Intifada then and now

So reported the New York Times on Jan. 29, 1989, just over a year into the first Intifada. Now, as the first anniversary of the new Intifada approaches, Israeli newspapers are full of similar frustration and even mockery of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government who every other day announce they have found a “solution to the security problem”. Of course they are no closer to that, and the Palestinian revolt against the occupation is, if anything, intensifying.

Looking back now at the first Intifada it is startling to see just how much more brutal Israel has become, while at the same time how inured the world is to Israel’s tactics. What were regarded as extreme measures in the first Intifada, seem almost mild – even tame – in comparison. In 1989, the New York Times reported that “the resistance has not flagged despite the recent Israeli decisions to use steel and rubber bullets that harm instead of merely sting, to increase the use of plastic bullets that can injure or kill, and to widen the judicial and monetary penalties against demonstrators.”

Today it is impossible to imagine Israel fining or arresting demonstrators, nor making distinctions between bullets that merely “sting” and those that “harm.” Now Israeli troops simply shoot to kill, no questions asked. In response to the killing of 11-year-old Mohammad Zurub by occupation soldiers in Gaza on Aug. 24, the Israeli army spokesman protested that the troops did not kill him until he presented a “danger” to them. What “danger” a small child throwing stones could possibly be to heavily armed, highly-trained soldiers, ensconced in bunkers and tanks, let alone one that would justify on-the-spot execution of the child with a bullet clean through the heart, the spokesman did not explain.

Of course Israel’s policy was often lethal and deliberately cruel during the first Intifada. One year into that uprising more than 300 Palestinians had been killed by occupation forces and settlers – almost all of them unarmed civilians and more than fifty of them children. But today, after Israel ostensibly “withdrew” from parts of the occupied territories, its forces and settlers have managed to kill almost 600 people in less then a year, again, the vast majority unarmed civilians, and a third of them children. Injuries are estimated to be 20,000, more than for the whole of the first Intifada. Every human rights group that has looked has found deliberate and indiscriminate brutality by the occupation troops.

Almost every one of Israel’s brutal policies from the first Intifada has an even more brutal corollary today. Then, tens of thousands of Palestinians were detained in giant desert prison camps like Ansar II, Ansar III and Ketsiot, where torture and abuse were normal. Now, though thousands of Palestinians remain in Israel’s jails, the occupation army does not bother to haul people off for throwing stones or spraying anti-occupation graffiti. Rather, Israel has simply turned every city and town in the occupied territories into a giant prison. Instead of mere thousands, Israel now holds nearly three million people behind fences, walls and trenches in 63 separate enclaves, cut off from food, work and each other, and unable to move without serious risk to their lives. Every Palestinian child born in the occupied territories today is born in a prison.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Israel would demolish or seal individual houses as a form of collective punishment. Today, it flattens entire neighbourhoods in the middle of the night as terrified residents scramble for cover from the fire-spitting armoured bulldozers and tanks.

Palestinian political leaders and activists were expelled to Jordan or Lebanon during the first Intifada. Today, they are simply murdered by Israeli death squads. The death squads are not new, but their use was relatively rare in the past. According to Israel’s human rights group B’Tselem, Israeli “undercover units” killed only five Palestinians in 1988, 25 in 1989 and a total of 114 in the seven years up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. This compares with more than fifty people in less than a year in the present uprising, with an additional eleven bystanders killed as a result of these murderous attacks.

While Ariel Sharon openly boasts about the people he has ordered killed, Israel’s past leaders were more cautious. After the brazen 1988 murder in his bed of senior PLO official Khalil Al Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly told his cabinet: “I heard about it on the radio, just like you,” and the Israeli army refused to comment on the operation which its commandos had carried out. Human rights groups could only surmise from obvious patterns and circumstantial evidence that Israel was engaging in extra-judicial executions in the occupied territories, because Israel worked hard to cover its tracks, at one point even revoking the press credentials of a number of journalists, including from Reuters, for merely suggesting it.

Up until the mid-1990s, it was not unheard of for occupation troops to fire anti-tank missiles into houses where they thought “suspects” were hiding, and in September 1996, Israel used helicopter gunships against Palestinian civilians to suppress protests which erupted after the opening of a tunnel under Al Aqsa complex in occupied East Jerusalem. But there is no precedent for US-made Apache helicopters being used to hunt down and murder individuals as they routinely are today. Nor did anyone predict that the world’s most advanced fighter jets would be used to drop 300 kg bombs in Palestinian neighbourhoods in the occupied territories. In three months, what was once shocking has become almost normal. When Israel used F-16s against Nablus last May, killing 12 people, there was widespread outrage, even from US Vice President Dick Cheney (who more recently gave tacit approval to Israel’s death squads).

Following Israel’s air-raids in late August, The Independent reported that more than 12 hours later “not a whisper of complaint had emerged from the international community” (August 27).

As Israeli violence against Palestinians has escalated dramatically, Palestinian violence targeting Israelis has also become more lethal. From December 1987 to the Oslo signing, 160 Israelis were killed, according to B’Tselem.

After less than a year of the new Intifada 150 Israelis have died. More than half of them were soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories, but dozens have died in gruesome suicide bombings within the Green Line, a phenomenon which did not take root until the mid-1990s.

While every killing of a civilian is equally unjustifiable, there is a distinction to be made between the actions of individuals and groups on the one hand, and the actions of a member state of the United Nations, ordered by its cabinet and carried out by its bureaucrats and soldiers on the other.

Yet, if international, especially American, condemnation of Israeli violence has been muted, this is not so of Palestinian violence. The United States leads the pack that puts the onus on the occupied rather than the occupier to “break the cycle of violence”. There is a tendency, reflected especially in the US media, to hold the entire Palestinian population accountable for the acts of a few, while the crimes of Israel’s government are seldom left at the doorstep of anyone let alone the people who elected it. More praise can still be heard in the United States for Israel’s “restraint” than criticism of its growing brutality.

Where will this all end? Unfortunately the top of this escalator of death is still not in view. If today Israel murders someone it would once have arrested or deported, what will it do to the family of that person whom it once collectively punished by demolishing their house? Following the same logic it ought simply to kill the family. This is precisely what Israel’s Deputy Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra recently proposed. The United States strongly denounced his comments and asked the Israeli government to repudiate them, but neither Ezra nor the government in which he serves, nor even Israel’s allegedly “doveish” Nobel Prize-winning Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have yet done so.

As Israel’s violence has increased, its defiance of international law becomes more brazen, and its occupation more entrenched; the international climate and attitude towards it is not significantly more hostile than it was the first time around. In some respects, it is far better, as Israel is virtually assured that neither the UN nor the Arab League nor any other international body is willing or able to restrain it. One slight hope is that now there is a real though very slim prospect that Israel’s leaders may one day face justice in a court of law for their crimes. But for now there is no reason to believe that the world will not allow Israel’s occupation and its attempt to crush all resistance to it to continue unperturbed well into the future.

Looking forward it is important not to be alarmist or to predict disasters that are unlikely to happen. But looking back eleven years, and even just eleven months, leads one to the conclusion that the worst is yet to come and that if Israel possesses the means to do something, there is a chance that eventually it will do it.

Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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