‘Children of the stones’: the day Palestine was reborn

Thirty years ago today, Palestinians took the first step to reclaim their identity and stand up to their oppressors.

Intifada 1987 AP1
A youth throws stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers at the entrance to Bureij refugee camp in the occupied Gaza strip during the first intifada in 1987 [AP]

When the first Intifada commenced in December 1987, I had just turned 15. At the cusp of manhood, I had entered my first year at the famed Khaled Ibn Al-Walid High School in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp. 

Though future opportunities in a refugee camp under military occupation were restricted, my imagination had soared further than the confines of my family’s impoverished existence.

Life, of course, had other plans.

My father’s rebellious past was overpowered by the daily degradation of life of want under a merciless occupation. My grandfather had recently died, along with the dream of ever going back to his village in Beit Daras, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948.

For me, and many of my generation, the Intifada was not a political event. It was an act of personal – as much as collective – liberation: the ability to articulate who we were at a time when all seemed lost. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) languished in Tunisia after being forced to leave Lebanon in 1982. Arab governments seemed to have lost interest in Palestine altogether. Israel emerged triumphant and invincible.

And we – those living under protracted military occupation – felt completely abandoned. 

I will never forget the day when I resolved my personal conflict and reclaimed my identity, along with my family’s honour. It was on the morning of December 9, 1987.

Israeli soldiers poured into our refugee camp, some on foot and others in small jeeps and large military vehicles. A battle was about to commence. Women, children and the elderly were urged to leave before the arrival of the army. Many young men also retreated. I was terrified, yet exhilarated.

Two Israeli soldiers run towards a group of Palestinian youth, who had been hurling rocks and bottles at them in Nablus during the first intifada [AP/Max Nash]
Two Israeli soldiers run towards a group of Palestinian youth, who had been hurling rocks and bottles at them in Nablus during the first intifada [AP/Max Nash]

I was no longer a middle school pupil, but a student at Khaled Ibn al-Walid, and thus could justify my flight. I picked up a stone, yet stood still. Some kids ran towards the soldiers, with their rocks and flags. The soldiers drew nearer. They looked scary and foreign.

When the kids began throwing their rocks in the direction of the army, my anxiety began to dissipate. I felt that I belonged there. I ran into the battle with my heavy schoolbag in one hand, and a stone in the other. “Allahu Akhbar!”, “God is great!” – I shouted. I threw my first stone. I hit no target, for the rock fell just a short distance ahead of me. Yet, somehow, I felt liberated, no longer a negligible refugee standing in a long queue before a United Nations feeding centre, extending a hand for a dry falafel sandwich and half an egg.

Engulfed by my own rebellious feelings, I picked up another stone, and a third. I moved forward, even as bullets flew, even as my friends began falling all around me. I could finally articulate who I was and, for the first time, on my own terms. 

My name is Ramzy, and I am the son of Mohammed, a freedom fighter from the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, and the grandson of a peasant who died of a broken heart and was buried beside the grave of my brother, a little boy who died because there was no medicine in the refugee camp’s UN clinic. My mother is Zarefah, a refugee who could not spell her name, whose illiteracy was compensated by a heart overflowing with love for her children, a woman who had the patience of a prophet. I am a free boy; in fact, I am a free man. 

Jabaliya, Nuseirat, Palestine

When, on December 8, 1987, thousands took to the streets of Jabaliya Refugee Camp, the Gaza Strip’s largest and poorest camp, the timing and the location of their uprising was most fitting, rational and necessary. Earlier on that day, an Israeli truck had run over a row of cars carrying Palestinian labourers, killing four young men. For Jabaliya, as with the rest of Palestine, it was the last straw.

Responding to the chants and pleas of the Jabaliya mourners, the refugees in my camp marched to the Israeli military barracks, known as the “tents”, where hundreds of soldiers had tormented my camp’s residents for years.

In the morning of December 9, thousands of Nuseirat youth took to the streets and vowed to avenge the innocent blood of the Jabaliya victims of the previous day. They swung large flags made of silky fabric that swayed beautifully in Gaza’s salty air and, as the momentum grew and they became intoxicated by their own collective chants, they marched to the “tents” where the soldiers were uneasily perched on the tops of watchtowers, hiding behind their binoculars and automatic machine guns. 

Within minutes, a war had started and a third generation of refugee-camp-born fellaheen (peasants) stood fearlessly against a well-equipped army that was visibly gripped by fear and confusion. The soldiers wounded many that day and several children were killed. Among deafening chants that freedom was coming, the remains of the dead were carried to the Nuseirat Martyrs Graveyard and laid to rest.

Within days, Gaza was the breeding ground for a real revolution that was self-propelled and unwavering. The chants of Palestinians in the Strip were answered in the West Bank, and echoed just as loudly in Palestinian towns, even those located in Israel.  

The contagious energy was emblematic of children and young adults wanting to reclaim the identities of their ancestors, which had been horribly disfigured and divided between regions, countries and refugee camps.

Before the Intifada

But the Intifada cannot be understood without the specific events that led to the December 8 protests.

In 1984, an Israeli unity government was established with a seemingly peculiar leadership arrangement, with Yitzhak Shamir, of the Rightwing Likud Party, and Shimon Peres of the Labour Party, trading the post of Prime Minister. Yitzhak Rabin, notorious for his violent tactics, was appointed to the post of defence minister.

An old man tries to clear his eyes and catch his breath after he was hit by a cloud of tear gas in Khan Yunis, in the occupied Gaza Strip, during a demonstration, January 10, 1987 [AP/Dieter Endlicher]
An old man tries to clear his eyes and catch his breath after he was hit by a cloud of tear gas in Khan Yunis, in the occupied Gaza Strip, during a demonstration, January 10, 1987 [AP/Dieter Endlicher]

The individuals at the helm of the Israeli leadership constituted the worst possible combination from the point of view of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. While Shamir and Peres served the role of the hardliner and peace “dove” respectively before the international community, both men and their government presided over a legacy saturated with violence, illegal annexation of Palestinian land and settlement expansion.

Before the Intifada, acts of resistance were present, but sporadic. Many students in my high school who bravely faced the Israeli troops were affiliated or were supporters of leading PLO factions.

Fatah was becoming the most visible faction in Palestinian schools and universities. The Islamic Movement was divided between Al-Mujamma Al-Islami (The Islamic Center) – which later morphed into Hamas – and the Islamic Jihad, a smaller but daring militant group.

The Intifada was born out of this political context, yet it eventually surpassed it. It was the first time in many years that the Palestinian people regained the initiative. It took everyone by surprise, including the PLO.

The Israeli crackdown

After weeks of bloody clashes in which hundreds of youth fell dead or were wounded, the nature of the Intifada became clearer. On one hand, it was a popular struggle of civil disobedience, mass protests, commercial and labour strikes, refusal to pay taxes and so on. On the other hand, militant cells of refugee youth were beginning to organise and leave their mark as well.

The militancy of the Intifada did not become apparent until later, when the repression by the Shamir government grew more violent. Under the banner of the “Iron Fist” campaign, a new Israeli stratagem was devised, that of the “broken bones” policy. Once captured, youth had their hands and legs broken by soldiers in a systematic and heartless manner. In my neighbourhood, children with casts and crutches seemed to outnumber those without, at times.

Throughout the six years of the Intifada, military curfews were imposed nightly at 8:00 pm and were lifted the following morning, at 5:00 am. Sometimes, as a form of greater collective punishment, curfews would extend to imprison whole communities for days, weeks and even months. 

As the people mobilised, factions attempted to regain the initiative. The Islamic Movement, which was already at an advanced stage of organisation, quickly mobilised, joining the Intifada under the acronym “Hamas” in a statement issued on December 14. 

On the other hand, the United National Command of the Uprising (UNC) was a platform that united PLO-affiliated factions inside Palestine. The overbearing nature of the Fatah-led PLO in Tunisia was sharply contrasted with the UNC’s equitable allocation of decision-making powers amongst the PLO factions in the Occupied Territories.

Alas, Hamas and the UNC clashed. Their conflict transformed the Intifada in its later stages into a hub for factional rivalry.

Israel viewed the Intifada as an act of terror, launched, organised and manipulated by the PLO to extract political concessions from Israel. As a result, on April 16, 1988, a top Fatah leader, Abu Jihad, was assassinated by Israeli commandos in Tunis. The assassination was the beginning of several other high-profile assassinations of top PLO leaders who were seen as obstacles to the so-called “peace process”. 

On May 18, 1989, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of the Hamas movement, was arrested in Gaza. He was tried in a well-publicised trial that lasted for a year. The image of a smiling quadriplegic man, confined to a rusty wheelchair, surrounded by armed soldiers, police and a horde of other frantic Israelis, was the perfect metaphor of the Intifada: outwardly vulnerable, yet somehow, empowering.  

A man holds his son's hand as they make their way along the debris littered street in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, December 11, 1987 [AP/Max Nash]
A man holds his son’s hand as they make their way along the debris littered street in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, December 11, 1987 [AP/Max Nash]

A brief moment of ‘victory’

As Israel expanded its crackdowns, the US, following the Gulf War of 1990-91, tried to translate its perceived regional dominance into political gains. A “new world order” was upon us, US President, George H. W. Bush, then proclaimed. Palestinians, along with Arab delegations were corralled into Madrid for peace talks that started in October 1991. Angry Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reeled against the Intifada, refusing to acknowledge Palestinian rights, or accept international law that had enshrined those rights. 

But many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories perceived the conference as a victory for the Intifada. The refugees in my camp hung on to the words of the head of the Palestinian delegation, Dr Haidar Abd al-Shafi, as he articulated the Palestinian position: 

“We, the people of Palestine, stand before you in the fullness of our pain, our pride, and our anticipation, for we have long harboured a yearning for peace and a dream of justice and freedom. For too long, the Palestinian people have gone unheeded, silenced, and denied our identity negated by political expediency, our rightful struggle against injustice maligned, and our present existence subsumed by the past tragedy of another people.”

All the men, who had gathered in our living room on that day, cried. Alas, that brief moment of “victory” turned into seemingly endless talk, while Israeli violent crackdowns on the Intifada continued.

The Intifada did not come to an abrupt end. It simply petered out. Factional rivalries, coupled with futile negotiations, only accentuated the many woes of the impoverished Palestinians who persisted for years, despite the ongoing military siege. Towards the end of the Intifada, factions gained the upper hand, and much of the violence was directed against Palestinians accused of collaborating with the Israeli army. 

The Intifada ended with the rise of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, itself an outcome of secret “peace talks” between Israeli and PLO officials in Oslo. The people were duly suppressed, this time by Israel and the most corrupt element of the Palestinian leadership. A few Palestinians became rich, while others were pushed deeper into despair. The Occupation did not end, but was enhanced by a layer of “security coordination“, managed by Palestinians and Israeli army officers.

I left Gaza years ago. Since then, my refugee camp has experienced another Intifada, a decade-long siege and several wars. Thousands more died. The Martyrs Graveyard has been closed forever, for it has no capacity to receive any more victims.

Many Palestinians continue to wait for their next Intifada, not because Intifadas liberate the land, but because true popular uprisings offer another kind of liberation: a moment of collective honour, and another chance at hope.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.