He with his gun and she with her satchel

Victor Mallet

  • 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, ISBN 0 671 67530 3
  • Winner takes all: A Season in Israel by Stephen Brook
    Hamish Hamilton, 363 pp, £16.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 241 12635 5

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.

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