As the Palestinian uprising enters its thirtieth month, it faces a crisis of direction. Its main achievement seems to lie behind: a spectacular ability to mobilize whole sectors of a civilian population, through networks of underground civilian resistance and communal self-help projects, challenging Israel’s ability to continue ruling the West Bank and Gaza. The pattern of daily street confrontations has dealt a moral, if not logistic, blow to the might of the Israeli army. Above all, the intifada has placed relations with the Palestinians and the future of the Occupied Territories at the top of the agenda of all Israeli political parties.

But the third year of the intifada also presents a predicament for the political forces leading it. The crux of this predicament lies in the routinization of the daily aspects of revolt (centered around the commercial strike and street confrontations with the army), which can neither be escalated into a campaign of total civil disobedience — and complete disengagement from Israeli rule — nor transformed into a political initiative that can engage the enemy in negotiations on terms favorable to the Palestinians. The first option is hampered by the limited organizational potential of the movement, which — at this stage — seems to have reached its uppermost capacity for popular mobilization (and retreated to heavy dependence on the “direct action” tactics of fractional “strike forces”). The second option is beyond the political capacities of the internal resistance, given the existing balance of forces between the contenders.

This crisis takes the form of a stalemate, a war of attrition between the Israelis and the Palestinians: Who can deplete the forces of the other before political intervention temporarily resolves this phase of the conflict? On the Palestinian side, this crisis is often presented, falsely I believe, as resulting from a loss of revolutionary zeal on the part of the PLO leadership in Tunis. In an accusatory manner, these Palestinian critics see collusion between this leadership and the “bourgeois-commercial elites of the Occupied Territories.” Having betrayed the original intent of the intifada, these forces are now pursuing an illusory deal with the Israelis. [1] The problem with this position is not the absence of such a “compromising” tendency within the intifada leadership; rather, it posits a spurious conflict between the intifada as a revolutionary movement and a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a legitimate objective of this movement. [2] Formally, all factions of the Unified Leadership (Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestine Communist Party — that is, all except the Islamist group Hamas) have accepted in principle the objectives of territorial settlement explicit in the November 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence. In practice, the evolution of events in the last three years and the shifting social composition of the uprising have redefined much of its original thrust. The dilemma facing the leadership of the uprising — and behind it the evolving strategy of the PLO — is how to maintain the momentum of the revolutionary movement and its factionalized organizational structure in order to bring about a political breakthrough within the Israeli polity against severe odds.

Evolution of Civil Insurrection

In retrospect, the intifada of 1987 can be seen as the culmination of several civilian uprisings against Israeli rule. [3] But with the events of December 1987, we witness a quantum jump in the breadth of the organizational base of the mass movement and in the new level of consciousness. The critical interjections at the level of consciousness can be summarized as 1) the emergence of a new breed of youthful activists within and outside factional groups, unhindered by the established norms of political conduct set by existing political parties and comprising the leadership of the popular committees and the “strike forces”; 2) new forms of communal organization at the neighborhood and community level; and 3) the emergence of religious fundamentalism as a popular movement with mass appeal in the northern districts and Gaza. The common thread uniting these three developments is the triumph of populism as a dominant political and cultural form.

These new transformations had implications for the development of the mass movement over the last 30 months. The first stage was the spontaneous civil insurrection, embodied in the popular urban and refugee camp demonstrations of the first three weeks of the intifada. In the second phase, January-March 1988, the uprising became institutionalized under the command of the Unified National Leadership (UNLU), through the establishment of popular and neighborhood committees, and subsequently spread to rural hinterlands of the rebellious townships. The third phase, February-June 1988, saw Palestinians push to dismantle the Israeli occupation administration through the (successful) call for police and tax collectors to resign, and the boycott of taxes and Israeli commodities. The fourth phase was marked by the integration of “internal” and “external” networks of the movement, culminating in the November 1988 Algiers Palestine National Council (PNC) and the declaration of Palestinian statehood. The Israeli counter-offensive marked a fifth phase, the first half of 1989: Popular committees were banned and the clandestine collaboration network was rebuilt. The sixth and present phase, June 1989 to the spring of 1990, features the “anti-collaboration campaign” of the intifada shock forces (the Black Panthers and Red Eagles).

The changes which this outline encompasses are obviously complex and overlapping. In each of these phases, the leadership had to balance the differing (and occasionally conflicting) strategic perceptions of its own factions against directives it received from the PLO. The main achievement of the UNLU in its first year is that it imposed its own perceptions and initiatives of the mass movement on the external leadership of the PLO, reversing a pattern that characterized the first 20 years of occupation. The PNC in Algiers in November 1988 marked an unprecedented parity in this relationship, which since has begun to tilt again in favor of initiatives coming from Tunis. Some in the Occupied Territories even claim that PNC initiatives were timed in order to preempt the ascendancy of UNLU and restore the balance in favor of the external forces. [4]

As in all populist movements, the consequences of mass mobilization have not always been salutary. On the negative side, we witness religious mystification of social conduct, segregation of women, excesses in the treatment of collaborators and perceived collaborators. But on the positive side, the intifada has made major inroads in civil society — in the emergence of voluntary social forms which have achieved substantial democratization of society and political decision making at the community and national levels.

Social Components?

It has become fashionable to assess the Palestinian uprising as a popular insurrection involving all sectors of the population. While true in the general sense of describing a populist rebellion, it is nevertheless necessary to locate the social base of the uprising in more specific terms.

In the phases of revolt outlined above, four major groupings played a decisive part: the urban refugees, the urban shopkeepers, the village youth and the students. In the initial, spontaneous convulsions of December-January 1987-1988, the refugee camps in Gaza (particularly Jabalya) and the refugee populations of Bethlehem (Dahaysha), Nablus (Balata and ‘Askar) and Ramallah (Jalazoun and ‘Am’ari) were the most visible, and volatile, participants. Inasmuch as the camps are the abode of the Palestinian urban working class, one can refer to it as a proletarian phase, although I believe it is more accurate to assess it as the upheaval of the urban poor acting against their class and national oppression. The working class has not made its presence felt in the intifada through the trade unions or in any other corporate representation. [5]

Urban merchants, particularly shopkeepers, were decisive in consolidating the commercial strike and in leading the tax revolt and boycott of the Israeli Civil Administration, which marked a new height for the uprising in the spring of 1988. Elsewhere I have argued that this grouping (which might loosely be identified as the urban petit bourgeoisie) has displayed the only corporate class action during the uprising. [6] Its involvement, coordinated by the merchants’ committees in liaison with the UNLU, was crucial for institutionalizing the daily tempo of the revolt and challenging the ability of the army to impose its own vision of “business as usual” in the townships. With the fluctuations in street confrontations in 1989-1990 and with the declining influence of neighborhood popular committees, the commercial strike remained as the most externally visible component of the rebellion.

The massive participation of the village population in the uprising reached its zenith in the summer of 1988. The participation was all the more striking since the rural population had been targeted by the Israeli military government — since the early 1980s — as docile elements manipulated by the urban-based nationalist movement. Although their attempt at establishing the collaborationist Village Leagues had failed by the mid-1980s, West Bank (and Gazan) villages remained relatively immune from large-scale involvement in the nationalist movement. This apparent docility, though, concealed a steady decline in the hegemony of traditional village elders and the emergence of a new generation of politicized youth whose commitment was primarily to the factions of the Palestinian resistance. This process was reinforced by the erosion of the political economy of village agriculture and the integration of rural youth as an underclass of commuting workers in Israeli industries. Village youth involvement in the intifada was further prompted by collective punishments imposed on villages in which nationalist activities occurred. In April, May and June 1988, prolonged curfews on scores of villages during harvest time led to spoilage of the year’s crops of vegetables and fruits for close to a quarter million peasants. [7] In the autumn of 1988, similar actions in Mount Hebron and in Nablus resulted in enormous losses for villagers unable to market their grapes and olives — the main winter crops of the West Bank.

The participation of student activists was the one element linking the uprising with pre-intifada activism. But whereas during the 1980s the focus of “youth rebellion” was centered in universities and vocational colleges, it now swept downwards to engulf virtually every secondary and elementary school in the country. The fact that the generic category of “youth” (and later “children”) came to be to seen as the primary force propelling the intifada underscores the indeterminate class character of the movement itself (although perhaps not its leadership). This characterization applies to forces involved in street confrontations, but also to activists in popular committees and cadres of the resistance. [8]

Despite the denigration of the intelligentsia as armchair ideologues of the resistance — which was current in the pre-intifada literature — profiles of prison detainees suggest that university students and faculty did play a crucial role in formulating the objectives, logistics and (to a considerable degree) staffing of the underground leadership. [9] Perhaps there is some twisted logic after all to the closure of the universities.

More problematic is any attempt to interpret the intifada’s regional character. Israeli subordination of the West Bank and Gazan economies to its structural needs in the last two decades undermined local elites and brought about major dislocations in the regional distinctiveness of local communities, particularly in the countryside. The extraction of rural and refugee labor from their districts into the Israeli labor markets created a commonality of collective experience that was bound to register itself in the political consciousness of these peasant-workers and further erode the significance of their local identities. During the intifada, the exodus of the urban middle classes — already leaving the country in large numbers since 1967 — intensified.

It would be false and premature, however, to assume that national social classes had emerged, since local elites continued to exercise considerable hegemony in their districts, without being able to extend that hegemony over the Occupied Territories as a whole. When those same elites (many of them now exercising their power through their membership in municipal councils, chambers of commerce and professional syndicates) were challenged by a new leadership of youth activists and party apparatchiks — which is what happened before and during the intifada — these challenges occurred within the same regional terrain and could not extend themselves to the country as a whole. This appraisal would apply, in my view, not only to the diverse social structures of Gaza and the West Bank but to social groups within each region. In short, while Israeli rule had the unintended consequence of homogenizing the social base of the Palestinian communities, it did not destroy or even radically modify their social hierarchies. In this context, the continued reference of the “internal forces” to the PLO as the “sole legitimate leadership” is not only a statement of ideological commitment but also a clear recognition of the paramount role of the diaspora leadership as the politically integrative force of a society whose base is socially segmented.

This phenomenon has clear implications for understanding the nature of the political leadership (or rather leaderships) directing the uprising. At one level, the Unified Leadership reflects the factional distribution of forces and in that capacity coordinates the common programs agreed upon by the constituent groups. In practice, the respective weight of each faction in a region determines how these common programs are “translated” on the ground. At another more profound level, the UNLU has to respond to its particular reading of mass sentiments in its own region. What may be acceptable to Bethlehem merchants may not pass in Nablus. The attempts by one faction to argue for an extension of the strike days in the center (Ramallah-Jerusalem area), as a means of escalating the campaign for civil disobedience in the summer of 1989, met high resistance in the north and therefore failed altogether. A more crucial battle with profound social implications was fought over the imposition of “Islamic” dress coders for women.

The leadership of the uprising, including Hamas, has had to modify its program in response to factional and regional considerations, sometimes in a manner which was interpreted as a pragmatic compromise by some and a retreat from militancy by others.

Intrusions into Civil Society

In the final analysis, the historic achievement of the intifada will reside in its ability to engender deep-rooted changes in civil society that will survive the visible decline in mass confrontations with the Israeli army. In one of the few original attempts at “theorizing” the intifada as a mass movement, Mustafa al-Husayni suggests that the uprising compels us to rethink the heretofore dominant perception of the Palestinian issue as a “revolution of a dislocated and exiled people” (thawrat sha‘b muqtala‘ wa manfi). [10] He argues that the uprising has reoriented our conception of Palestinian identity towards the dynamics of land and classes in a rooted society.

This transcendence, which has indeed taken place, cannot be seen as a product of the intifada; it had already occurred in the mid-1970s, when the left began to set up mass organizations under the (correct) assumption that the Palestinians were facing a prolonged occupation. After the military retreat of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, the movement as a whole adopted the perspective that local and national institutions had to be built to ensure communal survival. The uprising has brought about a further crucial development: a shift in perception from one of survival and endurance to an agenda of building a power base which can challenge the ability of Israeli colonialism to control the territories on a day-to-day basis.

A two-pronged strategy evolved from this perception: disengagement (boycott of the civil administration, taxes and Israeli commodities) and the creation of alternative Palestinian institutions, both economic (the “domestic industries” of the uprising) and political (the network of popular committees). This strategy of dual power was more implicit than explicit in the programmatic components of the Unified Leadership, and it evolved in stages as the UNLU channeled the spontaneous character of the uprising. [11]

Within the parameters of this strategy, one can observe the achievements and limitations of the intifada as a populist movement: Successes are visible at the level of mobilization and disengagement; limitations reside in the realm of institution building. The popular committees were able to bring about during 1988, through the resignation of the police force and tax collectors, and the boycott of Israeli commodities, a successful break with the Israeli civil administration. The Israelis partially reversed these gains through a campaign of massive repression and forceful collection of taxes in 1989. Even then, a lasting rupture in the realm of consciousness was achieved, to the extent that a restoration of the pre-1987 relationship of dependence on Israel is now unthinkable. This new threshold was a notable achievement of the popular committees and the mass organizations, which created new structures of popular services in health, agriculture and communal self-help. Here is where the basic intrusions of voluntary associations in civil society are likely to have the most lasting effect.

These accomplishments in popular mobilization now encounter a severe test in their ability to execute the second objective of institution building. Because of their factional character, they have the effect of duplicating services, creating parallel structures in trade unions, health units and community centers, causing a drain on limited national resources and threatening national consolidation. [12] Above all, many projects generated by these organizations are lacking in professionalism and proper economic accountability. Pressures that normally operate were absent here since external funding was often guaranteed and many of these projects — though by no means all — degenerated to the level of showcases for their respective patrons. In some situations, the lack of expertise and internal liability led those production and service enterprises to mirror the very “bourgeois” institutions the mass organizations have aimed to replace.

It would be a mistake to attribute this malaise in institution building solely to the crisis of direction in the intifada. The factors discussed above — factionalism, external funding, parallel enterprises, lack of external accountability and internal liability — are problems that preceded the crisis and are likely to confront the Palestinian development strategy even in the event of a political breakthrough. But the crisis of direction threatens to undermine attempts to rectify the pitfalls in the economic strategy of the intifada by directing the movement’s main energies to ensure its political survival in the face of Israeli repression on the one hand and factional dissension on the other.

Palestinians, in common with their Arab compatriots, have had a tendency to dwell on their past glories (and afflictions) as a substitute for action. The uprising has clearly transcended this syndrome, but the problem of routinization, in the context of the current political stalemate, imperils this achievement. It compels the Unified Leadership, and behind it the PLO, to rethink the direction of the intifada. Is it a resistance movement eroding the bases of Israeli colonial rule until the PLO can establish state power in the Occupied Territories? Or is it a movement capable of developing alternative organs of political and economic power? The new will to break with the Israeli yoke, the creative tactics of mass civil disobedience and the invention of new forms of communal solidarity need to be harnessed and transformed into successful, feasible enterprises. The mythologies of the intifada have to be brought into synchrony with people’s real potentialities. Otherwise retreat will become inevitable.


[1] See “The Traditional Leadership in the Intifada,” in Qadaya Tarbawiyya (Jerusalem, January 1990), pp. 34-36. This is currently the position of the Popular Front, the Fatah-Uprising and — using a different language to express it — of Hamas.
[2] A more sophisticated version of this position claims that a negotiated settlement is acceptable in principle but that to invest the intifada into such a diplomatic drive before a total disengagement with Israel is accomplished would divide and weaken the Palestinians.
[3] Muhammad al-Azhari, in a recent historical review, suggests seven major eruptions acting as a prelude to the intifada: September 1967 (involving students), November 1974 (popular urban, after Arafat’s UN speech), March 1976 (Land Day and following anti-settlement demonstrations), March 1982 (against the Village Leagues and the newly installed Civil Administration), September 1985 (in refugee camps, against the bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis), December 1986 (after the killing of Birzeit University students) and January 1987 (in Khan Yunis and Gaza, spreading to all West Bank refugee camps, against the deportation of activists). “The 1936 Rebellion and the 1987 Uprising: A Comparative Perspective,” Shu’un Filastiniyya 199 (October 1989), pp. 4-6.
[4] This view was proposed, among others, by ‘Ali Jarbawi in his The Intifada and the Political Leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, 1989), pp. 67-94. [Arabic] [5] See Joost Hiltermann’s contribution in Jamal Nassar and Roger Heacock, Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads (New York: Praeger, 1990).
[6] See my contribution in Nassar and Heacock, op cit.
[7] Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, Bitter Harvest: Israeli Sanctions Against Palestinian Agriculture During the Uprising (Jerusalem, 1989).
[8] See the profile of the prison population discussed in Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising — Israel’s Third Front (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990) and JMCC, The Intifada: An Overview — The First Two Years (Jerusalem, 1990).
[9] Schiff and Ya’ari, op cit.
[10] Mustafa al-Husayni, “In the Light of the Intifada: Wanted: A Theoretical Perspective for the Palestinian Issue,” al-Fikr al-Dimuqrati 3 (Summer 1988). [Arabic] [11] See Hazim Shunnar, Socioeconomic Dimensions of the Intifada (Jerusalem: Passia, 1988), pp. 38-50; and R. Madhoun, The Palestinian Uprising (Nicosia, 1988), pp. 29-43. [Arabic] [12] For an excellent discussion of this malaise, see Samir Hulayla, Mass Organization and Development Strategies in the Occupied Territories, unpublished working paper, Arab Thought Forum, Jerusalem, January 1990. [Arabic]

How to cite this article:

Salim Tamari "The Uprising’s Dilemma," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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