Stories from the first Intifada: ‘They broke my bones’

Three Palestinians who lived through the first uprising from 1987-1993 share their experiences.

Palestinians throw rocks during the first intifada
Six-year Intifada was saturated with civil disobedience, well-organised strikes, and communal cooperatives [File: AP]

It has been 30 years since the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, exploded onto the scene in the occupied territories.

The prevailing images of unarmed Palestinians throwing rocks at fully armed Israeli troops and military vehicles, which clearly showed the occupied and the occupier, were covered with unprecedented interest by international media.

These images and the uprising became symbolic of protest movements around the world.

How did the first Intifada come about?

On December 8, 1987, an Israeli vehicle ran over a car carrying four Palestinian workers in Jabalya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip. The four Palestinians were killed, and the camp broke out in spontaneous protests, which rapidly spread across the remainder of the strip and into the West Bank.

Tensions had already been running high prior to the outbreak of protests, cultivated by a worsening political climate for Palestinians, in the form of a 1984 Israeli unity government between the right-wing and leftist camps. In addition to continuous land expropriation, Israel had total control of Palestinian social, economic and political development.

The six-year Intifada was characterised by popular mobilisation and mass protests. It was also saturated by civil disobedience, well-organised strikes, and communal cooperatives.

When Israeli occupation forces imposed long-running curfews on towns and cities, Palestinians ran underground universities, schools and clinics. Boycotts of Israeli products and businesses led to the emergence of a national economy fueled by homegrown goods and increased agricultural productivity.

According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, 1,070 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the Intifada years, including 237 children. Jewish settlers also killed 54 Palestinians.

More than 175,000 Palestinians were also arrested in the same period, and 2,000 homes were demolished in Israel’s systematic method of collective punishment.

Under Israel’s then-defence minister Yitzhak Rabin’s orders, Israeli army commanders were instructed to break the bones of Palestinian protesters. Today, this policy has evolved to specifically target the knees and legs of Palestinian youth to disable them.

Below, three Palestinians who lived through the Intifada share their experiences.

Wael Joudeh, 46, Iraq al-Tayeh village, Nablus

[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

On February 26, 1988, 17-year-old Wael Joudeh and his cousin Osamah were returning home from grazing their sheep when they noticed a group of Israeli soldiers following them back to their village, east of Nablus.

As the soldiers caught up with them, they began beating them and for a period of 30 minutes, Israeli forces used stones to break their bones.

The incident was caught on video, and was the first documented incident that brought to light Israel’s “breaking the bones” policy.

Today, Wael sits on the same rock he was pushed down on before he was beaten. As he sits there silently, he recalls the painful moments he thought were his last.

“At first, one of the soldiers took off his military hard-hat and started pounding it on my head until I fell to the ground. He then proceeded to beat me uncontrollably,” Wael told Al Jazeera.

“Then he lifted me up, and shoved his helmet towards my face and shouted out what was written on it,” he recalled.

“I was born to kill Palestinians,” the soldier screamed at Wael.

“One of them twisted my arm against my back, while another started pounding my wrist with a stone, attempting to break my hand completely,” he said.

Meanwhile, Osamah was attempting to escape, but was immediately dragged down by three Israeli soldiers and beaten on the ground.

“They were beating us with every ounce of their energy. They not only wanted to break our bones and to inflict physical pain on us, they also wanted to humiliate us and shatter our spirit,” said Wael.

“The stones of Palestine were merciful,” he recalled. “That’s why we survived.”

The pair were unaware, at the time, that a man in a building 200 metres away was documenting every moment of their painful ordeal.

Though women from the nearby village attempted to stop the attack, Israeli soldiers dragged Wael and Osamah to the vehicle that eventually transported them to Tubas’ al-Faraa detention centre, in the occupied West Bank.

That night, an Israeli officer stormed into Wael’s cell and asked, “Are you the one whose bones were smashed by the soldier?”

“Now the whole world thinks you’re dead,” he told Wael.

The pair were then taken to a room in the detention centre, where they were surprised to see a crowd of journalists rushing towards them. Cameras were pointed at their faces while questions were being yelled out about the incident that had been caught on tape.

“We didn’t know it was documented, we were in shock,” said Wael, who spoke up about what happened to him.

Shortly after, the two were released because of the media pressure.

“We expected them to detain us again after the journalists left, but they didn’t.”

This was not the first time Wael survived an abduction. On December 31, 1985, a group of Israeli settlers kidnapped him while he was on his way to school.

When Israeli forces intervened, they were quick to detain and interrogate him. At just 17, Wael was sentenced to seven months imprisonment.

Over a span of six years during the Intifada, Wael was arrested five times and spent varying periods in Israeli prisons and detention centres.

Now 46 years old, Wael works as an employee of the Palestinian Ministry of Finance. He got married in 1996 and has four children, two of whom are currently university students.

“I always tell my children what happened to me. I do not ever try to hide it,” he said. “They always tell my story to their colleagues and friends.”

Wael and Osamah are considered prominent icons of the first Intifada. What they went through sparked demonstrations and a grassroots uprising, that forced the Arab League into holding an emergency meeting regarding the fate of the people in the occupied Palestinian territories.

But Wael believes he and Osamah never got the respect they deserve.

“The people’s respect is the most important thing, but unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has not shown us any respect or appreciation,” he said.

Khadija Abu Shreifa, 65, Jalazone camp, Ramallah 

[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Khadija walks slowly, dragging her foot that had been injured when she was shot by Israeli soldiers.

Her children and grandchildren gather around her in her house in Jalazone camp, north of Ramallah, and she tells them the story of her struggle during the first Intifada.

She was a survivor of a time of terrible repression, a time when soldiers of the occupation did their utmost to suppress the Intifada. At their worst, they stopped differentiating between men and women, children and the elderly. Everyone was targeted similarly.

Khadija Abu Shreifa is a Palestinian refugee. Her family was forced out of their home in the village of Safriyya in 1948. They moved to the Aqabat Jabr camp in Jericho, then to the Wahdat camp in Jordan, and finally to the Jalazone camp after the war in September 1970.

Khadija, 65, does not remember the exact date, but she remembers every detail of the day. She remembers the men and women of Jalazone camp heading out in a large demonstration, that ended in violent suppression at the hands of Israeli forces who then spread throughout the camp.

“I heard one of the soldiers of the occupation verbally harassing a group of young girls, saying sexual things to them. That made me angry so I tried to confront him but he started cursing me and moved towards me to hit me, so I attacked him and started hitting him.”


Khadija told Al Jazeera an entire Israeli military squad attacked her, the soldiers beating her and pulling her hair. One of the soldiers shot her at close range, intending to kill her, but striking her with two bullets, one in the shoulder and the other in the foot. This made her the first person to be wounded in Jalazone camp during the first Intifada.

The women of the camp hurried to rescue Khadija from the Israeli soldiers. “One of the women tore parts of her hijab off to bind my wounds. Then the people of the camp took me to the hospital in Ramallah, where an Israeli officer came to try to arrest me.

“But I was smuggled out of the hospital,” she said.

Khadija added that the women of the camp went out to demonstrate and express their anger at the attack. Israeli forces suppressed the march violently, and 40 women were injured by rubber bullets.

As soon as Khadija returned to Jalazone, she was welcomed by residents with a big parade that marched her around the whole camp.

She was carried on their shoulders as she chanted “No fear! No fear!” – and the residents chanted with her.

This was not the end of Khadija’s involvement; she continued her struggle along with the other women of the camp.

“The Israeli soldiers were always after the children; they would arrest them and beat them. Whenever I saw them arresting a child, I would pull him away from them, claiming that he was my son.”

During the first Intifada, Israeli forces often imposed a curfew, sometimes for as long as 40 consecutive days. When the curfew was that long, residents would run out of food in their homes, and that was when Khadija would venture out of the camp to fetch food and distribute it.

“I told the Israeli soldiers that my daughter was ill and needed medicine, and I got a permit to go out in our family’s car. On my way back I filled the car with food and vegetables and distributed them to residents in the camp.”

The President of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, Khitam Saafin, told Al Jazeera that Palestinian women played important roles during the first Intifada.

Most important among these roles was the formation of committees, in various neighbourhoods, that would teach children during the general strikes that were in place during the first year of the Intifada.

Khitam Saafin, President of the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Khitam Saafin, President of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Women played a central role in the demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli occupation forces. Saafin recalls women transporting stones to demonstrators on the front lines, and joining in to throw them at Israeli soldiers.

“Women also succeeded in preventing Israeli forces from arresting youth and children; they would fearlessly attack the soldiers and pull the child or young man away by force, so they were able to escape their clutches.”

She added the women’s efforts were also successful in imposing a boycott on Israeli products and in producing a Palestinian alternative.

“Israeli products were stagnant in the shops, nobody was buying them … while Palestinian products were starting to replace them.”

Saafin also talked of a group of female neighbours who would meet regularly to produce local handmade products, as replacements for Israeli ones.

This was especially vital during the long curfew days, when getting to the markets was extremely difficult and dangerous.

“If someone had a small plot of land, they would volunteer it to the women who would plant it and make use of it. The women would do the planting and harvesting and distribute their crops to the people in their neighbourhood,” she explained.

Abdullah Abu Shalbak, 49, al-Bireh, Ramallah 

[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
[Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Graffiti was a resistance tool used during the first Intifada, where Palestinians – separated by the imposition of a curfew – would leave each other messages, said Abdullah Abu Shalbak from al-Bireh on the outskirts of Ramallah.

These messages, written on the walls of refugee camps and neighbourhoods across the occupied West Bank, were the only means of communication available at a time when modern-day mobile phone technology and the internet were not available.

Abu Shalbak was among the youth tasked with writing slogans on al-Bireh’s walls. But this job was a difficult one, since they were targeted by Israeli forces.

Abu Shalbak, who was 19 years old during the first Intifada, told Al Jazeera that writing on the wall would only happen at night.

“Israeli forces would roam the streets during the day,” he told Al Jazeera. “They would also plant agents in the neighbourhoods.”

He added his faction would send messages to its members, who were structured in two-person teams. These usually announced a general strike, or simply extended congratulatory messages on the occasion of Eid holidays.


Sometimes the messages would serve the purpose of threatening Israeli forces and their agents who were present in al-Bireh.

Dressed with a keffiyeh covering their faces, Abu Shalbak and his partner would sneak out in the middle of the night to write their party’s slogans on the walls of the town.

The day before an Eid holiday, Abu Shalbak and his friend were writing well-wishes on the walls in al-Bireh, when occupation forces raided the town and began pursuing them. The two young men had previously made a pact that should this happen, they would each run in opposite directions and then later meet at a specific location.

“The chances of us getting arrested was very high,” Abu Shalbak said. “We managed to run away and then meet up later, before I noticed my friend was injured and losing a lot of blood, after his leg caught on a fence he jumped over.”

Abu Shalbak called a doctor he trusted to treat his friend, and then took him to his home. Since the next day was Eid, his friend was afraid that his absence from the crowds of well-wishers would raise suspicions, since he was confined to his house because of his wounded leg.

For three years of the Intifada, Abu Shalbak continued to write slogans and graffiti on the walls. The Israeli forces never suspected him of being behind this act, even when he was finally detained.

“I was arrested by the Israeli special forces and was accused of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at them,” he said. “I was subjected to harsh interrogation but they had no idea what it was that I really did.”

Abu Shalbak spent a few months in prison before his release. The Israeli army’s pursuit of those who wrote political messages of the Palestinian factions and popular committees was not the only thing that bothered him.

He faced other obstacles, such as the anger of some people who did not want graffiti on the walls of their homes and scrubbed them off, out of fear of punishment by the occupation forces.


Other problems played out in the rivalry between Palestinian factions who would write over each other’s graffiti. Furthermore, collaborators were tasked by their Israeli masters to paint over fresh messages on the wall before they were seen by residents of the neighbourhood.

Walls were not just for Palestinian graffiti. Occupation forces also used them to leave coded symbols for their collaborators.

“The Israeli army would draw a circle with a triangle inside of it,” Abu Shalbak said. “Inside the triangle would be another sign. This drawing represented the location and timing of where the soldiers would meet the collaborator.

“One of our missions was to also watch out for what the occupation forces would write on the walls, and to remove their messages quickly before their agent could see it.”

During the first Intifada’s latter stages, Abu Shalbak joined the military wing of Hamas, and established the movement’s first military cell in the West Bank. He was arrested by Israel again, and this time sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Abu Shalbak obtained a degree in the Hebrew language during his years in prison. When he was released as part of the 2011 prisoners’ swap, he enrolled in Hebron University and got his undergraduate degree in the same field.

Today, he is a recognised instructor and offers Hebrew courses, especially to employees in Palestinian government institutions.

Source: Al Jazeera