Last week marked 22 years to the first Intifada, the Palestinian popular uprising which broke in Jebalia refugee camp following a deadly car accident near the Erez Crossing on December 8th, 1987.
Surprisingly enough, I hardly saw any mention of this on the Israeli media. It is not one of this nice “round’ anniversaries that editors love, like 10 or 25 years, but given the importance of the Intifada – alongside with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, it’s probably the central event of the decade in the Middle East – you would expect something.
On second though, perhaps this momentary amnesia is understandable. There is something about the first Intifada which doesn’t fit the Israel narrative regarding the relations with the Palestinians. We tell again and again the story of the peace-seeking-Israelis and the Arab-rejectionism, yet prior the first Intifada Israel had 20 years to hand the Palestinians some rights, but we didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Israel did promised to hand the Palestinians autonomy – not even independence, just a chance to manage their own business – as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, but when the moment came to deliver, we chose instead to built more settlements.
By today’s standards, the first Intifada was almost a peaceful struggle. There were violent demonstrations and stones throwing, as well as cases of stabbings, but rallies and general strikes played an important part in the protest. In the first few days, even weeks, the Intifada had no leaders – certainly not the PLO, who was just as surprised as Israel by the events. The Israeli Right likes to see every Arab move as part of “the phased plan” against Israel, but no reasonable person can find in the first Intifada this sort of well orchestrated attempt to destroy the Jewish state. It was a popular uprising. A violent one, perhaps, but given the living conditions of the Palestinians (Jebalia Camp, where the Intifada started, is said to be one of the most crowded places on earth, if not the crowded), the twenty years of military rule they suffered, the taking of their lands, and the total lack of hope that things might get better – the Intifada was justified.
It was not about destroying Israel. It was about the occupation.
More than ever, it is important to remember this fact. when it comes to the Palestinian problem, Israeli governments have been raising all sort of Issues, demands and sub-narratives, sometimes very successfully. But in the last forty years, the fundamental problem is not security, because Israel wasn’t willing to leave the West bank or give the Palestinians their rights even when there wasn’t terrorism; it is also not some Arab governments’ refusal to normalize relations with Israel; it is not Iran or Syria, and it is not the lack of water or the question of access to holy places. All these are important issues that influence and are influenced by what’s happening between Israelis and Palestinians, but the heart of the matter is that Israel is keeping millions of people for 42 years now without civil rights, and without offering any serious solution to this problem.
Here is a naïve question: why is it the world that has to beg Israel to freeze the settlements or hand the Palestinians their rights? Don’t Benjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak – who take pride in “the only democracy in the Middle East” – understand that you can’t keep people with no rights for decades, so they must have Barack Obama explain that to them? And if Obama didn’t exist, and Netanyahu could have gotten everything his way, what does he think should be done with the Palestinians?
Me and some other reporters tried to ask Netanyahu this when he came to my paper just before the elections. He didn’t come up with a serious answer.
It’s not about Obama, It’s the occupation, stupid.
There are other people than the Palestinians who see themselves as being under occupation, and there are other nations fighting for independence, so many Israelis wonder why everyone is picking on them. certainly, the difference between a superpower like China and a small country like Israel plays a part here, but there is something else to consider: all other occupying forces, be that even Russia or Serbia, gave the occupied people the same civil rights their own citizens had. China believes it owns Tibet, so it annexed the land and made its people Chinese citizens. Israel hasn’t done even that: it doesn’t give the Palestinians the option to become Israelis, and it doesn’t give them the opportunity to be independent. Ours is a system that aims for Israelis to have it all – land and rights – and the Palestinians nothing.
Our national project is the occupation. We would like you to think it’s the high-tech industry (the current day’s version of the oranges Israel used to grow) but one can’t compare the investment – both governmental and private – in high-tech to our investment in the occupation, settlements and separation wall included.
Lately, keeping the Palestinians under our control has become incredibly complicated and expensive, and the fact that Israel is able to have a thriving economy at the same time is the real wonder (the 3 billion $ in military aid sure help). Under different circumstances, this was something to be proud of.
But this is not the only toll the occupation has taken. Lately, Israel has become a paranoid and xenophobic, even racist place, with most public almost automatically hostile to any liberal idea. While young people in the US and Europe dream of a job in Amnesty or Unicef, to Israelis these are almost the names of terror organizations. Ha-ir, a Tel Aviv based magazine, ran a cover story about the fate of humanitarian workers and activists these days. It wasn’t a brilliant piece, but still, I recommend reading it (you can find it in English here). Maybe it’s enough to say that words like “peace” or “human rights” are so unpopular in Israel, politicians are avoiding them.
Every now and then some leftwing politician, party or organization claims we should grow a new agenda – talk about the environment, or immigrants’ rights, or civil liberties, or social benefits, or the relation between the state and the Jewish establishment – only to find out later that there is one issue you can’t bypass.
When people call for the deportation of immigrants and refugees these days, they do it in the same language they talk about the Palestinians, and it’s no coincidence that Israel is under a surge of conservative legislation. One can’t also imagine the forming of a national biometric database in a different political context.
Don’t get it wrong: ending the occupation won’t solve all of Israel’s problems, far from it. But without figuring out what to do with the occupation it won’t be possible to solve anything else. The Israeli democracy was problematic to begin with, with a legal and governmental system the favors the Jewish majority over the large Arab minority. If there was hope to turn the Jewish state into a real democracy as it matures, the occupation all but destroyed it.
The occupation, not anti-Semitism, is the reason for the anti-Israeli sentiment around the world. The occupation, and the Jewish automatic identification with Israel, makes it harder to fight anti-Semitism. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. The occupation makes Israel more and more isolated politically, and quiet rightly so. No reasonable person and no nation should accept what we are doing. The world gave Israel four decades to solve this issue, but enough is enough. Personally, I would never support physical attacks on Israelis, but all other moves, from demonstrations to boycotts, are fair game.
It’s the occupation, stupid.