"Something Was in the Air All of 1987"

by Beshara Doumani
published in MER152

Mahmoud and Naji, both in their early twenties, are full-time participants in the uprising. Both were politically active before the uprising and, in addition to joining demonstrations, they play leading roles in local neighborhood committees. Both are college students. Mahmoud majors in civil engineering and Naji in economics. They spoke with Beshara Doumani in Ramallah on March 1, 1988.

When did you realize that this was indeed an uprising?

Mahmoud For me, December 21 was the watershed point. All of the Palestinian people -- inside the 1948 lines, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- moved together despite the unprecedented number of killings and waves of arrests. Something was in the air all of 1987. One could sense that people were fed up and were ready to explode. There was a steep rise in bloody confrontations, especially in Gaza. But no one thought that the “car accident” of December 8 would be the spark; many other Palestinians had died in suspicious “accidents” before. Even before the first communique of the United Leadership was issued near the end of December, people were preparing themselves for the long haul. You could feel that people were willing to sacrifice all because they had little to lose. They have lost the land, and every day they are provoked, harassed and intimidated by the army.

Why do you think that the uprising happened when it did?

Mahmoud It did not have to happen in December. People were ready for such an action. Note the rise in acts of individual resistance. Over a dozen such stabbings of soldiers and settlers took place just before the uprising, and they were not organized. This does not mean that the uprising happened independently of the existing political forces. Their struggle has paved the way. You must remember that there is hardly a single Palestinian household that does not have one member organized in one faction or another. Also, the PLO remains the focus of the people’s identity and their aspiration, regardless of whether the majority is organized or not.

If the uprising were to end today, what would it have achieved?

Mahmoud First, it has gained world attention. Since the early 1980s, the Gulf war has been the priority issue, and the media has long behaved as if our situation was not a big deal. But we feel the depth of this tragedy every day. The uprising has restored the Palestinian question to its rightful place as the core crisis of the Middle East region. Second, it has united the factions as never before. The formal unity achieved in the 1986 Algiers PNC was deepened by the uprising. The very politics of the PLO found its roots again. There is no one now who plays around with the Reagan plan, the Jordan option, a joint confederation or “raising the standard of living.” Third, it forced Amal to lift its long siege of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which Syria had backed. Amal and Syria could not ignore the fact that the entire world could see the Palestinians inside fighting for their rights and suffering terrible losses, while those outside remained under a two-year old Arab siege. This was a great achievement.

What about the mindset and attitudes of the people here?

Mahmoud Involvement in the national struggle is the main dynamic in people’s lives. In the past, many workers and merchants were skeptical and complained that strikes were ineffective. But now everyone eagerly awaits the week’s agenda drawn up by the United Leadership. Most of all, the barrier of fear has been broken. Now, each Palestinian feels that he controls his street, his neighborhood. No doubt that the Israeli army is strong, and can defeat us in any one battle, but we can come back again and again.

How have events been organized?

Mahmoud There are local committees which bear the basic responsibility of executing the weekly programs and carrying out tasks specific to each locality. These committees also collect and distribute money and basic necessities, coordinate visits by medical teams and other groups, and plan various actions. The makeup of the committees depends on specific local features, but usually they involve people of all ages, backgrounds and both sexes. In some villages and conservative neighborhoods, you will not find women members, though activities for women are planned.

Naji The existing mass organizations were overwhelmed by the large numbers of previously unorganized people who are now out on the streets. Every faction is doing its best to keep its various mass organizations working at full steam. Those who were organized previously, who have experience in collective work, play leadership roles and guide the continuing efforts to organize the streets. The Israeli authorities shut down all the universities in the West Bank in an attempt to disrupt the highly politicized student movement. Immediately, a committee of six to ten students from the various student blocs was formed for each liwa’ (region). Each committee then compiled a list of the most active students and set up local student committees. The same applies for high school students, workers and women. Each of these sectoral committees elects one or two representatives, who in turn constitute the core of neighborhood committees. The main task of neighborhood committees is executing the weekly program of the United Leadership.

Do neighborhood committees reflect the local balance of forces?

Naji New forms of mobilization have emerged which cater to the large number of people not previously organized but who can play leading roles nevertheless. The most important are the newly formed merchant committees. Most merchants are not politically organized, but they are very motivated and have organized themselves well. This is a very important development which will outlast the uprising. The United Leadership takes into account the opinions of merchants’ committees before issuing any statements concerning this sector.

How do workers deal with the need to feed their families?

Naji The participation of workers in this uprising is unprecedented. In the past, students not only initiated waves of protests but also had to shoulder most of the daily tasks of sustaining these protests. Workers have not limited their participation to simply not going to work on national strike days. They have also joined demonstrations for the first time on a massive scale. Jerusalem workers were instrumental, for example, in the late December attacks on three Israeli banks and a number of police stations.

But one hears calls for a total boycott of work in Israel. Does the United Leadership expect a positive response? Have they thought of alternatives for these workers?

Naji Workers, unlike merchants, do not have significant savings. Of the 100,000 and more Palestinian laborers who work in Israel, only a small portion, 10,000 at the most, can be absorbed by Arab-owned factories and enterprises. The nationalist movement has not planned for such a development, and the absorption cannot take place overnight. That is why the leadership has not called for an open-ended boycott. Workers are expected to adhere to national strike days, and only those that can find an alternative are encouraged to quit their jobs in Israel.

If you are confronted by a worker or merchant who asks, “How long can we go on?” what do you answer?

Naji This uprising is different in that it is not connected to a specific demand -- unlike, for example, the wave of protests that accompanied the prisoner’s strike last year. This uprising raises one general political slogan: End the occupation.

Mahmoud This uprising is only the first major round. There are no particular demands which, if met, would induce us to stop. In a year or two there will be another uprising and then yet another until we force the Israeli occupiers out.

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