The recent revolts in the Arab world are similar in character to the first Intifada. Palestinian demands for democracy and freedom in 1987 were like those of the Arab peoples today. However, unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, the Palestinians demanded their own independent state, free from Israeli occupation. The demands of the united popular leadership were unequivocal: recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the start of negotiations, and the recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. These were and remain the demands of the occupied Palestinian nation. Like the region’s leaders in 2011, Israel in 1987 sent its security forces “to break their arms and legs” (the words of then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin) – i.e. to break Palestinian aspirations for democracy and social justice. To understand how similar the first Intifada was to the uprisings in the Arab world, and how different it was from the second Intifada, it is enough to look at the organizations and groups that constituted the leadership: in 1987-88, student groups, workers’ organizations and women’s movements took an active part in the action and decision-making alongside leftist Palestinian factions.
The “Facebook” of 1987 consisted of flyers distributed in the dead of night around the refugee camps and towns, giving information about strikes, demonstrations, vigils, slogans and practical directions. As in the Egyptian uprising, so too in the occupied territories, the workers were dominant in leading the struggle. When the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising was formed, special attention was given to the role of the workers. Even the early flyers called for strikes. The second flyer called specifically on the workers, noting that their prominent role in the uprising was the best response to the threats and offenses of the occupation forces. In the first year of the intifada some 50% of the wounded were workers.
And what about Hamas? In those days, Hamas had just begun to build itself as a political force in opposition to the PLO. Israel’s refusal to recognize the popular and democratic character of the first Intifada created fertile ground for the Islamic movement, enabling it to sow the seeds of armed struggle which it led in the second Intifada.
Israel understood the economic damage caused by the absence of Palestinian workers from the labor market. It also understood their unified power and their role in the uprising. It clamped down on the unions even before the Intifada, but as of its beginning, the army was sent to dismantle the unions in the territories. Door by door, house by house, the army swept through to ensure the unions’ collapse. By the end of August 1988, dozens of union offices had been closed and many unionists arrested. At least 40 union leaders were among the “administrative detainees,” held without charges or trials.
Of the Palestinian demands for recognition of the PLO and an independent state in the 1967 borders, Israel accepted only the first – and only after intense international pressure. The Madrid Conference of 1992 led to the recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Israel’s policy was: yes to the PLO, no to a state, no to livelihood. In other words: Yes to a regime, no to independence.
Harsh collective punishment against Palestinian workers began, in fact, with the end of the first Intifada and the rise of the leftist Labor-Meretz government, which was headed by Rabin and supported by the Arab parties including Hadash. Rabin’s government led a policy of closure on the territories, and Palestinian workers were suddenly not permitted in Israel. This was a major change in policy: formerly, Israel had prevented economic development in the territories by flooding them with its own goods, while using Palestinians as a commuting labor force in Israel, to keep them quiet.
Now, instead, Israel brought labor from China, Thailand, Romania and other Third World countries. Under the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin imposed unemployment on the Palestinians and sentenced Palestinian society to poverty. These three leaders were not alone – they had business partners in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the US, and they also had corrupt Arab leaders who never demanded the end of the closure as a condition for negotiations. On the contrary: Palestinian workers who wished to work in Israel were compelled to pay thousands of shekels to senior officials in the PA and the security services for the “magnetic card,” the permit enabling them to enter and work.
Palestinian society’s longing for democracy, which brought it into the streets during the first Intifada, was deflated when senior PA leaders returned to the territories. Encouraged by Israel, Yasser Arafat set himself up as yet another Middle East despot, the natural ally of Mubarak, King Abdullah, King Hussein and Qaddafi. Israel’s security concept held that democracy in the Arab world in general and in the occupied territories in particular would pose a strategic and existential threat. Paper agreements with a tin-pot dictator were preferred over real peace agreements with an entire nation. In fact, during the Oslo Accords Israel strengthened its hold on the occupied territories. It doubled the number of settlements and controlled the PA economy. As part of the Accords, Israel compelled the PLO to create an economic regime which recognized no border between the territories and Israel. The significance of this regime (known as the “customs union”) was that Israel became the main tax collector for Palestine. PA economic factors maintained close ties with their counterparts in Israel. One of these, for example, was former PA Prime Minister Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei). He and his family controlled the cement monopoly in the West Bank. They signed an exclusive agreement with Nochi Dankner’s Nesher (part of the IDB Group). It is quite possible that the settlement neighborhood of Har Homa and the grey concrete separation wall were built using cement from Abu Ala’s firm.
The first steps toward democracy have always been accompanied by the throes of revolt. The Intifada of 1987 was a revolt of this kind. Israel’s failure to recognize the right of the Palestinian nation to self-determination, its failure to reach a two-state compromise and dismantle settlements, and its failure to put an end to the occupation have led the two nations to the political stalemate we see today. Neither PM Benjamin Netanyahu nor President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has a political mandate to compromise. The price Israel pays for subduing the 1987 Intifada is the loss of its democratic character. Netanyahu (who was Israel’s UN ambassador during the first Intifada) together with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are now doing all they can to stop the latest Palestinian efforts to achieve recognition of statehood in the UN General Assembly in September. This attempt, whether it succeeds or fails, will lead to the demise of the PA. If it succeeds, Israel will be isolated until it recognizes the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. In that case a democratic Palestine should emerge. If it fails, Israel will remain on the road to Apartheid.
Despite their secular character and their demands for democracy, the uprisings in the Arab world have been cold-shouldered by Israel. It would be unfortunate if the great missed opportunity of the first Intifada were to be repeated. A careful assessment of the winds sweeping through the Arab world could open the way for Israel’s Left to join the struggle, although the Arab revolutionaries will not accept Israeli leftists until they make a serious fight against the Occupation. A democratic Arab world, for its part, will finally be able to address problems that directly concern the Arab peoples: problems of economic, social and political justice throughout the Middle East.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger