Intifada. The Palestinian Uprising: Israel’s Third Front 
by Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari.
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., £14.95, May 1990, 0 671 67530 3
Show More
Winner takes all: A Season in Israel 
by Stephen Brook.
Hamish Hamilton, 363 pp., £16.99, June 1990, 0 241 12635 5
Show More
Show More

There is something absurd about the sight of a soldier in battle kit chasing a plump schoolgirl down a shopping street, he with his gun and she with her satchel. This time he holds his fire and she escapes. From an alleyway her friends feebly lob stones towards the troops and jeer at them before running away. The soldiers order the shopkeepers to clear away a barricade hurriedly assembled by young protesters. Teargas lingers in the air, but the incident is over. It is a typical day in Gaza, except that no one appears to have been killed or injured in the confrontation between the over-equipped Israeli Army of occupation and the Palestinians who want to drive it out with stones and petrol bombs.

This is the intifada, the uprising whose starting-point is generally regarded as 8 December, 1987, when riots erupted in Gaza’s Jebalya refugee camp after four Palestinians in a car were accidentally killed by an Israeli truck. The intifada spread to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and even – to a lesser extent – to some of the Arab communities of Israel itself, and it continues today. Its effects have been profound if difficult to quantify. The Israeli economy suffered because some potential tourists stayed away and Palestinians boycotted the few Israeli products for which there were Palestinian substitutes; the Palestinians have also staged repeated strikes. But it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who have endured the most economic damage and seen more of their blood spilt.

The psychological and diplomatic results of the intifada, on the other hand, have emphatically favoured the Palestinians. They found themselves making international headlines not as terrorists but as heroic underdogs. They were shown on television being shot and beaten by Israeli soldiers. David the good guy was now a Palestinian, and nasty Goliath an Israeli. The women and the old joined in to support the uprising, and all were soon aware that the use of stones rather than guns was their strongest political card in the vital game to win the world’s sympathy. The mighty Israeli Army was nonplussed and its troops demoralised; trained to use sophisticated weaponry to fight invading Arab battalions, they found themselves shooting unarmed teenagers. The intifada continued anyway, allowing Palestinians – and Arabs in general – to see that the Israelis were not as invincible as they had been led to believe.

Whether an Israeli government will ever think the time has come to withdraw from the occupied territories – as South Africa did from Namibia after it failed to win the war in southern Angola – is open to doubt. Nor does Yitzhak Shamir seem inclined to take the sort of bold political initiatives which have left F.W. de Klerk’s supporters and opponents gasping for breath. Israelis generally hate to be compared to white South Africans (although a few are white South Africans), but there are striking similarities between the mechanics of the intifada and those of the uprising in South African townships which began in 1984.

Just as black South Africans finally realised that it was pointless waiting to be liberated by African National Congress guerrillas from across the border, so the Palestinians eventually understood that guerrilla attacks on Israeli territory, for all their positive impact on morale, were neither militarily effective nor politically useful. In both South Africa and the territories, it was the young people (South African ‘comrades’ and Palestinian ‘shebab’) who took the initiative in the uprising, often leaving their elders and their political leaders to catch up with events and seek to channel the violence into whatever direction they regarded as suitable. In both places the revolutionaries set up underground committees and attempted to establish alternative local administrations to undermine the authority of those they saw as their illegitimate rulers, and in both places suspected collaborators have been murdered.

Government reactions were similar too. The authorities in both countries shot the rioters or detained them without trial, ignored the popular opposition groups in exile on the grounds that they were terrorists, and then said there were no representatives from the other side with whom to negotiate. Officials blamed the violence on external enemies – who were in fact taken by surprise themselves – rather than on the more obvious social and political grievances of the people under their control. The media were vilified for spreading the bad news and each New York Times editorial or news story was obsessively scrutinised for signs of anti-government ‘bias’. South African blacks and Israeli Arabs were told they were richer and freer than their counterparts north of the Limpopo or east of the Jordan, but that message, however true it might have been, missed the point. Blacks and Arabs compare themselves to their white and Jewish fellow citizens, not to distant foreigners of the same colour or race.

In their efforts to suppress the violence, the Israeli and South African Governments both resorted to frontal attacks on the main opposition groups, the PLO and the ANC, while deliberately tolerating the growth of those organisations which seemed smaller or politically less threatening, in an attempt to increase friction among their opponents and thereby divert attention from the principal objectives of the uprisings. South African whites may ultimately regret their support for the Zulu Inkatha movement and their occasional tolerance of the activities of the black consciousness Azanian People’s Organisation. Likewise the Israelis are beginning to see the folly of having helped the increasingly influential Islamic movements to weaken the PLO in the early days of the intifada. Yassir Arafat, the PLO leader, has at least accepted the existence of Israel and renounced terrorism. Hamas and Islamic Jihad demand an Islamic state in all of Palestine, and Islamic Jihad espouses ‘the armed struggle’ to achieve it.

The flaws in Israeli policy towards the occupied territories are meticulously documented by the journalists Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari in Intifada, a fitting sequel to their examination of the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They explain how the Israeli authorities failed to see that the sufferings of the Palestinians – especially the overcrowding in Gaza and the arrogance of the Israeli bureaucrats and soldiers who control the lives of migrant workers – provided a fertile soil for the uprising even among the most apolitical members of the community. They do not omit to mention that King Hussein of Jordan and the PLO were as surprised by the start of the intifada as the Israelis themselves, and they examine in some detail the political and class divisions of Palestinian society and the shifting structures of the hounded intifada leadership.

Intifada nevertheless presents a view – however enlightened – from the Israeli side of the conflict. We seem to hear the views of Palestinian detainees filtered through the reports of their interrogators, and to have access to the statements of Palestinian politicians by way of the Israeli intelligence services. That is not to say that the views of Palestinians have been distorted, but it is important to know whether a politician – Israeli, Palestinian or American – has made such and such a declaration to the world at large or to his friends at a private meeting. Only then can one appreciate the significance of the view expressed, but the lack of footnotes or sourcing in the text makes this impossible. Doubtless much of the information comes from confidential sources, but there are ways of indicating to the reader the level of public awareness about such information (Is it published here for the first time? Is it widely known but not publicly acknowledged by the people concerned? Is it the result of a public statement?) without in any way endangering those sources.

The coldly analytical approach of Intifada is reinforced by the use of intelligence assessments, sociological studies and academic views of life in the territories where eyewitness reporting would have done the job. But the Israeli interpretation of the intifada raises important issues which are forgotten elsewhere, including the foibles of the various Israeli military officers and politicians responsible for dealing with the uprising, and the inadequacy of the military and political framework within which they continue to work. Schiff and Ya’ari ask whether Israelis have understood the implications of the intifada in the event of a mobilisation in time of war. They suggest that Israeli strategists, accustomed to thinking of the West Bank as home territory, have failed to grasp the possibility that the Palestinians might attempt to impede the movement of Israeli troops in order to assist the Arab armies. Intifada is thus aptly subtitled ‘The Palestinian Uprising: Israel’s Third Front’, the first and second fronts being open war and terrorism. So much for ‘strategic depth’ as an excuse for hanging onto the territories.

Schiff and Ya’ari, like Stephen Brook in Winner takes all (a perceptive account of a recent visit to Israel), examine the plight of the Israeli Arabs and the problem posed for Israel by their divided loyalties and the radicalising, Palestinianising effect of the intifada. ‘My country, Israel, is still at war with my people,’ one Israeli Arab tells Brook. It is one of Israel’s most severe moral dilemmas to be proud both of its Jewishness and of its democracy, for Israelis have long been aware that the two would be incompatible if the fast-growing Arab minority ever became the majority. That of course is one reason why even hardline Israelis fight shy of annexing the occupied territories; annexation implies either expulsion (internationally unacceptable but coyly called ‘transfer’ by Israeli extremists), or citizenship for the inhabitants. The current wave of Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union has relieved official anxieties about the influence of Israeli Arabs for the immediate future, but the intifada has exacerbated broader fears about the brutalisation and moral decay of an Israeli state constantly at war with its neighbours. As Schiff and Ya’ari put it:

After months of unremitting violence, it had become obvious that Israel was losing its composure along with much of its self-confidence, despite its military might. Israelis looked around them and saw that thousands of tanks and hundreds of planes were not enough to ensure their safety; that even non-conventional weapons could not solve a security problem that had seemed marginal for so long but now touched upon their lives every day. One Israeli psychologist ventured that Israel found itself in the paradoxical position of the victor feeling like the vanquished, an oppressor feeling itself oppressed. The intifada also raised a stream of questions about the kind of country the next generation of Israelis will inherit ... Can the dreams of the Jewish national movement – of security, freedom and creativity – come true under these circumstances, or will they necessarily collapse under the weight of an endlessly ugly reality?

Brook, himself a British Jew, takes up the argument in his concluding chapter: ‘An accommodation must be found because the price of failure is too high. Pictures of Arabs being buried in the sand by Israeli soldiers, however sorely provoked; of Arab children being shot, even by stray bullets; of politicians such as Sharon calling for the assassination of Arafat; of settlers whose grandparents were loaded into cattle trucks on their way to death speaking glibly of ‘transferring’ Arabs who inconvenience their sense of destiny – none of this has any connection with the Judaism I was taught or with the Jewish culture and tradition from which I still draw nourishment.’

For the Palestinians of the territories, this is the triumph of the uprising without guns which has cost them so dearly: not merely to have pushed the PLO towards more realistic policies, including Arafat’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and his renunciation of terrorism in December 1988, but also to have shown Israelis and the world at large that Israel’s rights cannot, except at an unacceptable moral cost, be exercised absolutely and at the expense of the Arabs who lay claim to the same land.

It would be dangerous, however, to assume that Israelis as a whole support the sort of agonised liberal views expressed by Schiff, Ya’ari and Brook, in the same way that it would be dangerous to judge the political complexion of South African whites by talking to the inhabitants of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs without a visit to the dorps of the rural Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Brook’s wide-ranging tour through Israel – as much travelogue as political analysis and an ideal companion for the first-time visitor – skilfully captures the neurotic mood of the country’s heterogenous society.

Brook passes happily from the idealistic kibbutzim and the secular teeny-boppers of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Jerusalem so ultra-orthodox that they stone cars on the sabbath and oppose the concept of the state of Israel as a premature blasphemy. His flippancy might grate (I suppose it was inevitable that the chapter on orthodox Jews would be called ‘Torah Torah Torah!’), but he eloquently experiences for us everything from the Western visitor’s surprise at the Levantine shabbiness of Israel to the horrible logic of the Israeli extreme Right. Rabbi Kahane, unlike his more moderate fellow politicians, does not bother to pretend that Palestinians do not support the PLO. Arabs, he says, want their country back and should therefore all be thrown out as a menace to society.

The Palestinians are weary, but the intifada continues into its 31st month. It erupted with renewed ferocity in May after a lone Israeli gunman, apparently deranged, shot dead seven Palestinians by the side of the road. Since then Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud Party have formed a narrowly-based right-wing government with the support of extremist and religious parties. Such a government may be fragile, but its very existence is a sign of the increasing polarisation in the Middle East.

The PLO, at the time of writing, has lost the only substantial diplomatic gain of the intifada – the ‘dialogue’ with the United States which followed Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism – because of a failed attack by a PLO faction on an Israeli beach. Arafat is being urged by the radicals in his movement to throw away the olive branch which has earned him and his people so few rewards. The Arabs in general are angry at what they see as Washington’s refusal to force Israel to exchange land for peace. Their traditional political ally among the superpowers, the Soviet Union, is preoccupied with its own domestic turmoil, leaving the Arab world uncertain whether to resort to terrorism, the revival of the oil weapon, irredentist Islamic fundamentalism or outright war as threatened by the rhetoric of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, while Soviet Jewish immigration into Israel encourages Israeli hard-liners to press for further Jewish settlement of the territories.

It hardly seems likely in the present climate that Israel will grant the Palestinians even the most attenuated state in the West Bank and Gaza, despite the tripartite Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian solutions proposed by the likes of Schiff and Ya’ari. Palestinians may ultimately use their superior numbers to take over the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or they may be consigned to a nationalistic limbo like the Kurds and the Armenians. What these two books make clear is that Israelis, as well as Palestinians, are suffering and will continue to suffer the consequences of an endlessly deferred peace.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences