Behind the scenes of the First Intifada – and of the occupation’s machinery today
In late 1989 I participated, as a very minor cog, in a military campaign which unfortunately did not receive the acclamation it deserved. There is campaign ribbon; no headline mentions it; and its memorial day – if it can be ascertained – goes by unnoticed; it doesn’t even have a name. Few remember the Great Sewing-Ship War, except those who fought in its trenches. Almost all are scarred: some by nightmares, some who jump at every knock on the door, remember other knocks and other doors; some who have externalized the horrors and violence, extended them to their loved ones.
Know this: the Great Sewing-Shop War was a perfectly serious one. Much of the IDF participated in it, at least part of the time. It was aimed at preventing that great threat of extermination, the one hovering over us all once the youth of Gaza managed to hang a Palestinian flag somewhere. It cost lives, although not on the Israeli side: Many, many were killed trying to raise the black-green-white-red cloth. Some electrified to death, climbing power poles; others, shot on the top of minarets or other high buildings, so rare in the Gaza Strip and West Bank; others, many of them, killed while complying with demands of gun-toting soldiers to remove those fluttering, unreachable flags.
But those threats and bullets were the last, desperate stage, the one following defeat, the enemy having managed to raise its flag on an Israeli outpost – and for the purpose of that war every power pole, every structure, was considered an outpost. Only two flags were allowed to fly over Gaza: Israel’s, and the Jolly Roger employed by Rafah’s mechanized infantry units.
In order to prevent such defeats, an impressive intelligence effort was made. Snitches – we called them MaSHTaPim, collaborators – would whisper in the ears of GSS agents, in their civics and Uzi, ot with the AAA (Arab Affairs Advisor, Yoetz Le’Inyanei Aravim), providing secret information about the location of yet another illegal sewing-shop, yet another neighbor who recently began buying unusual amounts of cloth, more girls who recently began embroidering the forbidden colors. Some military force – Border Policemen, the inappropriately named Civil Administration, regular IDF – would encircle the place, then burst in.
Civilians caught wearing the forbidden colors in the streets were ordered to disrobe, sometimes publicly; boys would take of their shirts, girls sometimes forced to remove their dresses. Once the deadly cloth was removed, the detainees would be handcuffed in plastic cuffs, their eyes would be covered with gun-cleaning cloth, tightly-bound; and they would make their way to some detention facility, where a whole system, soon to be described, would come to life.
The cloth, meanwhile, would make its way to some clerks, who – like me – would walk it once a week to the base’s furnace, and turn the symbol of the dreams of another people to ashes.
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Yet another campaign was engaged against the pamphlets. It’s a bit hard to understand today, but at the time – the First Intifada, roughly 1987-1992 – the conquered people had no unmonitored communications. The possession of a fax machine required the permission of the Military Governor. The phones – so few of them in evidence – were under surveillance, or so everyone believed.
The Palestinians could, one day, write a book of heroism about the pamphlet war. They were the conquered people’s main way of communication. Everyone – Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the General Headquarters trying to coordinate them all – would write them, to inform the public of a new decision, about days of strike, calling the readers to endure the struggle, encouraging the poor and the humiliated.
A small group of activists, subject to zealous pursuit by all of the security apparatus, would create the pamphlet. Couriers would deliver them in secret to underground publishers, who would publish a small number, to be delivered to local activists in the various regions. As soon as they were distributed, our brave forces would begin a furious, futile attempt to extinguish them. The AAA, for his part, would write a learned opinion on the content of the pamphlet. The couriers and writers, once they were caught – and they were often captured – would be transferred, hands in plastic cuffs and eyes bound in gun-cloth, to an interrogation facility.
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Then there were the inquisitors, again the AAAs and the GSS agents. They would be looking for forbidden books, dangerous booklets, tapes which threatened the security of the State. It was dangerous to be a book-loving person in those days: books freely available in Israel, newspapers published by the Islamic Movement in Israel proper, were cause for interrogation by the Police Thought, and sometimes imprisonment followed. Lending a book without the express permission of the Military Governor was even a more serious offense. And anyone writing about his experience under Israeli interrogation, would soon find himself facing yet another indictment.
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Then there was that most pointless of campaigns, the one waged against wall-slogans and their writers. Every night the young man would come out, braving the curfew, and spray their defiance on the walls. The whole Gaza Strip looked like a vast graffiti block. The soldiers would ambush, and the GSS would gather intelligence, and those who were foolish enough to write slogans by daylight would risk their lives: they were likely to be shot, at time with no warning.
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And all this would sieve into a judicial system which would be tne envy of the Inquisition. A person, should he be suspected of writing a slogan, or reading a forbidden book, or – heavens forbid – of writing a pamphlet, could be held without trial and without informing him of the suspicions against him. It’s quite possible that administrative arrest is the worse of the penalties employed by Israel. A normal prisoner, once tried, would know his day of release. An administrative detainee would be held, at first, for six months, but he could never know whether he’d be released. He may; then again, the detention may be applied again. Sometimes it would be reactivated on the day of his supposed released; sometimes, out of sadism or negligence, on the day after, after he came home.
All over the Occupied Territories there were lawyers by the dozens, and they would diligently translate the acts of the rebels into articles of those horror laws, the (Emergency) Defense Acts of 1945, of which Prime Minister Menahem Begin would say they were worse than the Nazi laws. But even Begin, against whom and against his men those Acts were intended by the British, could not overturn them, once he came to power; he ordered the GSS to refrain from torture, but he could not take those Acts away from the security system; without them, the occupation could hardly exist. And they are, it should be noted, in force in Israel itself. The government chooses not to enforce them, but it could make a different choice – and as some dissidents, from the left and from the right, have learned, it sometimes does. Ask Tali Fahima. Ask Noam Federmann.
Young lawyers would present a military judge with a Draconian indictment. The printing of political information, without the permission of the Military Governor, is illegal under Section 6 of the Act Forbidding Incitement and Hostile Propaganda, 1967. The sewing a Palestinian flag, or wearing one, were forbidden by Section 7 (a) (a) of the aforementioned Act, and under Section 85 1 (f) of the Emergency Acts. And there many, many other sections.
The detainee’s lawyer had no chance – unless the prosecution would gratuitously overplay its hand. If, for instance, it would accuse someone of supporting an organization in a time when that organization did not yet exist. Then the judge, who still considers himself to be a jurist of some note, would be enraged for being used as rubber stamp.
But mostly, the prosecutor held a winning card: “secret information”, which the suspect or his lawyer were prevented from seeing. The Inquisition, which also used this method – which the enlightened of Roman emperors strictly forbid, and ordered their governors to disregard anonymous snitching – would permit the accused to name those people who wished him ill; and were the secret information to come from one of them, the accused would be released, and in many cases the conspirator would find himself on the same pyre he intended for his neighbor. Even this flimsy defense was denied to the Palestinian detainees under the system of justice still employed by Israel in the West Bank. In fact, a defense counsel had but one way of helping his client: reaching a plea bargain, under which some of the charges would be deleted.
And judges would write learned decisions, signifying their deliberations between the values of human rights and the needs of security. The latter inevitably won in almost every case. And the verdicts were often written by hand: in the 1980s and early 1990s, the justice system in the Occupied Territories was not important enough for being computerized.
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And then there was the most secret of all campaigns, the one whose history will probably never be written: the one in which the GSS broke the back of Palestinian society. In the Occupied Territories, everything required a permit: permit to travel to Israel, or work inside it; a permit for opening a business, for importing merchandise, for operating a donkey cart. And just any permit required the approval of the GSS.
People who merely wanted to live honestly, and were not involved in any political or violent activity, would be ordered to the office of the GSS – and there was one, at least one, in every region – where Captain Danny or Captain Shlomo would inform them they would like to grant their permit – but they needed some information. Nothing major; just small fry about their neighbor, their brother, the local young men, And if you did not provide the information, you wouldn’t just lose the permit; you would become a target.
The result was widespread, and justified, paranoia among the Palestinians. Everyone was suspect as a collaborator – and all too often, was. Among its subjects, the GSS became a mythical beast; it used no more than 300 local agents – or so say “foreign sources”; Israelis have no right to such information – but cast the shadow of a Stasi, which employed ten of thousands. The GSS allowed the government to control the Occupied Territories with – at least until the First Intifada – with small, almost insignificant armed forces. Quickly, the Territories were covered with an unseen web of shackles, and the uprising Palestinians did not know who to hit. The collaborators who operated openly – you could easily identify them by their prominently-carried guns – were killed quickly. But who were the rest?
By several estimates, the Palestinians killed hundreds of their own men, without proper evidence and on suspicion only. We will never know how justified was this suspicion, but it added to the crumbling of society. Fear spread within and without, and was directed both towards too-zealous activists and people who did not show proper zeal.
We called it Enlightened Occupation.
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All of these methods were in existence prior to the First Intifasa. The very same methods were employed against Israeli Arabs under the Military Administration, officially dissolved in December 1966. When the West Bank and the Strip were occupied just seven months later, the GSS, the police and the Civil Administration were quick to repeat the pattern they used in the villages of the Triangle and the north.
The genius of the method was the small number of men it required. Most Israelis did know, or preferred not to know, what happened a few miles away. They preferred the fiction of Enlightened Occupation. That’s why the uprising of 1987 came as such a shock, and that’s why the response was so full of rage: how did this come about, what happened, what do they want?
Twenty years of occupation would pass before that uprising. The First Intifiada was broken. The chokehold was too strong be thrown off. The defiance of the general strikes and the tax revolt, the soft violence of the stone failed; we then had to face real violence, had to pay the full bill of the occupation.
It’s been 23 years since the First Intifada broke out. They enervated most hopes. And yet most of us Israelis would rather not look at what we do, at what our taxes fund. The children of the First Intifada turned out to be suicide bombers; what hope is there for the children of the Second Intifada?
(Written originally in June 2007, in memoriam Iyman Al Hams, “a small girl, scared to death”, murdered by IDF soldiers in Rafah, October 2004).