In December 1987, after enduring occupation for more than 20 years, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank erupted in the face of their occupiers.
What became known as the Intifada was sparked by the killing of four labourers and the wounding of 10 others in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp in December 1987. The workers were on their way back home from Israel when an Israeli lorry driver steered his vehicle straight into the two small pickup vehicles carrying them home.
Since June 1967, the Palestinians had hoped that their Arab brothers would come to their rescue. They saw the defeat of Arab nationalism, the loss of Egypt into the Camp David peace treaty with Israel and the successive blows dealt to the PLO in Jordan, the Lebanon and within the occupied territories.
On the inside, they watched helplessly as their land slipped out of their hand. Their olive, fig and orange groves and vineyards were being turned into Jewish settlements to accommodate foreigners who had arrived from the USA and the USSR to claim a mythical inheritance.
Many of their young men and women, who had been lured into Israeli markets to provide labour were being corrupted and some had been turned into collaborators. Simply put, the Palestinians could not take any more humiliation.
The Islamic alternative
But while disgust and anger were fuel to the Intifada, the revolt could not have been sustained for five years without a well-organised mobilisation. This was provided by an emerging trend that in itself was the fruit of an Islamic revival going back to the early 1970s.
Nevertheless, it was in the aftermath of the 1982 expulsion of the PLO from the Lebanon that the Islamic trend started emerging as a credible alternative to the failing nationalist trend. The reason lay in the decision of the post-1982 PLO to seek a compromise with the occupiers, based on accepting UN resolution 242 which entails recognising the right of the state of Israel to exist.
Hamas activists lead protesters in the 1987 uprising
The loss of hope in the international community, in the Arab governments and in the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people created a vacuum that could only be filled by an ideology and a spirituality that promised deliverance and provided motivation and hope.
An earlier manifestation of this Islamic trend was the Islamic Jihad group of Palestine which planned and executed a number of audacious attacks against Israeli military targets in the 1980s.
However, the most important development accompanying the December 1987 ‘revolution’ was the emergence of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which in essence was a transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine from a social and educational grassroots organisation into a national liberation movement.
Faith and stones
For many months after its eruption, the Palestinian Intifada puzzled the Israelis and international observers. It even stunned the leaders of the PLO who had not anticipated it.
Palestinians learned from the first Intifada that military might alone is incapable of determining the overall balance of power. Armed with nothing but faith and stones, they saw the Israeli military machine crumble before their eyes. So much was the Israeli frustration that Yitzhak Rabin in his capacity as defence minister expressed the wish of waking up one day to be told that Gaza had been swallowed by the sea.
The Intifada made many Israelis consider seriously the prospect of a total collapse of their Zionist dream in Palestine.
Israel seemed more vulnerable than ever. While Arab armies posed no threat and constituted no source of anxiety for Israelis, the Intifada made many of them consider seriously the prospect of a total collapse of their Zionist dream in Palestine.
After a long absence from the reckoning of the Palestinians, Islam was by now becoming the main source of inspiration. After 40 years of misery and tribulation, they came to learn the hard way that no ideology and no way of life could empower them to face up to the Israelis, but that of Islam.
Despite competition and occasional friction, the Palestinians realised that they could not confront occupation, let alone bring it to an end, unless they avoided the temptation to engage in internal strife. Occupation had to be seen as the only threat and the only enemy.
The PLO leadership outside Palestine sought to translate the uprising into political dividends. Anxious about the Islamicisation of the conflict in the Middle East, the Israelis and their US allies sought a partner for a peaceful settlement from among the Palestinian secular elite.
The end of the first Gulf War, which drove Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, was an excellent opportunity for launching the peace initiative that brought the Arabs and the Israelis to Madrid and then Washington.
Arafat’s jubilant arrival in Gaza on 1 July 1994 marked the end of the 1987 Intifada but certainly not the end of resistance.
This initiative, which promised a peaceful end to the conflict, and the severe repressive measures adopted by the Israelis to curb Palestinian activism, contributed to a sharp decline in popular involvement in daily Intifada activities that had by 1992 become increasingly militarised.
The Oslo agreement between the PLO and Israel in September 1993 facilitated the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. Less than a year later he and the bulk of the PLO leadership in the diaspora, were permitted to return to Gaza and the West Bank. Arafat’s jubilant arrival in Gaza on 1 July 1994 marked the end of the 1987 Intifada, but certainly not the end of resistance.
For seven years afterwards, the Palestinians were divided. On the one hand there were those who wanted to give peace a chance, believing the Madrid and Oslo agreements to be legitimate dividends of the struggle. On the other hand there were those who saw in the peace process nothing but a conspiracy aimed at rescuing Israel from the serious predicament created by the Intifada.
As negotiations proceeded at various levels, all the Israelis seemed interested in was turning the Palestinian Authority into a collaborating agency that kept the peace on their behalf. Palestinian negotiators were pressed for, and made, more concessions. The PA was expected to crack down on Palestinians who opposed the peace process or resisted occupation.
The real issues in the conflict, such as the control of Jerusalem, the refugees, Jewish settlements, borders and water resources, kept being relegated to what become known as the ‘permanent status’ negotiations. In the meantime, more land was being confiscated under the guise of peace.
New Jewish settlements were set up and many existing ones beefed up or expanded for alleged security reasons. To provide Jewish settlers with safe rides between their settlements and Israeli coastal towns, hundreds of miles of highways for their exclusive use were constructed on lands seized from Palestinians.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip were so brutally carved up that Palestinian towns and villages were turned into isolated and scattered islets or "Bantustans". Even the most senior PA officials, including Arafat himself, could not move from one part to another in the territories without prior permission from the Israelis.
The peace process eventually came to a halt with the failure of the Camp David talks. For 15 days starting on 11 July 2000, with US President Bill Clinton as the host, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat discussed in vain such intractable issues as the status of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, and the status of Jerusalem.
Assassinations, detentions, reprisals, incursions, closures and other collective punishment measures became commonplace. Israel turned the entire Palestinian population into a barrel of dynamite that only needed a spark to set it off.
It was Ariel Sharon, the then leader of the Likud opposition, who provided it. On Thursday 28 September 2000, protected by hundreds of armed guards he entered al-Masjid al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, which the Israelis claim to be the site of a Jewish temple. The protests this calculated provocation set off marked the beginning of the second Intifada.
Heavy Israeli presence inside al-Aqsa mosque compound today
The most remarkable development accompanying the eruption of the second Intifada was the birth of Fatah’s military wing al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB). This was seen as clear proof of the loss of faith even within the main PLO faction, Fatah, in making peace with the Israelis.
Over the past three years, numerous attempts have been made to revive the peace process, but to no avail. The most recent stillborn initiative was the "road map proposed by the so-called Quartet: the USA, the UN, Russia and the European Union.
The failure has not been down to lack of opportunity. One golden chance which the Israelis and their US allies wasted was the unilateral declaration of a ceasefire by the Palestinian factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The Israelis rejected the truce insisting that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas do what was expected of him by the "road map".
Accepting nothing short of the total dismantlement of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the Israelis scuppered Abbas’s cabinet, brought his political life to an end and gave more oxygen to the Intifada.
(Azzam Tamimi is Director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London and Senior Lecturer at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education in Leicestershire, UK)