Commentary Magazine

Intifada, by Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari

A word to start with concerning the credentials, resources, and politics of the authors of this book.

Ze’ev Schiff for decades has been the military correspondent at Ha’aretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. He is the paper’s Drew Middleton, who knows everything there is to know about the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including the thinking and complaints of its general staff, serving and retired. As well as being his own man, Schiff is a creature of his place of employment. The owners and editors set a Left-liberal tone at Ha’aretz. They can often be found, in and out of the pages of the paper, pleading with Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres to be a man, censuring Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin for his callousness, and simply throwing their hands up over Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. On occasion Schiff does it too.

The junior author, Ehud Ya’ari, has for the last fifteen years been the chief Arabist at Israel TV’s news department. This is an organization the members of which, to hear an Israeli cabbie tell it, always put their dovish, not to say unpatriotic, sentiments above their public and national duties—Israel TV, unlike Ha’aretz, is paid for out of taxes. Let it be noted that the cabbie is wrong. The TV reporters, most of whom indeed are Left-liberal in their hearts, are sufficiently professional and solicitous of their jobs not to let their feelings glare in their work. And this includes Ya’ari, who has contacts in the Shin Bet (Internal Security) and among Palestinians second to none.

That is the general direction the team of Schiff and Ya’ari is coming from. “Our sole purpose,” they say in the preface to this account of the Palestinian uprising, “. . . is to contribute to a better understanding of the tempest that has been raging in our country . . . so that the necessary conclusions can be drawn.” Those “conclusions” are not left to the reader. They are sometimes implicit, more often commendably explicit, from the book’s beginning to its end, and are such as will look necessary to many of the authors’ colleagues, though not to most Israelis.

The main, and predictable, conclusion is that most of the occupied West Bank and Gaza should be turned over to the Palestinians without much ado. It hangs on the worried perception that the intifada has rattled the Israeli psyche, together with the hopeful view that the uprising is aimed at getting rid, not of Zionism, not of the Jewish state, but only of the occupation—and that even if this proves untrue, Israel will not have placed itself in a more dangerous spot by withdrawing.

Schiff and Ya’ari, in other words, are not political scientists or historians. They are high-class journalists who are, as used to be said, “engaged.” This will come through unmistakably even to an American reader in many places; for example, where the authors equate “the forces of reason” in Israel with the “liberal, leftist camp.”

At worst, then, this book would only have provided a reflection of how a segment of Israelis, the doves, see the intifada. Happily, it does more. The best parts are those where the authors’ unrivaled sources are brought into play, i.e., where the reader is given an inside picture of how the IDF tried, and failed, to get a grip on the uprising in its first months, and how a new generation of Palestinians sought, successfully, to keep the flames which had broken out in the refugee camps of Gaza burning. The latter material is especially good, based as it probably is on Shin Bet interrogations.

It was in the refugee camps, according to Schiff and Ya’ari, that the intifada combusted spontaneously in December 1987, taking both Israel and the PLO in Tunis by surprise. Neither had the right to be surprised. The Israelis, and especially their government, had been “ignoring” the people under occupation, offering them, at best, only the prospect of more occupation, while the PLO for all its terror and public relations had won them nothing substantial. The “humiliated” Palestinian “proletariat” in the camps was the most “enraged” by the “disgraceful conditions” of life which the Israelis did little, and the PLO nothing, to alleviate.

Therefore, as Schiff and Ya’ari explain, “frustration” exploded in Gaza, then in the towns and villages of the West Bank, where too the better-off living in proper houses felt at a “dead end,” their college graduates obliged to wash dishes and their land encroached on by Jewish settlements. Generalizing, the authors write, “Chained to their poverty and gradually despoiled of their land, the Palestinians . . . felt trapped in a system that seemed designed to grind them down to the dust of humanity so that at an opportune moment Israel could blow them over the border.”

The consequent and inevitable reaction against Israeli soldiers and civilians, dubbed the intifada or “shaking-off” in Arabic, constituted a “wholly new kind” of war, waged “by masses of civilians.” It opened a “third front” against Israel, the traditional two being those on which conventional armies and secret terrorist cells were fought.

Now it is true that the intifada started in the refugee camps and surprised the rather complacent, somewhat demoralized IDF and Shin Bet. It would have been even more truthful of Schiff and Ya’ari to have added that the doves’ pet hate, Ariel Sharon, had been warning for months before then that the shabiba (“boys”) clubs in the camps were forming a self-governing authority in defiance of the military government, and handsomer still to have given more credit to Israel for fitfully trying, over the years, to improve conditions in the camps by coaxing residents to build their own homes and move out.

This scheme was too costly for Israel to carry through on its own, but every time the U.S. was approached for help, the answer came that the refugee problem should only be tackled when peace was made. So the UN-administered camps festered and swelled. The situation suited the UN bureaucracy, and of course the PLO, although the PLO was also surprisingly astonished by the timing, extent, and persistence of the intifada.

That said, it is obvious that as time passed and a new generation of Palestinians, in and out of the camps, grew up and saw no chance of becoming free men and women in what they believed was their own country, the fuse had to spin down on a great charge of resentment. The paradox here is one known to historians and psychologists of revolution. The odds on revolts breaking out increase when things become materially better. As crowded as the refugee camps were on the eve of the uprising, they were heavenly compared with what they were before the Six-Day War. And outside the camps—most of the occupied Palestinians live outside—life as registered by employment, health, and education statistics was also better than before the IDF arrived.

The Israelis for two decades liberally fostered the ideal conditions for an eventual rebellion. The recipe for the Palestinians included a higher standard of living, minus economic independence, plus exposure to Israeli democracy, plus a growing and contemptuous familiarity with the slapdash quality of Israeli life and law enforcement, minus any prospect of self-determination, plus the fear that some day the Jewish state would annex everything. Thus, on a very small and special scale, the occupation exhibited some of the features of a benign colonialism, in this case operating not overseas but up the hill from Tel Aviv, in territory taken in a war of self-defense and thick with the biblical place names on which Zionism was nursed. It was unreasonable to expect the Palestinians most affected to acquiesce.



So the intifada broke out. But, contrary to Schiff and Ya’ari, history in these parts has a precedent for it.

Though a reader of this book would not know it, the intifada is not the Palestinians’ first uprising. That was in 1936-39, and it was waged using many of the same methods as the current one, minus television. The motives, too, were not completely dissimilar. If the intifada was born of resentment and foreboding, and fed by Islamic passions, so was the thawra (“revolution”) of the 1930’s, a time when German Jews were fleeing into the country by boatloads and a few Palestinian landlords were making fortunes selling their patrimony to the Zionists. The thawra was the natural reaction of natives who did not want to be displaced by foreigners. It was led by a religious-political figure, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Led bloodily astray; for, after gaining concessions from the British Mandatory regime, Haj Amin concentrated on terrorizing his own people. The result of this, and of British repression on the eve of World War II, was that the thawra was sustained for only three years, and left the Palestinians enervated for at least two generations. It also had a steeling effect on the Zionists, convincing such doves as Arthur Ruppin that if the Jewish national project could only be realized against Arab resistance, so be it.

In several ways of which Schiff and Ya’ari were either unaware or did not care to examine, the intifada is a continuation, perhaps a replay, of the thawra. Both uprisings were natural reactions, and as such inevitable. But if the intifada, short of an Israeli withdrawal, could not have been avoided, could it at least have been nipped in the bud?

Schiff and Ya’ari say yes. The intifada evolved from amorphous riots to an organized rebellion due to the IDF’s “failure to pour reinforcements into the West Bank and Gaza immediately.” A swift, terrible response would, the authors declare, concurring with Sharon, have stopped the intifada in its tracks, though it would not have “changed the circumstances that brought [it] about.” In the event, they should have added, the hesitant response furnished more evidence of the not-so-oppressive nature of the occupation until that point.

However, by the time, six months ago, that Schiff and Ya’ari finished their book, the intifada had gone through several phases, and so had the Israeli response. As the authors relate, the IDF at first was at a loss. The PLO took advantage of this to adopt the uprising and institutionalize it. The “crux of the dispute” between the IDF general staff and the politicians of the Likud, a dispute which complicated the army’s response for a while, was that the generals thought they could stifle only some of the symptoms of the uprising, not the causes, while the Likudniks believed the army should and could crush it completely. This dispute was never formally settled, but as things turned out it made little difference. The army, challenged by the Palestinian kids and the Israeli politicians, brought in better officers and troops. It improvised new, much harsher tactics of suppression and applied them, not to the politicians, but to the kids and their families.

As a result, if by last fall “the [normal] instruments of occupation had been damaged beyond repair,” the Palestinians, despite their early euphoria and persistent courage, had not gotten the occupation off their backs. It was a kind of standoff in which the Islamic fundamentalists prospered at the expense of the PLO, and terrorism among Palestinians threatened to eclipse the struggle against the foreigner, as it had utterly in the thawra.



Half A Century in the Middle East can sometimes mean nothing. Half a year can sometimes mean a great deal. In the six months since Schiff and Ya’ari delivered their manuscript, the IDF has continued grimly reestablishing its writ in the occupied territories, while the Palestinians, who may never again be as docile before Jewish power as previously, have continued to turn more and more on themselves. This is rarely reported in the New York Times. But it is there in Ha’aretz and on Israel TV, and testifies to what must be chalked up so far as the uprising’s political defeat.

It was obviously never the expectation of the smarter kids or of the PLO that they would end the occupation by force of Molotov cocktails and stones. Nor did Israeli doves expect it. They simply hoped that the shock of the uprising would be translated into political changes which would make Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian self-determination, if not certain, much more likely.

There are two principal reasons why this has not happened. First, most Israelis do not respond favorably to force of any kind. Second, the PLO, which in the rosiest of scenarios would contain the Islamic Front and rule the territories if Israel withdrew, has yet to persuade enough Israelis that it is bent on anything except the erasure of their country—this, despite Yasir Arafat’s speeches in Stockholm and Geneva. As the late Anwar Sadat understood, psychology is politics. So although the percentage of Israelis who would have their government parley with Arafat has doubled under the impact of the intifada to two out of ten, almost all IDF reservists, including doves, still show up to suppress it when called, and no fewer than 70 out of 100 Jewish citizens, in a poll published in the country’s biggest paper, including Labor-party voters, say they think Prime Minister Shamir is doing a good job.

He is trying to ride out the intifada, to prevent the PLO from reaping the political fruits. So far, though besieged by Ha’aretz and from inside his own party, he has largely succeeded, so the fate of the three-year-long thawra continues to loom over the intifada—next December, when three years have passed since it exploded, will the intifada have accomplished more for the Palestinians? Had Schiff and Ya’ari waited at least until then to write their account, and asked this question in a historical context, their work might have been more valuable.

For the abiding weakness of their effort is the result not only of politics but of their ahistoricity. They have started and ended, as journalists are wont to do, in medias res. Besides ignoring Palestinian history, they have not tried to locate current events in the context of Jewish, and specifically Zionist, history, either. It has become clear why that has to be done. The brave, bloody, not-so-surprising uprising of the Palestinians, whatever its outcome, is sure to be tied in the minds of future generations, both Arab and Israeli, with the arrival of many hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews in Zion, an exodus with an epic quality attending the collapse of an empire and superannuating much of the conventional wisdom and futurology of the Arab-Israeli fight. The authors seem never to have imagined such a wrinkle.

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