The current intifada [uprising] arises from the disillusionment and realization that the intransigent Israeli’s, through the discredited Oslo Accords, has been unwilling to even grant the Palestinians what amounts to a crippled, deformed Bantustan. The defiant mood suggests that it would be better to die on one’s feet with a stone in your hand, then remain subjugated on one’s knees for another fifty years. The more than 180 dead and six thousand injured thus far, bears testimony to the tragic sacrifice borne by the youth in particular. And yet, for many far removed from the refugee camps, observing the daily carnage of stone -throwing children against a brutal military power, it is the intifada that appears to be a foolish, incomprehensible and wasted exercise.
Nobody who has ever visited a Palestinian camp, can forget the things he has seen or the desperation he has sensed:’ the squalid sheds,’ their roofs of tin or corrugated iron weighted down with stones to stop them blowing away; the walls of squashed petrol cans, a few plants growing in rusty tins, the clouds of flies, the stink of animals and excrement; the long lines of women queuing up for rice or kerosene, or flour; above all the faces of women, worn and vacant, exhausted by years of carrying water and heavy loads, of children, wide-eyed and dirty, of men who push past sullenly, saying nothing. Yes! This is Langa, Winterveld, Soweto, Gugulethu , and worse.
Life of a Palestinian refugee means a life of perpetual degradation. You are forced to live in narrow rooms, with leaky roofs, partitioned with cardboard boxes. In each lived one family no matter how many people it contained. In some cases people had lived huddled together in the same room for fifteen years. For the undernourished children there was no where to play; for the men, no work. Farmers who once worked their own lands it was a choice between unemployment or selling lottery tickets; women waited in queues begging for handfuls of rice and sugar; and children standing bare feet trying to sell chewing-gum to passing motorists.
Growing up in this forlorn and insecure environment , and experiencing the intense humiliation of constant interference by an alien and ruthless police force on your own land, is what most Black South Africans can easily empathise with. It is this ignominy that led to the spontaneous Soweto uprising in 1976 and that eventually spread to the rest of the country. We in South Africa are now reaping the rewards due to the sacrifices made by the youth 24 years ago.
Just as the Soweto uprising shook the foundation of the Apartheid state, the intifada has made the racist and oppressive Zionist state realize that the Palestinians have reached a threshold beyond which they are no longer willing to endure the horrendous occupation. On December 9th 1987, the shadow line was crossed when fear was forbidden, stones were taken up and a sense of irreversibility took hold. From now on there was to be no turning back, political independence had to be declared, the sacrifice had to be made.
The Israeli occupiers reacted with unparalleled ferocity. The number of troops increased to 180,000 in Gaza and the West Bank. Hundreds of children were killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands interned. The Palestinians suffered imprisonment, deportation, expropriation of their land, collective punishment, demolition of houses, curfews and preemptive military expeditions.
Yet, the accomplishments of the intifada was unprecedented and far-reaching. Whereas previously protests against the occupiers were sporadic and geographically and socially limited, calls to strike after the Intifada was widely demonstrated throughout the occupied territories. The struggle for liberation was transferred from the surrounding Arab countries into occupied Palestine, thus curtailing the influence of the corrupt and servile Arab leaders. Collaborators with the occupation forces were encircled and gradually rendered ineffective as the entire mass of people under occupation came together in a block that opposed occupation.
Islam became the rallying cry for freedom. Muslims in the occupied territories assumed the leadership. A new set of institutions emerged and, in fields like health, education, food and water supply and agriculture, these provided an alternative social organization to that dominated by the occupation regime. Hamas became a major force and considered the intifada as a stage in the continuing resistance against Israeli occupation and as an expression of rejecting occupation hegemony and injustice.
The intifada had a shattering effect on Israel’s economy, military, politics and psychology. Strikes, unrest, boycotts and refusal to pay taxes cost Israel millions of dollars. Loss in tourism, exports, labour shortages, and production losses compounded the problems. Emigration increased. Military expenditure escalated. Soldiers, previously allowed free movement in the occupied territories, were afraid to venture there. Suicide amongst soldiers sky-rocketed. Their arrogance was replaced by fear, and vulnerability, and demolished the myth of invincibility. Israel’s Shin Beth’s 20, 000-strong intelligence network among the Palestinians was destroyed, making it impossible for Israel to re-impose full control and restore law and order.
These factors, amongst others, and the refusal of the Palestinians to call off the intifada convinced the Israeli government of the futility of the continued suppression. This paved the way to the Oslo Accords. Now, even this has been consigned to the rubbish bin. The Palestinians have cast aside the double occupation, by Arafat and Israel.
Arafat will undoubtedly be summoned by his Zionist and American masters, to concoct and weave yet another deceptive agreement. There is, however, a feeling that, just as the Soweto uprising led to a undivided, democratic, non-racial South Africa for all its people, the intifada will lead to a unitary, democratic Palestine for all its people, Muslims, Jews and Christians.
(Mr. Firoz Osman is Secretary of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)