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Two Palestinian schoolgirls walk past a wall with Intifada grafitti in Gaza
Image: picture-alliance / dpa

War of stones

Kersten Knipp / sac
December 8, 2012

The first intifada or uprising broke out in the Palestinian territories 25 years ago. Though the Palestinians have been able to achieve some political successes, the major problems remain unresolved till today.


On December 8, 1987, an Israeli truck crashed into a group of Palestinian vehicles near the refugee camp Jabalia in northern Gaza. Four Palestinians died. The Palestinians viewed the crash as a deliberate act of revenge for the murder of an Israeli businessman the previous day. They spontaneously took to the streets to protest against the Israeli occupation.

The demonstrations quickly grew and soon ignited further protests in the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem. Street riots between mostly young Palestinians and Israeli military forces ensued. The first "intifada" - the Arab word for "shaking off" and also "uprising" - was born.

For years, until the first Oslo Accord (treaty that provided for the creation of Palestinian interim self-government and withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank - the ed.) was signed in September 1993, the two unequal opponents faced off: Palestinian youths initially throwing rocks - later also Molotov cocktails - at highly-armed Israeli soldiers. This image gave the intifada its nickname "war of stones."

The consequences of the Six Day War

The traffic accident near the Jabalia camp was only an additional source for the eruption of violence, Palestinian and Israeli analysts agree today.

A masked Palestinian uses a slingshot to throw stones at Israeli soldiers, not seen, during clashes following a demonstration against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (Foto:Bernat Armangue/AP/dapd)
Stones are often the weapon employed by Palestinian protestorsImage: dapd

"The main cause was the occupation since 1967," said Middle East historian Moshe Maoz from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. The Palestinians had lived under this occupation for 20 years. "Although it was maybe more liberal than others, it was still an occupation. We cannot move freely, and there are restrictions and humiliations." This led to the outbreak of the first intifada.

Political scientist Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, shares this opinion. However, he pointed out that the occupation in the Six Day War in 1967 preceded the events.

"The Six Day War was a war of aggression against Israel," Inbar said. "And the Israeli reaction was to occupy those areas from which these aggressions came from."

Death and violence

However, Palestinians were forced to endure great suffering in many respects under this occupation, says political scientist Mahdi Abdul Hadi from the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study International Affairs. For this reason, his fellow countrymen had intended to send the Israelis one main message through the uprising.

"We will launch an unarmed national resistance movement: burning tires, throwing stones, spreading leaflets and pamphlets," Hadi said. "And we invite you to sit and talk. Let's recognize each other. We call for mutual recognition and a peaceful solution, based on 22 percent of our historical homeland. This is the most historical concession ever done by the Palestinians."

But for the time being, no talks took place. Instead, more violence erupted. According to the Israeli human rights organization B't selem, a total of 1,550 Palestinians and 420 Israelis had died by the end of the first intifada.

A general view of the Israeli settlement Har Homa is seen in eastern Jerusalem, December 9, 2007. Foto: UPI Photo/Debbie Hill /Landov +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Israel continues building Jewish settlements in the occupied territoriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Creative opposition

But the Palestinians also attempted new peaceful means of opposition. Palestinian stores no longer opened their doors, or merely for a few hours - and therefore created an image that was exceedingly embarrassing for the Israelis. They didn't pay taxes anymore and no longer purchased Israeli products. And they repeatedly came together for protest marches. The demonstrators, said Hadi, made it quite clear to Israel that they were staying put. There was one point in particular which they wanted to make clear to the Israelis.

"You cannot destroy us or deport us," Hadi said. "Though you could throw us in prison, you move in the direction of a system of apartheid."

The Palestinians also call the advancing settlement building a form of apartheid. Despite both Oslo Accords from 1993 and 1995, Israel continued constructing Jewish settlements. The agreements formed the basis on which the Palestinians could at least partially administer their own territories. Yet the decisive question of the ultimate borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state were not clarified. The course of the border is still unresolved today. The Palestinians accuse Israel of wanting to create precedents through the settlements which could determine the course of any future border.

Call of the Bible

Inbar from the Begin-Sadat Center will not accept this criticism. He says there are religious reasons for the settlement building. According to Inbar, the Jewish religion is a national religion. National and religious motives are therefore intertwined in the Jewish-Israeli identity.

"Some of the Israelis, looking back at history, looking back at the Bible, see those areas as areas where Jewish civilization has grown so it's quite easy to understand that they are trying to settle in the land of the prophet's," Inbar said. "The Biblical land evokes a lot of nationalist feelings among some Israelis."

But can questions of contemporary borders really invoke the past or religious feelings? Palestinian political scientist Hadi views the advancing settlements mainly as an obstacle to a peaceful agreement between the two parties.

"We tried very hard to reach halfway with the Israelis," Hadi said. "And until this moment, the message was: we will never ever leave the West Bank, Gaza should become an Egyptian problem, and Jerusalem will be a closed Israeli city."

An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank at a staging area near the border with central Gaza November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (ISRAEL - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY)
The tensions continue and Israel's army is always on callImage: Reuters

Areas free of Jews?

Inbar on the other hand accuses the Palestinians of sealing themselves off from the Israelis, choosing to use the historically burdened "Judenrein" - a term the Nazis used to designate a region "cleansed" of Jewish presence during the Holocaust.

"If a Palestinian state would be established, which I personally doubt, I see no reason why the territory given to a Palestinian state should be 'judenrein,'" Inbar said. "Why can't the Jews continue to live as Palestinian citizens?"

But at least the secular Palestinian organizations do not want to let such an argument stand. They repeatedly stress that they have nothing against the religion of Judaism, but rather against the Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. According to Hadi, they did not experience this as a multi-religious togetherness, but rather as an occupation. And the argument that the settlements serve Israel's security is also disputed among Israelis.

"No, that's rubbish," Maoz said. "On the contrary: we still have to protect the settlers and escort every little child to a ballet class in another place or town. It has nothing to do with security."

Twenty-five years have passed since the first intifada broke out. A second uprising followed in 2000. But the main conflicts continue to exist. Following the latest disputes in the Middle East, many fear there will even be a third "war of stones."

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