When revolt is the quintessential act
By: Jamal Doumani
Here is a good piece of advice to Palestinians in the West Bank: If you’re planning to launch another intifada against Israeli occupation similar to the one you launched in 2000, don’t.
To be sure, after close to half a century of living under the rule of the gun by a foreign ruler, Palestinians have become tormented and humiliated enough and have had their rights debased that by now their national soul is gasping for breath. Revolt is the inevitable answer, for Israel is giving them no choice but to resist. However, an armed uprising similar to the one they launched in 2000-2004, or the one they launched against the British Mandate in 1936-1939, will prove costly in blood and treasure — and in the end produce nothing of tangible benefit. Clearly, the cadres that comprise the Palestinian people’s popular resistance do not have the kind of weaponry and combat experience to match those in Israel’s possession.
No need here to recapitulate what happened during what is known as the “Second Intifada,” for we are still in time too close to the fact to forget it. The example here of one battle will suffice, a battle during which Israel was not above using its infantry, commandos, assault helicopters and, above all, armored bulldozers when it attacked the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, killing hundreds in their homes as those homes were being demolished. Palestinian fighters, armed with light weapons, did not stand a chance, though they fought on for 11 days. True, Palestinian suicide bombers at the time were beginning to wreak havoc on Israelis, instilling terror in their hearts, but in the end, it all came to naught.
In like manner, the 1936-1939 peasant-led intifada against the British Mandate — which in reality should be called the “first intifada” — was equally asymmetrical. The British colonial authorities deployed ground troops, the Royal Air Force and even the Royal Navy, which used its cruisers to carry out tasks ashore, such as sending naval lorries equipped with pounder naval guns and searchlights to hunt for snipers. Then aiming for the over-kill, two destroyers were used to patrol the Palestinian coast to prevent the mujahideen, as Palestinian fighters were then known, from getting resupplied. Then naval platoons landed in Haifa and from there branched out to protect Jewish settlements in the surrounding countryside.
Though the mujahideen, like their descendants in the West Bank and Gaza seven decades later, fought with suicidal determination, it was a no-contest war against overwhelming odds. After more than three years of struggle, the revolt was brutally suppressed. According to research conducted by Walid Khalidi, the Palestinian American scholar at Columbia University, the Palestinians, after all was said and done, suffered 19,000 casualties, including 5,000 dead and 14,000 wounded. Over 10 percent of the adult male population between the ages of 20 and 60 was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled. Over 108 Palestinian patriots were hanged.
The end result of the uprising was that the British Mandate government, on orders from the Colonial Office in London, began to give crucial support to pre-state Jewish militias like the Haganah and lobby even harder to ensure that the Balfour Declaration became a reality.
The moral of the story? Don’t come to a gunfight armed with a knife. What do you do then? You should have the moxie to devise an inventive strategy. And the 1987-1991 intifada — that we continue to erroneously call the “first” — was one that Israel had no weapons big enough, lethal enough or imaginative enough to deploy against it. That intifada, which initially broke out in Gaza then spread to the West Bank, frustrated the enemy because an unarmed model of popular resistance was a real threat to Israel’s strategy. After all, how many kids armed with slingshots could its soldiers keep on killing, day in, day out? It’s a model of popular resistance that no colonial overlord has ever been able to defeat.
Recall how it worked during Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, which happily led to India’s independence, and how it worked during Martin Luther King’s 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, which equally happily led to the Voting Rights Act.
That’s not to say, in an ideal setting, that the Palestinians cannot win a people’s war against Israel, say as the Vietnamese had done against the US, but the Vietnamese at the time had two superpowers, the Soviet Union and China, backing them fully, constantly replenishing their supply lines. The Palestinians have no similar backup system to fall back on. Come to think of it, they are so destitute a people that they have been reduced to smuggling food through tunnels, instead of hauling weapons through jungle trails.
The long and short of it is that in Palestine today there is a collapse of national hope, a reservoir of turbulent energy, a corrosive sense of disenfranchisement, a feeling that one’s political destiny had gone absurdly awry, and people are thus on their own. They have to take matters into their own hands. History-making then becomes everyman’s milieu, not the privilege of the few. If Palestinians are poised for their next intifada, let it follow, I say, the model of the one in 1987-1991, a revolt that captured the imagination of the world, an uprising whose name became a naturalized word in every major language in that world (Webster’s Collegiate dictionary: Intifada, n. The act of shaking off, Uprising, Rebellion; specif: an uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza).
In a society made inert by repression, an intifada is the quintessential, not to mention the inevitable deed. And this time no one should be allowed to hijack it.