25 years after the first intifada

by Sagi Melamed

Buried among the many year-end events of 2012, one historical milestone was somewhat overlooked: the “silver anniversary” of the outbreak of the first intifada

I was there, in the heart of that tempest in the winter of 1987, in the refugee camps around Ramallah. We were not prepared for an intifada. We had gone to the Ramallah area for seven days of routine security duty and ended up staying there for three full months. Much has been written, said, and claimed regarding the reasons for the intifada, the influences and the implications of the first Palestinian uprising. As a junior officer, I was not privy to the classified intelligence reports that purported to analyze and predict the way the wind was blowing in the Palestinian street. But I did not need intelligence reports to understand that something drastic changed during that period. 

Right in front of me I saw the look in the eyes of the people in the narrow streets of the neglected refugee camps. The eyes are the window of the soul, and the stares that were directed at us by the inhabitants of the Palestinian refugee camps expressed the dramatic turning point that took place that winter.

During my first three years of army service, before the first intifada, I had been in Judea and Samaria several times for routine security duty. These security duties mainly involved foot and motor patrols in and around the refugee camps and major cities, such as Ramallah. 

A regular patrol consisted of three or four soldiers and a commander. The most serious incidents during that time involved anti-Israel graffiti or pro-Arafat flyers, and sometimes the PLO flag being flown from the electricity wires. But the eyes of the Palestinian residents were always downcast. 

Frightened. Evasive. Ashamed. When they saw the IDF patrol, children would run away, mothers would bring their children inside, teenage boys would vanish. We soldiers would walk without concern or fear, in control of the territory and the people.

In contrast, when the intifada broke out, the look that was cast our way by Palestinian eyes was different. They looked us straight in the face. The people stood their ground. Lips were pursed. Pride was evident on faces. Children no longer ran away, but hurled stones and curses. Women did not call their children inside like chickens afraid of the big, bad wolf, but joined their children and took an active part in the mass demonstrations. The youth led the riots, throwing rocks and blocking streets, planting metal spikes to puncture the tires of the military vehicles, and later on even shooting at the soldiers.

Blocking the roads showed the extent to which the Palestinian masses were involved in the popular uprising. Our daily routine consisted of motor patrols along the roads that wound between the small villages in the vicinity of Ramallah. When we drove back along the same road we had traveled just a short time before, we could see from afar the pillars of black smoke. As we got closer to the village, we would find that the road was blocked with burning tires and hundreds of rocks, some of them so heavy that it would have taken the combined efforts of several people to move them into place. It was clear that the entire village had participated in blocking the road.

Thus we had the Palestinians, with the outbreak of the popular uprising, discovering their lost pride, while on the other side many soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were struggling with the basic values with which they had been raised.

I went into the army as a graduate from the kibbutz educational system and having been a counselor in the kibbutz youth movement. I was brought up on the stories of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the fighters of the Haganah and the heroes of the Palmach. They were my lullabies and my guiding light. In the calculus of the few versus the many, I knew that we were the few, the brave, the resourceful. And above all — that we had right on our side.

But suddenly, it was no longer so obvious who were the good guys and who the bad guys. It was clear who were the few, who the resourceful, who the unarmed — and this time it was not us. 

I remember one significant moment during a foot patrol, when I suddenly noticed a paper arrow stuck into the back of the bulletproof vest of one of my soldiers. It was an arrow made of rolled-up paper, like those we used to make as children to shoot out of plastic tubes that we called tfu-tfu. These paper arrows were our main weapon when we played at being soldiers in the cotton barns on the kibbutz. Except this time, a sharp metal pin was attached to the end of the paper arrow, and it was stuck in the back of a real soldier. My soldier. An Israeli soldier.

The declaration of the State of Palestine on the historically significant date of the 29th of November, 2012 came 25 years after the outbreak of the first intifada

Much has happened in our neighborhood during those 25 years. The Oslo peace process of the middle of the 1990s brought the spirit of hope into the region. Despite the arguments about the long-term value of the Oslo process, there can be no argument about the historical facts: in the middle of the 1990s, Israeli embassies opened up in Arab capitals and representatives from Arab and others countries came to Israel for the first time, foreign investment in Israel blossomed, and there was the feeling that peace was indeed on the way. True, the price was heavy and accompanied with labor pains, but nevertheless it was coming.

But after Oslo came another intifada, and disengagement from Gaza, one violent confrontation and then another, and peace plans and their rejections, and declarations and their non-implementation. Sadly and frustratingly, the raised look and straightened shoulders of the Palestinians that I saw 25 years ago did not bring with it political wisdom, or the ability to reach compromises or to prefer the good of the people over grabbing and clinging to power. Without minimizing the part Israel played in the failure of the peace process, it seems to me that the Palestinians are not blessed with leaders who combine strength, patience, long-term vision, and wisdom, qualities that brought the Jewish people to the historic declaration of a Jewish state on 29th November 1947.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is also — and perhaps even more so — the tragedy of the Israelis. What would still have been possible 25 years ago seems impossible today. Paradoxically, what now unites the majority of Israelis and Palestinians is, on the one hand, a theoretical willingness for painful compromise as long as the compromise is fair, honorable, wise and stable, but on the other hand, a loss of hope and belief that it is possible to achieve such compromise in the foreseeable future.