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100 years of Palestinian history in ten objects

Palestinians have been oppressed by colonialism and imperialism for over 100 years. Sophie Squire investigates a century of repression, as well as resistance, through ten objects
Issue 2880
Protesters in Palestine

Palestinians resisting during the First Intifada in December 1987 in Gaza City (Picture: Wikicommons/ Efi Sharir)

Fake mandate 

The horrors currently carried out by Israel can be traced back to the imperialist projects of the British Empire. Britain gave support to the Zionists, who wanted to establish a Jewish national home, in 1917. This was set out in the Balfour Declaration. 

But those who already lived there did not bow to British rule. The Palestinians formed guerilla fighting groups to resist British and Zionist forces. One of the leaders of these groups was Izz al-Din al-Qassam, who led battalions of peasants and workers. Whereas some Palestinian resistance fighters thought it was important to fight only the Zionists, al-Qassam believed it was essential to fight the British as well. 

Today the fighting wing of the resistance group Hamas is named after him. Al-Qassam was murdered by the British police in 1935. His funeral, which 3,000 people attended, further galvanised thousands of working class Palestinians to keep fighting.

Between 1936 and 1939 they waged another huge revolt against the British and Zionists. It was marked by an armed uprising, mainly in the countryside, and a general strike from 1936 that lasted for months. This revolt was not easy to crush. According to British figures, the police and the army killed 2,000 Arabs and hanged 108 to try to crush the resistance.

A letter 

A letter that “disappeared”, only to later reappear, reveals the true horror of the forced expulsion of 850,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948. The letter recounts the testimony of a Zionist soldier who took part in the massacre of those living in the Al-Dawayima village. It was signed by an S. Kaplan and sent to Eliezer Peri, the editor of Al HaMishmar newspaper.

Kaplan writes, “There was no battle and no resistance (and no Egyptians). The first conquerors killed from 80 to 100 Arabs (including) women and children. The children were killed by smashing of their skulls with sticks. There was not a house without dead. 

“The second wave of the (Israeli) army was a platoon that the soldier giving testimony belongs to. One soldier boasted that he raped an Arab woman and afterwards shot her. An Arab woman with a days’-old infant was used for cleaning the backyard where the soldiers eat. She serviced them for a day or two, after which they shot her and the infant. 

“The soldier tells that the commanders who are cultured and polite, considered good guys in society, have become vile murderers. This occurs not in the storm of battle and heated response, but rather from a system of expulsion and destruction.”

The Israeli state and its allies tried to hide how many people were massacred in Al-Dawayima, some saying that Zionist forces only murdered around 30 people. This was part of a wider cover-up of the Nakba. The village’s mukhtar Hassan Mahmoud Ihdeib estimated that the actual number of victims was 145. 

A key 

The first prime minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion once said about Palestinians, “The old will die, and the young will forget.” But Palestinians have not forgotten. Many kept the keys and deeds to their homes they had been expelled from.

The Israeli state set up laws, which still exist today, that ratified the plundering of Palestinian homes, land and belongings after 1948. The Absentees Property Law in 1950 allowed Zionist settlers to distribute among themselves homes and property that Palestinian refugees were forced to leave behind. 

Today, settlers—backed by the Israeli state—use similar laws to rob Palestinians of their land and homes.   They use tactics that range from seizing land they claim is for archaeological or tourist purposes, to encouraging settlers to set up sprawling farms, and violently attacking Palestinians.

US dollars 

In 1967 Israel proved it could be the watchdog for the United States in the Middle East. The Zionist state provoked a war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria—and won. The US was more than happy to increase its funding to its loyal soldiers. 

During the 1960s, the US sent military loans to Israel of around £17 million a year. Between 1970 and 1974 that rose to £345 million. War funds meant Israel could seize the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. This led to Israel expelling a further 300,000 Palestinians and displacing 130,000 who were already refugees from 1948. 

In Jerusalem’s old city in June 1967 Israeli authorities told Palestinians to leave their homes in the 700-year-old Moroccan quarter. Just 24 hours later their bulldozers flattened it completely. Many victims of the occupation were pushed into exile in neighbouring Jordan. 

A stone 

The First Intifada, or Stone Uprising, was a scream of rage against the Israeli state. This was a David-versus-Goliath-type fight that Israel found almost impossible to crush. In December 1987 Israeli soldiers rammed a car into ordinary people and killed four Palestinians—three who were from the Jabalia refugee camp. 

Funerals held for those murdered by Israeli soldiers turned into furious protests. The First Intifada began, and lasted five years. Palestinians marched in their tens of thousands and fought with the police and the army with stones and slingshots, but also missiles and Molotov cocktails.

Workers in Israel went on a general strike in solidarity with those fighting in the occupied territories. Women played a vital role in the uprising. Raja, who was 16 when the First Intifada began, said, “All the girls my age fought in the first Intifada. We were in the streets throwing rocks and blocking roads and screaming at the protests just like the men.” 

An olive branch

Peace processes have only ever been a step backwards for the Palestinian struggle—while Israel has revelled in each concession. In 1974, before the First Intifada, Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat made a speech at the United Nations in New York, US. 

He told the crowd, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Arafat’s vision was for one state where Palestinians and Jews could live together. But by 1988 he had given up the dream of the borders being restored to pre-1948.

Instead, he said he recognised Israel’s right to exist. Years later this was a gift to Israel, which was shaken after five years of intense resistance from Palestinians. Israel needed to find a way to break the unity of those it oppressed. A solution came in the form of the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel, the PLO and Arafat in 1991. 

The PLO leadership hoped the Accords would be a stepping stone to an independent Palestinian state. But what those who had once waged an armed struggle to oust the Zionists from Palestine actually agreed was a terrible concession. Today the governing Palestinian Authority’s role is not to be an oppositional force to the Israeli state, but to work with it in controlling and beating down Palestinians’ uprisings.

The Al-Aqsa mosque

The lives of most Palestinians did not improve following the Oslo Accords. Instead the agreement limited their freedom of movement and made the economy utterly dependent on Israel. Furious that this so-called historic agreement had made their lives worse, the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada—known as the Al-Aqsa Uprising. 

It was sparked by a visit by Israeli opposition Likud party leader Ariel Sharon, who provocatively visited the Al-Aqsa mosque in 2000. During this visit Sharon’s security forces murdered seven Palestinians who had been guarding the mosque. 

The Second Intifada quickly spread across the occupied territories and Israel. Demonstrations erupted in Gaza and the West Bank. There was a general strike, and armed resistance against the Israeli state increased. The Second Intifada brought Hamas to prominence. 

Palestinians were rightly outraged that yet another peace agreement promised by the Palestinian Authority had offered them less than nothing. Hamas, on the other hand, had not conceded to the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

The wall 

One method that Israel has used to imprison, starve, separate and crush the resistance of the Palestinians was to build a wall. In 2002 the construction of the Israel West Bank barrier began. It was intended to encircle and trap Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. 

For instance, if you’re a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, you are completely isolated from those living in the rest of the West Bank. The eight-metre monstrosity has destroyed Palestinian farmland and even ruined water sources, including the West Bank’s biggest water purifier. 

Yet, despite the methods of repression by Israel, Palestinian resistance breaks through the cracks. Across the wall are images of the cartoon character Handala, created by a Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali Handala. The images depict a ten-year-old boy in tattered clothes who has become an enduring symbol of Palestinian resistance. 

A Palestinian flag 

A Palestinian revolt in 2021 was a reminder that even the apartheid checkpoints, borders and violence couldn’t break the unified resistance. In May hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went on strike and joined demonstrations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. 

And from within Israel’s official borders, demonstrators risked their lives to fly Palestinian flags, which they are prohibited from doing. Today brave protesters in the West Bank, who also face the threat of being murdered or imprisoned, have protested in solidarity with those in Gaza.

But they can’t stand alone anymore. That’s why millions of people across the world, also flying the flag of Palestine, have taken to the streets against Israel, Zionism and their imperialist backers. 

The bomb

The Israeli state used bombs to try to destroy the place where the First Intifada began, the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, on Tuesday last week. The bombs left a 12-metre-wide crater in the camp, killing at least 50 Palestinians and injuring many more. 

Former US Pentagon chief Marc Garlasco said he recognised the destruction caused by the bomb as similar to those dropped during the Iraq war in 2003. He said it was most likely a one-tonne GBU-31 bomb. Once released from an aircraft, it uses technology to guide it to its target. In this case, a Palestinian refugee Jabalia camp. 

This kind of bomb is sold to Israel by the US as well as being manufactured by Israeli weapons companies. Not long before Israel dropped the bomb, it had posted gloating videos online of the GBU-31s that it was readying for Palestinians.

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