‘Children of the stones’: the day Palestine was reborn


Ramzy Baroud

When the first Intifada commenced in December 1987, I had just turned 15. At the cusp of manhood, I had entered my first year at the famed Khaled Ibn Al-Walid High School in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp.
Though future opportunities in a refugee camp under military occupation were restricted, my imagination had soared further than the confines of my family’s impoverished existence.
Life, of course, had other plans.
My father’s rebellious past was overpowered by the daily degradation of life of want under a merciless occupation. My grandfather had recently died, along with the dream of ever going back to his village in Beit Daras, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948.
For me, and many of my generation, the Intifada was not a political event. It was an act of personal – as much as collective – liberation: the ability to articulate who we were at a time when all seemed lost. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) languished in Tunisia after being forced to leave Lebanon in 1982. Arab governments seemed to have lost interest in Palestine altogether. Israel emerged triumphant and invincible.
And we – those living under protracted military occupation – felt completely abandoned.
I will never forget the day when I resolved my personal conflict and reclaimed my identity, along with my family’s honour. It was on the morning of December 9, 1987.
Israeli soldiers poured into our refugee camp, some on foot and others in small jeeps and large military vehicles. A battle was about to commence. Women, children and the elderly were urged to leave before the arrival of the army. Many young men also retreated. I was terrified, yet exhilarated.
Two Israeli soldiers run towards a group of Palestinian youth, who had been hurling rocks and bottles at them in Nablus during the first intifada [AP/ Max Nash ]
I was no longer a middle school pupil, but a student at Khaled Ibn al-Walid, and thus could justify my flight. I picked up a stone, yet stood still. Some kids ran towards the soldiers, with their rocks and flags. The soldiers drew nearer. They looked scary and foreign.
When the kids began throwing their rocks in the direction of the army, my anxiety began to dissipate. I felt that I belonged there. I ran into the battle with my heavy schoolbag in one hand, and a stone in the other. “Allahu Akhbar!”, “God is great!” – I shouted. I threw my first stone. I hit no target, for the rock fell just a short distance ahead of me. Yet, somehow, I felt liberated, no longer a negligible refugee standing in a long queue before a United Nations feeding centre, extending a hand for a dry falafel sandwich and half an egg.
Engulfed by my own rebellious feelings, I picked up another stone, and a third. I moved forward, even as bullets flew, even as my friends began falling all around me. I could finally articulate who I was and, for the first time, on my own terms.
My name is Ramzy, and I am the son of Mohammed, a freedom fighter from the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, and the grandson of a peasant who died of a broken heart and was buried beside the grave of my brother, a little boy who died because there was no medicine in the refugee camp’s UN clinic. My mother is Zarefah, a refugee who could not spell her name, whose illiteracy was compensated by a heart overflowing with love for her children, a woman who had the patience of a prophet. I am a free boy; in fact, I am a free man.
Jabaliya, Nuseirat, Palestine
When, on December 8, 1987, thousands took to the streets of Jabaliya Refugee Camp, the Gaza Strip’s largest and poorest camp, the timing and the location of their uprising was most fitting, rational and necessary. Earlier on that day, an Israeli truck had run over a row of cars carrying Palestinian labourers, killing four young men. For Jabaliya, as with the rest of Palestine, it was the last straw.
Responding to the chants and pleas of the Jabaliya mourners, the refugees in my camp marched to the Israeli military barracks, known as the “tents”, where hundreds of soldiers had tormented my camp’s residents for years.
The contagious energy was emblematic of children and young adults wanting to reclaim the identities of their ancestors
In the morning of December 9, thousands of Nuseirat youth took to the streets and vowed to avenge the innocent blood of the Jabaliya victims of the previous day. They swung large flags made of silky fabric that swayed beautifully in Gaza’s salty air and, as the momentum grew and they became intoxicated by their own collective chants, they marched to the “tents” where the soldiers were uneasily perched on the tops of watchtowers, hiding behind their binoculars and automatic machine guns.
Within minutes, a war had started and a third generation of refugee-camp-born fellaheen (peasants) stood fearlessly against a well-equipped army that was visibly gripped by fear and confusion. The soldiers wounded many that day and several children were killed. Among deafening chants that freedom was coming, the remains of the dead were carried to the Nuseirat Martyrs Graveyard and laid to rest.Within days, Gaza was the breeding ground for a real revolution that was self-propelled and unwavering. The chants of Palestinians in the Strip were answered in the West Bank, and echoed just as loudly in Palestinian towns, even those located in Israel.
The contagious energy was emblematic of children and young adults wanting to reclaim the identities of their ancestors, which had been horribly disfigured and divided between regions, countries and refugee camps.
Before the Intifada
But the Intifada cannot be understood without the specific events that led to the December 8 protests.In 1984, an Israeli unity government was established with a seemingly peculiar leadership arrangement, with Yitzhak Shamir, of the Rightwing Likud Party, and Shimon Peres of the Labour Party, trading the post of Prime Minister. Yitzhak Rabin, notorious for his violent tactics, was appointed to the post of defence minister.
The individuals at the helm of the Israeli leadership constituted the worst possible combination from the point of view of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. While Shamir and Peres served the role of the hardliner and peace “dove” respectively before the international community, both men and their government presided over a legacy saturated with violence, illegal annexation of Palestinian land and settlement expansion.
Before the Intifada, acts of resistance were present, but sporadic. Many students in my high school who bravely faced the Israeli troops were affiliated or were supporters of leading PLO factions.
Fatah was becoming the most visible faction in Palestinian schools and universities. The Islamic Movement was divided between Al-Mujamma Al-Islami (The Islamic Center) – which later morphed into Hamas – and the Islamic Jihad, a smaller but daring militant group.
The Intifada was born out of this political context, yet it eventually surpassed it. It was the first time in many years that the Palestinian people regained the initiative. It took everyone by surprise, including the PLO.