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From the Uprising

1.

Thirteen weeks after the start of the popular uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—which right-wing Israeli politicians and a part of the local press still insist on calling the “unrest,” the “events,” the “discrepancies,” the “disorders” in the territories—it is safe to make at least one sweeping generalization. The status quo, which Likud politicians have long regarded as the best of all possible worlds, is shattered forever.

Twenty years of shortsighted Israeli policies lie battered in the streets of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The writing was on the wall for years, but most Israelis never bothered to read it. Some were distracted by real or imaginary security concerns. The disorienting abstractions of national and international political rhetoric and the ceaseless talk of a nonexistent “peace process,” even among the sensitive, produced a numbness. Self-deception became a prerequisite for survival. Many overlooked the simple fact that since 1967 Israel has not been able to win a war. Other Israelis were blinded by nationalist and religious rhetoric and by the apparent ease and low maintenance costs of a military occupation that for more than two decades has held 1.5 million Palestinians as pawns, or bargaining chips, and as a source of cheap menial labor, while denying them the most basic human rights.

The pawns have now risen to manifest their frustration, their bitterness, and their political will, with a vengeance and determination that surprised everybody in Israel, including themselves and their “leaders” and “spokesmen” in the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in distant Tunis. The actual uprising appears to have been entirely spontaneous. A bad traffic accident in the Gaza Strip gave rise to wild rumors blaming the Israeli security services for the deaths that took place. The protest demonstrations quickly spilled over to the West Bank. In retrospect it is not surprising that the lid first blew off in Gaza, where the situation is at its most nightmarish. Into this narrow strip of land only some ten kilometers wide and thirty-six kilometers long, where the population density is already among the highest in the world, the Israelis have introduced two thousand Jewish settlers. They live on public or confiscated land in resort-like enclaves surrounded by wretched refugee camps.

In Gaza the social problems seem even more overwhelming than the political ones. The Palestinians living in the strip have been stateless since 1948. Neither Egypt before 1967 nor Israel after 1967 were ready formally to annex the area for fear of burdening themselves with an immense social problem. (The current population of 633,000 is estimated to reach one million by 2004.) The bitterness, hopelessness, and frustration, especially in the refugee camps, are compounded by the results of forty-one years of repression—until 1967 by the Egyptians and since 1967 by the Israeli Army. In Gaza the uprising was marked by strong Islamic fundamentalist feelings reminiscent of those expressed in the Iranian revolts of a decade ago—the new revolts are not only against the traditional leadership but against the conditions in which young people felt permanently trapped.

In Gaza as in the West Bank, the uprising was led by a few thousand teen-agers and even younger boys and girls, armed with nothing but stones and slingshots and occasional Molotov bottles—a children’s crusade. Within a few weeks they seem to have achieved more for the Palestinian cause (though not necessarily for the PLO) than Yasser Arafat and his prosperous supporters or terrorists have in thirty years.

One result of the uprising is a deep crisis within Israeli politics and society, which will never be the same again. The surprise and the resultant trauma recall the shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The uprising and the continuing difficulties in suppressing it to “restore order” provide a lesson in the limits of power. Israelis have long had a problem with the uses of power. Zionism was intended to give defenseless Jews a measure of power to determine their fate. Ever since, Zionists have philosophized about power. After the Holocaust it became a Zionist article of faith that “powerlessness” had been the main cause for the destruction of European Jewry. As a result, Israeli attitudes toward power have consistently been complex and sometimes neurotically contradictory, marked by a curious inability to make the needed distinction between power and violence.

The military victory of 1967, which was not translated into political results, i.e., peace, served only to confuse the issue further. Because Israel in 1967 conquered the territories while defending itself against a foreign threat, Israelis came out of that war still feeling weak when in reality they were strong, the dominant military power in the region. They might have been “generous victors” after 1967 and reached a kind of peace with the Palestinians in the occupied territories and with the Arab countries. But being human, and having been insecure for so many years, they desired absolute security, the kind that they could have only if the Arabs felt thoroughly insecure. The late Israeli historian Jacob Talmon used to warn against “the obsessive desires” awakened by the war of 1967; they constituted, he argued, a dangerous departure from what Freud had called the reality principle.

Talmon’s warnings were proven tragically right during the Israeli intervention in Lebanon, which is still not over, and most recently again in the West Bank and Gaza. Power displays a strange impotence when, as in the case of Israel, it exceeds its defensive role and becomes violence. In 1967 it took the Israeli Army a day to take Gaza and fewer than three days to seize the entire West Bank. The same army—at least three times as strong now and equipped with the latest, most sophisticated weapons—has so far been unable to quell the riots in these territories and pacify a turbulent population.

The present uprising is the result of an astounding lack of foresight, imagination, and political empathy on the part of successive Israeli political leaders. They have allowed a situation to develop in the territories that was hopeless from the start and that could be sustained over the years only by force and more force. Political mistakes were compounded by the inadequacy and slovenliness of a military administration in the territories that in the beginning was quite liberal but that deteriorated and was increasingly corrupted over the years by neglect, by low pay, and by unlimited, or arbitrary, power. Men sometimes admit mistakes. Bureaucracies almost never do. They make their errors legitimate by administering them, later on.

2.

More than ninety Palestinians have died so far.* Hundreds have been wounded and beaten up by truncheon-wielding troops who follow orders that are at best confused and at worst downright brutal. But the riots continue and are now in their fourth month. The hospitals in Gaza and elsewhere are filled with youngsters suffering from broken arms or legs, or both. The demonstrators so far are convinced of their “successes.” The resulting euphoria has produced remarkable acts of daring and the extraordinarily high level of social discipline—even without real leaders—that has often been observed in so-called revolutionary moments. Food and other necessities are often shared.

The riots seem carefully timed to break out in one locality and then another; and this suggests central planning. Palestinian medical teams regularly tour the turbulent areas and look after wounded people who are afraid to enter hospitals for fear of being arrested. There are plenty of firearms in the occupied territories and it could not have been hard for the rioters to lay hands on them. Yet despite the widespread revolutionary fervor, in three months of uprising the rioters have not fired a single shot. They are said to obey the strict orders of the committees. A surgeon in charge of the intensive care unit at Tel Hashamer medical center near Tel Aviv, Dr. Raphael Wolden (Shimon Peres’s son-in-law, as it happens), told the press that he was treating a painfully wounded youth, seventeen years old, who had just been brought in, and who, when asked for his name, groaned only, “Jihad, jihad.”

Thousands of Palestinians have been arrested, hundreds of thousands more have been intimidated and placed under prolonged house arrest in the recurrent curfews imposed upon villages, refugee camps, and entire cities. But the uprising, which authorities expected to quell within a few days, continues into its fourth month. Curfews often mean disconnected telephones and cuts in the supply of electricity. Men are hauled out of their houses in the middle of the night and made to stand in the village square until morning, and there are many similar acts of collective punishment. And yet the rioting continues. The press no longer reports each riot in detail, but speaks generally of rising or abating waves of violence or unrest. A typical newscast from the government-controlled radio the other day ran: “Two rioters were shot yesterday in the Shata refugee camp in Gaza…. Nevertheless in the Gaza strip yesterday there was relative quiet.”

Even when there is no curfew in Gaza, in Nablus, Bethlehem, or East Jerusalem, Palestinian cities seem deserted. Inhabitants shut themselves in; stores are closed, except at certain hours, which are determined by secret local committees so that people can buy food and other necessities. The government has tried to cut the flow of PLO funds from abroad that support the strikes by Palestinian merchants. But the commercial strikes continue as before, undeterred by tough fiscal and administrative countermeasures.

The demonstrators continue to march through the debris and the black smoke of burning tires, past shuttered stores, chanting slogans, waving flags. Little boys run ahead firing slingshots at the troops summoned to disperse them. The troops—nowadays many are reservists—look clumsy by comparison; they move slowly, with their heavy equipment, their walkie-talkies, M-16 rifles in one hand and truncheons in the other. Helicopters hover overhead dropping tear gas from the air. Between twenty and forty thousand troops are said to be engaged in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jersualem. When they are not dispersing demonstrations or chasing boys through the narrow alleys of the Nablus casbah or the refugee camps, where the sewers run open between the ramshackle huts, in an air thick with the hatreds and resentments from tragedies suffered forty years ago and since sustained, the soldiers concentrate on keeping the main highways open and on protecting some one hundred Israeli settlements established in the territories since their occupation in 1967.

They cannot be everywhere. Almost every night Palestinian villagers and inmates of refugee camps roll out more rocks and boulders onto secondary roads to block access to their villages or camps. They hang up Palestinian flags, sing songs, and declare their villages or camps “liberated Palestinian territory.” Then the army moves in again—too often with entirely gratuitous brutality, shattering furniture, slashing tires, smashing window panes and solar heating panels. Bulldozers arrive and clear away the rocks. A few youths are taken aside and brutally beaten. Others are arrested. Panicstricken mothers scream and army officers plead with old men (who protest their impotence) to maintain calm. A week later the same scene occurs once again.

  1. *

    Most were shot; twenty-one are said to have died by asphyxiation by tear gas (including three babies less than seven months old, a boy of twelve, and one man a hundred years old). Seven are said to have died as a result of beatings (including one fourteen-year-old boy and a man aged sixty).

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