Weapons and the Two Palestinian Intifadas

by Tawfiq Abu Baker
Since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967, the Palestinian people have never stopped resisting in order to gain their freedom, just like other peoples of the world. Needless to say, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is the last remaining foreign occupation in the world.

The two intifadas - the first of which broke out in December 1987, and the second in September 2000 that is still going on – came to be the most significant forms of resistance against Israeli occupation. However, there is a major difference between the two “intifadas.” It is not the difference in the objective circumstances that I mean, but the fact that in the first intifada the Palestinians did not resort to arms, whereas they did in the second. What were the results?

In the first uprising, protesters threw stones, which is only a symbolic form of violence. In Islam, the Haj rituals are completed only when pebbles are thrown seven times at the devil, thus symbolizing the destruction of evil. Occupation is undoubtedly a form of absolute evil.

During that first uprising, people utilized different forms of popular protest and civil resistance, including boycotts of the occupation’s institutions. The Israeli army responded with violence against unarmed people. Palestinian youths confronted the Israeli tanks with their bodies to demonstrate that blood can beat the sword. As Israeli soldiers were shown on TV breaking the arms of young Palestinian boys in cold blood in the mountains of Nablus, the conscience of the world was shaken, which led to unprecedented sympathy for the Palestinian people worldwide. That was mainly because the Palestinians looked just as they are: a weak unarmed people confronting tanks and armored vehicles with their bare chests in city streets and in the narrow alleyways of towns and refugee camps.

By avoiding the use of arms in the first uprising, the Palestinians received an unprecedented wave of international sympathy for their cause of national independence – at a time when totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world were collapsing and independent nations emerging.

This approach also contributed to polarization within Israeli society. A split developed between those who considered the withdrawal from Nablus (a city occupied in 1967) today as setting the stage for a withdrawal from Tel Aviv tomorrow, and others who admitted that it is impossible, both morally and practically, to control another people forever, which helped give birth to a significant peace movement.

As a result of the peaceful nature of the first intifada and its reverberations in Israeli society, the era of right-wing governments came to an end. The Labor Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, won the elections in 1992 with a large majority. It was the first government in Israel to be elected for its peace agenda. The Palestinian Authority was then established at the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, and Palestinians regained part of their territory and proceeded to build the institutions of their future state. The international community, as well as the Israeli people, began to deal with those developments as new facts.

Had it not been for the wide-reaching military attacks by Hamas in early 1996 against civilians in the streets and squares of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ashkelon, Benjamin Netanyahu would not have taken the reins of power as prime minister; Shimon Peres was ahead of him in the polls by 15 points until that time. If Peres had won the election, the peace process might have gone forward towards completion.

In the current uprising, many factors contributed to its slide into militarization and the use of military weapons. The warnings by Palestinian leaders against the use of weapons went unheeded. Some of these leaders have told me that they wanted an uprising of anger and popular protest. However, the brutal use of force by the Israeli army, supported by popular sentiment expressed in the slogan “Let the Army Win,” and the indecisiveness and wavering of the Palestinian leadership, which was sympathetic to the calls for revenge in the Palestinian street, further complicated the situation. A Palestinian officer told me that he wished he had never been born when he saw Israeli soldiers killing Palestinian children without being able to defend them at the beginning of the intifada.

The random killing of each other negates our humanity and strengthens the forces of extremism on both sides. As bloodshed increases, it becomes more difficult to reach across to the other side to meet, shake hands, and to arrive at historic and legitimate deals and compromises. This was the meaning of a statement signed by Palestinian and Israeli politicians and academics at the end of 2001, but their efforts went no further because Palestinian extremists succeeded in conducting murderous operations in the streets and public squares. The extremists in Sharon’s government and some of the military commanders then used those acts as an excuse to launch counterattacks that were disproportionate. Thus, revenge leads to revenge, and confrontations continue.

We Palestinians were unable to achieve what we had hoped for through the use of weapons during the past year or more. The other party was unable to impose its conditions on us by using tanks and other destructive weapons. In addition, the world did not come to rescue us by sending international protection forces, as was the case elsewhere. It didn’t happen not only because Israel is not Kosovo, and that it enjoys a special relationship with the world’s superpower, the United States, but also because the struggle appeared on television screens worldwide as a war between two armies rather than a powerful party practicing the act of killing in cold blood, as was the case during the first intifada.

It is time for rational people on both sides to take steps toward an historic agreement whereby each side recognizes the rights of the other. It is time for Palestinians and Israelis to declare publicly that violence brings nothing but destruction, and that it is impossible to suppress national aspirations by force. We must also tell the Israelis that we want to live together and forever with them as two peoples in the land of Palestine, the land of prophets and the three monotheistic religions, and the land of love and peace.

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Tawfiq Abu Baker is a member of the Palestinian National Council and Director General of the Jenin Center for Strategic Studies, as well as a syndicated political commentator for five Arab daily newspapers.

Written exclusively for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) provides news, op-eds, cartoons, features, and analysis by local and international experts on a broad range of Middle East issues. CGNews syndicates articles that are accurate, balanced, and solution-oriented to news outlets throughout the Middle East and worldwide. With support of the European Community, the Dutch Foreign Ministry, and UNESCO, the service is a non-profit initiative of Search for Common Ground and the European Centre for Common Ground, international NGOs working as partners in the fields of conflict resolution and media production.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, not of CGNews or its affiliates.

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Other articles in this series

Nonviolence in the Middle East by Arun Gandhi
The Other Armed Struggle by Chris Miller
Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad” by Khalid Kishtainy
A Plea for Realism by Bassem Eid
Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace by Gila Svirsky
Palestinian Women and Nonviolence by Lucy Nusseibehv
Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative by Jonathan Kuttab
Nonviolent Direct Action in South Africa by Susan Collin Marks