Analysis: Between the First and Third Intifadas
On December 7, 2017 concerned Israelis anxiously brace for the three “Days of Rage” announced by Palestinians in response to United States President Donald Trump’s landmark announcement formally recognizing the disputed city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The date is familiar to many Israelis, for exactly 30 years ago, on December 8, 1987, a car accident in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip triggered the first Palestinian uprising -- or intifada.
Four Palestinians were killed in the accident by an Israeli truck driver, who was accused of striking the Palestinians intentionally. The rumor was enough to spark a series of violent riots in the Palestinian territories.
Until then, the term “intifada” was still innocuous. Its significance emerged only as the riots refused to fade away. The violent 5 years and 39 weeks that followed, which eventually ended with the signing of the Oslo peace agreement in 1993, enriched the vocabulary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the term "intifada" ("popular uprising” in Arabic).
The qualifier “First Intifada” was added to the 1987 uprisings only after outbreak of the "Second Intifada", a shorter but bloodier conflict that erupted in 2000, this time triggered by the provocative visit of the late Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, to Jerusalem's Temple Mount holy site.
Since then, the term “Intifada” has been loosely used as a description of any actual or threat of mass violence. And today, the term hangs in the air as a looming menace.
Unlike the current situation of cautious tension, the First Intifada came to most Israelis and even to most Palestinians as a surprise. It was exactly 20 years after the 1967 Six Day War, and most Israelis had become accustomed to the situation, to the territories, and to living everyday life with no political direction as to the future. The illusion of normalcy prevailed.
Year after year, a small but meaningful event had intensified this illusion. For the majority of those two decades, the Greek Orthodox mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, had organized a New Year reception at a grand hall of the municipality. Freij, known for his ability to balance good relations with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, was the one person able to bring together the elegantly dressed Christian elite of Bethlehem, Palestinian activists, and Israeli politicians and high-ranking officers.
But December 1987 marked a turning point. Four days after the road accident in the Gaza Strip changed the course of history, Freij canceled his annual holiday party. In doing so, a chapter in history closed for good.
The “stone Intifada”, waged by the Palestinians largely without arms and ammunition, burst this bubble of normalcy. About 100 Israeli civilians and soldiers, and some 1,500 Palestinians were killed in the uprisings (the numbers of casualties differ in different sources).
Prof. Yagil Levy, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel who served as a high-ranking officer at the onset of the First Intifada, claims that the Israeli army was woefully unprepared for the outbreak of a mass uprising. In fact, he compares the lack of understanding of the things to come to that of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which caught Israel's civil and military establishment by complete surprise.
Speaking to i24NEWS, Levy recalls that the Palestinian issue was off the table at the time, and the government was instead busy fighting inflation while the IDF was dealing with re- deployment in Lebanon.
“Despite few realistic voices, there was no strategic preparation to the coming change; there was no doctrine of dealing with popular uprising. It took the IDF two months to understand we are dealing with popular uprising and not just sporadic riots,” he said.
Levy, an expert on civil-military relations, says the implications of the First Intifada are far reaching. According to him, it put an end to direct Israeli control over the West Bank and led to more civil duties being handed over to the Palestinians.
The impact on Israeli society was profound: the National Zionist movement realized that a real fight over the fate of Land of Israel is their key battle. On the other side of the political spectrum, discourse of peace spreads. Polarization grows deeper. It also led to Oslo agreement, and ultimately to the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The roots of these changes were planted deep in the soil of the First Intifada.
General (ret.) Ephraim Sneh, who later became a rather “hawkish” Labor lawmaker, served in those days as the head of IDF's Civil Administration in the West Bank overseeing government services for more than one million Palestinians.
Speaking exclusively with i24NEWS, Sneh recalls sensing the tension on the ground before it erupted, and says he shared this sentiment with relevant authorities.
“Trying to provide more services to facilitate and improve the quality of life of the Palestinians – I knew it was not going to be enough. Nothing we do on that level could prevent the explosion. I said so in every possible forum." Sneh said.
"Some agreed with me, more did not. There were many voices in unity government with Shamir (Likud) as PM and Rabin (Labor) as Minister of Defense. What I really wanted to do was to promote the agenda of Rabin and Peres of a political solution," he says, adding that "use of force can put an end to violence.”
In September 1988, at the peak of the First Intifada, Sneh -- then a civilian -- was appointed by Rabin to conduct secret negotiations with the PLO to end the violence and pave the way towards a peace agreement following Israel's November 1988 elections.
The assumption was that this time Labor was going to win – but this was not the case. The Intifada did not lure Israelis to vote Labor.
“Tension and violence only tend to reinforce the right wing,” Sneh says.
Three days before the elections, a Molotov cocktail thrown on a bus in Jericho killed an Israeli mother and her three children. That attack shut the lid on votes for Labor, but not on Rabin’s vision of a peace agreement as the ultimate solution.
Then came Oslo. Then Rabin's assassination. And then came another cycle of seemingly never ending violence -- the Second Intifada, this one armed – and then the "knife intifada" of 2015 which led to many fatal terrorist attacks and Israeli military operations in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Now, again, the term “Intifada” is revived.
Even before it happens -- and with hope that it does not -- there is already major differences between the current situation and those past. The First Intifada was spontaneous, and only after the fact did the PLO take credit for it. This time, the PLO is warning in advance that if the situation gets out of hand they will not assume responsibility.
A twist in our bloody history, 30 years later.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."
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