One year before the Palestinian mass uprising began, the writing was on the grey cement walls of refugee camp houses in Gaza, where you could read the anguish of Gaza camp residents at the spectacle of the Amal militia bombarding Palestinians in the camps in Lebanon. These attacks forged a real unity among Palestinian factions there and carried Palestinians here into street demonstrations — as much against Amal’s assault as against Israel’s “iron fist.”

Israeli military authorities must have sensed that resistance was about to escalate; when demonstrations became irritatingly frequent, they increased punitive measures and violence against Gaza Strip residents, particularly against boys between 13 and 20 years old.

On December 4, 1986, the Israeli army shot dead two Birzeit University students on campus. Both young men happened to live in the Gaza Strip, and their killing set off demonstrations that grew from their home towns to encompass most of the camps and schools in Gaza in the days that followed.

Israeli authorities tried to contain the protests by arresting hundreds of boys and young men, picking them up off the streets, from their schoolyards and classrooms and homes, and taking them to police stations, military headquarters and the central prison in Gaza. When the demonstrations still continued, a second wave of arrests targeted ex-prisoners and known activists. An army camp on the edge of Gaza City was hastily converted to hold the overflow of young detainees. By the end of December 1986, authorities had detained more than 250 men of all ages in the four room-sized cells inside the army camp.

Palestinians in Gaza quickly dubbed the camp “Ansar II,” after the notorious POW camp Israel had set up in south Lebanon. The Hebrew press reported widely on the inhuman conditions, regular beatings and sadistic treatment by soldiers, disregard for prison rules and regulations, arbitrary arrests and releases, and lack of legal rights. Gaza lawyers and popular organizations regularly appealed for better conditions, and detainees went on hunger strike several times.

Ansar II became an institutional symbol of Israeli policy toward youth in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s now-famous beating policy began here, quietly and out of sight, within the barbed wire perimeters of Ansar II. There soldiers and military police practiced clubbing young Palestinians already handcuffed and under arrest. As the first year of Ansar II wore on, the kinds of injuries suffered by the detainees became more serious; by October and November, teenaged boys had to be hospitalized, and several of them underwent surgery to repair damage to their bodies by soldiers’ guns, clubs and boots.

How effective was this Israeli policy in curbing stone-throwing and strike organizers? Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, who directs the Red Crescent here, pointed at the writing on the wall: “The kids are drawing different conclusions. They are becoming more daring, and they are not running away.”

Turning Up the Heat

In late January 1987, military authorities decided to use deportation to intimidate activists. Muhammad Dahlan, 26, accused of leading a pro-Fatah youth organization, Shabiba, was expelled to Jordan and then to Egypt, where he was immediately arrested.

Demonstrations and school strikes nevertheless persisted in February, March and April. In a demonstration in Khan Yunis, a 15-year-old boy, his school bag still strapped to his back, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier as he fled terrified from an army jeep. An Israeli army investigation called the shooting “per standing orders.” Gaza’s rage grew even more fierce.

On a hot summer day in August 1987, someone walked up to an Israeli army jeep stuck in traffic on Gaza’s main street and shot twice at point-blank range, killing Lt. Ron Tal. He was commander of military police in Gaza, in charge of guarding detainees inside Ansar II and to and from military courts.

In response, Israeli authorities imposed unprecedented collective punishment measures on Gaza’s half-million residents: For three days no one was permitted to enter or leave the Strip; Gaza City residents could not even go outside their homes, and the area where the incident took place was sealed off for one week. The Palestinians were simmering, especially because the harsh travel ban came during the major Muslim feast of ‘Id al-Adha.

Israeli military authorities attributed the assassination to the Islamic Jihad. This growing Muslim revivalist organization had turned from attacking “communist” Palestinian nationalists to joining with nationalists against the Israelis.

In two separate but similar incidents on October 1 and 6, Israeli forces ambushed and killed seven men from Gaza, reported to be members or close associates of the Islamic Jihad. Three had escaped from Gaza prison in May and had remained underground in the Strip.

In the first attack, a well-known Gaza businessman and a local engineer, both unarmed, were shot on the spot when they attempted to pass through a roadblock. The two were apparently gunned down by accident, perhaps because they happened into an ambush set up for escaped prisoner Misbah al-Suri. Ten days later, Israeli officials said al-Suri had also died in the shooting. The long delay in disclosing this led to speculation that al-Suri had only been injured in the attack and was killed after being interrogated about his fellow escapees.

In the second incident, four Palestinians were killed along with a high-ranking Israeli prison official in a shootout in a residential area of Gaza City. A small cache of weapons was found in the cars of the four men, which authorities said were to be used in a military operation against an Israeli target.

Late that night, military authorities descended on the homes of the families of those killed. Without informing them of their sons’ deaths, they carried out searches and arrested family members. Three weeks later, Israeli authorities bulldozed their homes.

The ambush slayings sparked demonstrations beginning at the Islamic University, where two of the men had studied, and spreading to many towns and camps. General strikes and demonstrations shut down Gaza and the West Bank for more than a week. Al-Ittihad, the Arabic daily in Israel, used the word “insurrection” to describe the popular response. One was killed and more than 40 injured in a week of protest.

The size and scope of the demonstrations indicate how the popular reputation of the Islamic Jihad had grown in the last year, with the group claiming responsibility for several daring military operations against Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Israel attributed the Jihad’s growth to Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ‘Awda, a popular teacher at Gaza’s Islamic University who had spent time in Israeli and Egyptian prisons. Sheikh ‘Awda was arrested on November 15 and ordered deported on the ground that he was the “spiritual leader” of the Islamic Jihad and responsible for its new cooperation with Fatah.

The tragedy of the shootouts was followed shortly by another killing. This time a 17-year old girl was shot by a settler in her schoolyard in Dayr al-Balah. Settlers said the girls had been throwing stones, but Intisar al-‘Attar, wearing the scarf and long coat of Islamic dress, was running away when she was shot in the back. The settlers did not stop to aid the girl, and continued on their way without even reporting the shooting. A ballistics test of Israeli settler weapons resulted in the arrest of a schoolteacher for the shooting, but an Israeli judge released him after several days of intense campaigning by settlers.

With no protection from vigilante settlers, Palestinians fell to their own devices to make Gaza off limits to Israelis: Youths threw stones at cars with yellow Israeli license plates, and on December 7 an Israeli merchant from Tel Aviv was stabbed to death in Gaza’s main square. Although Palestinians rushed to aid the man, no one cooperated with military interrogators, who arrested scores and clamped a curfew on the area.

Twenty-four hours later, on December 8, an Israeli army tank transporter drove into a line of cars of Arab workers who had just passed the Erez military checkpoint at the northern entrance to the Gaza Strip. Four workers were crushed to death and seven were seriously injured in the accident, witnessed by hundreds of laborers returning from jobs in Israel. Three of the dead men werefrom nearby Jabalya refugee camp. Their funerals that night turned into a huge demonstration by 10,000 camp residents, who charged that the accident was a retaliation for the murder of the Israeli merchant the day before.

The next day, heads of Gaza popular and professional institutions held a press conference in West Jerusalem with the Israel League for Human Rights to discuss deteriorating economic and security conditions in Gaza. While they were speaking, reports came in of more demonstrations in Jabalya camp and the shooting death of a 20-year-old man, the first martyr on what was the first day of the Palestinian mass uprising — an explosion that was a surprise to everyone but the Palestinians under occupation.

“Everyone Here Has a Demonstration Inside His Heart”

The uprising might have begun any place but it began in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp — whose 50,000 residents now proudly refer to their home as mu‘askar al-thawra, “camp of the revolution.”

Gaza Strip residents fueled the uprising with demonstrations that sometimes numbered tens of thousands, waving flags and carrying symbolic coffins, chanting every variety of nationalist slogan and vowing to revenge the latest martyr. Youths controlled whole neighborhoods in the cities and closed off the entrances to their camps with stone barricades, garbage and burning tires. When soldiers entered, residents pelted them with stones, debris and occasionally petrol bombs. Local shopkeepers closed down and laborers refused to go to jobs in Israel.

Israeli officials refer to the demonstrations as "riots" and defend their repression as necessary to preserve “law and order.” But there was no violence of Palestinian against Palestinian, and there was no sense of mindless abandon. The protests showed restraint and rationality, which stemmed from a Gaza Strip-wide sense of community and of purposeful resistance. Demonstrations were not “peaceful” but neither did they turn Palestinians into mobs. Youths stripped an Israeli down to his underwear in front of Shifa Hospital, but then let him run back to his fellow soldiers. A young Palestinian took another soldier’s rifle away from him, broke it in two, then handed it back.

The power of Palestinians was in sheer numbers and in open defiance of Israeli authority. “We were waiting to do such an uprising,” said one young resident. From another: “Everyone here has a demonstration inside his heart.” Demonstrators chose targets carefully, setting afire military vehicles and Israeli busses, attacking police stations, smashing Israeli bank windows and even storming an Israeli army outpost in the middle of Jabalya.

On days of total strike, when transportation was also supposed to halt, even cars bearing Gaza’s distinctive gray license plates might come under a hail of stones. Yet there were no attacks on any of a dozen Israeli resort settlements and no Israeli fatalities or even serious injuries from the several million stones that must have been tossed.

On some days Gaza was so “hot” that the sky was black with the smoke of burning tires and tear gas would waft in all directions. Experienced eyes often compared the street fighting and the air of anarchy apparent in Gaza to Beirut, a vision West Bankers saw only on television news clips. The scenes of the lopsided war in the sandy Strip and, at least for one brief moment, victory over the hated occupiers, left many observers breathless and asking, “Have you been to Gaza?”

Travel was limited to crews of foreign TV networks who plastered their cars with Arabic and English “Press” signs, and to military vehicles buzzing about trying to pretend some control over a population they thought they knew so well. Even veteran Palestinian taxi drivers who had driven the Jerusalem-Gaza route for 20 years refused to enter the Strip on total strike days.

Gaza’s Palestinians, the majority of whom have lived in refugee camps for 40 years, knew there would be a terrible price to pay for their open defiance of Israeli rule. Authorities tried to confront every protest with live ammunition, then found there were too many people and too many incidents to deal with. Troops were doubled, then tripled and eventually increased to five times the usual number, including the crack Givati and Golani brigades.

In the first six weeks, the death toll was predominantly from Gaza: 27 Palestinians representing every camp and city in the tiny Strip were killed, and at least 200 suffered gunshot injuries. Five boys, aged 13 to 16, were among those shot dead. Families of two of the victims said they were killed at close range after they had been wounded. Many deaths were from head wounds, although Israeli soldiers were equipped with a new sniper gun which made killing avoidable. In the second six weeks, only two Gazans died from bullet wounds, one from month-old injuries, but 14 died from tear gas and three boys, all age 15, were beaten to death by soldiers in separate incidents in February.

By mid-January tents were set up in Ansar II detention camp in Gaza City to hold 800 detainees; another 400 youths were sent north into Israel, to Atlit military prison, where conditions were equally appalling. Still more were held in police stations and military headquarters.

Gaza lawyers could not speak to their clients, sometimes they could not even locate them before their court appearances. They could not bring defense witnesses or even make a line of argument in their favor. There was no possibility of refuting the testimony of soldiers. Release on bail was never granted. All Gaza lawyers declared a strike in mid-December, saying they could not defend their clients until the beatings in prison stopped and conditions improved and until some minimum standards were introduced into the trial procedures. (West Bank lawyers joined their strike two weeks later.) The Israeli kangaroo court system proceeded undeterred. Trials went on without the presence of defense attorneys, resulting in high fines and sentences of 4-5 months for demonstrating and 3-5 years for throwing petrol bombs.

The focus of the Palestinian uprising remained on the Gaza Strip until mid-January 1988, when the authorities imposed long curfews on all eight Gaza Strip refugee camps. No one was allowed outside; food and water shortages added to the people’s misery. Soldiers fired tear gas into homes and dropped gas into courtyards by helicopter.

Soldiers were stationed at the entrances and patrolled inside the vast camps at night, marking their way by painting 4-foot-high Hebrew letters on the walls for “school,” “mosque” and the names of neighborhoods. All the while they made arrests, searched houses and beat residents, young and old, using gun butts, clubs and boots. In one day in Jabalya camp, 100 people used their precious hour break in the curfew to seek medical treatment in the camp’s UNRWA clinic for injuries suffered when soldiers broke into their homes and beat them.

Reports of food and medicine shortages during the long curfews on Gaza camps brought a tremendous outpouring of emergency relief from Palestinian institutions inside Israel and the West Bank. Trucks of food, milk and clothing came from the Galilee and the Golan, and from women’s and other charitable organizations in the West Bank. Israel’s attempt to starve out an already poor and very young refugee population reminded Palestinians of blockades on Beirut and the camps in Lebanon.

According to Israeli journalist Yehuda Litani, Israelis think of Gaza as a “horror,” which is why Foreign Minister Shimon Peres could suggest early in December a staged Israeli withdrawal. The “Gaza First” idea has been tossed around by Israeli officials for the last ten years, as they ponder what to do with 600,000 landless Palestinians. People in Gaza reject the notion of partitioning Gaza from the West Bank.

Like in the West Bank, popular committees evolved and brought a measure of local government to neighborhoods and camps, organizing strike schedules for shopkeepers, assisting with the injured, directing demonstrations. Developments in Gaza, such as the lawyers’ strike, became models for the more sophisticated West Bank. Gaza health and professional associations sent a petition reminding the International Committee of the Red Cross of their duty to be “more outspoken” against the “unbridled savagery” Gaza’s population was witnessing.

In December underground leaflets from the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front both called for continued mass action. Then the major PLO factions together with the Islamic Jihad issued what became an extremely successful series of leaflets which gave a semblance of leadership to the uprising. The Muslim Brothers periodically issued their own statements — for example, calling for strike action to commemorate Gaza’s first occupation by Israel in 1956. But the Brothers lost favor with Gazans during the uprising.

Palestinians in Gaza hear the latest weekly communiques of the Unified Leadership broadcast by outside radio stations — Monte Carlo and al-Quds (until it was jammed by Israel) — making actual distribution unnecessary. Gaza residents often observed spontaneous general strikes for days at a time in response to local incidents. Huge demonstrations of 10,000 throughout Gaza greeted the news of the operation by three commandos near Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. And Gazans celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time — thousands of women with young children jammed Palestine Square in the center of Gaza City.

A surreptitious “National Information Committee” published daily press releases in English with details of neighborhood incidents, injuries and political commentary and delivered them to Gaza’s only hotel, headquarters for foreign correspondents.

Israel closed down the main press office in Gaza for one year and a second office for one month. Three Gaza journalists were arrested and their press equipment confiscated, a human rights worker was summoned for interrogation and another, ‘Adli al-Yazuri, whose younger brother Basil was shot dead by soldiers in December, was sentenced to six months detention without trial. The telephones of lawyers and physicians, the main source of information for people outside of Gaza, were also mysteriously cut for weeks at a time. And two leading lawyers were imprisoned.

By early March, it seemed as if the barbed wire around the notorious Ansar II prison camp had been extended to encompass all of the Gaza Strip in one giant prison. Despite the repressive measures dished out by the Israeli military authorities, though, the Gaza Strip today is filled with a sense of hope, confidence and visible unity.

How to cite this article:

Anita Vitullo Khoury "Uprising in Gaza," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

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