an autonomous political and social unit capable of conducting its own existence – above all, its own struggle – independent of any other party, whether Israel or Joman.

(This article was excerpted from News from Within, February 26, 1989.)

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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