How Israeli Arrogance and Indifference Ignored Warning Signs Ahead of First Intifada

A 1985 document from an Israeli think tank sounded a stark warning about the economic and demographic time bomb that was ticking in the Gaza Strip — if anyone wanted to hear it.

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Palestinian demonstrators hurl rocks and bottles at Israeli troops during the start of the first intifada in Nablus, December 13, 1987.
Palestinian demonstrators hurl rocks and bottles at Israeli troops during the start of the first intifada in Nablus, December 13, 1987.Credit: Max Nash/AP
Emmanuel Sivan

The first intifada broke out nearly 30 years ago, on December 9, 1987. It has almost been forgotten for all the outrages that since transpired — and that’s a shame. Its lessons have not been learned, even though it was clear it was a turning point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It “put an end to 20 years of the illusion” that the relative quiet in the territories could last forever, as former Military Intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit described it in February 1988, according to his recent autobiography.

It also marked a transformation for residents of the territories — especially the young generation that grew up under Israeli occupation — into an active force in the conflict, one that until that point had been directed by external agents like Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The four years of the first intifada began with riots that broke out in the Gaza Strip after a funeral for four residents of the Jabalya refugee camp, who were killed in a road accident. The taxi in which they were traveling crashed into an Israeli truck next to the Erez checkpoint. Rumors spread in Gaza that the accident had been a deliberate Israeli reprisal for the murder of an Israeli civilian a few days earlier. The Gaza Strip was the epicenter of this outbreak of rage and mass violence, which quickly attracted the name “intifada.”

The turning point was perhaps inevitable, but its timing was not preordained. Perhaps it would have been possible to delay the violence or temper it, had it not been for Israeli complacency and indifference to the situation in the territories, particularly in Gaza. This mind-set definitely deserves the title of “failure,” joining the long list of failures by Israeli governments from the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War onward.

Some 12 years after that war, a failure recurred that stemmed from arrogant indifference to what was happening over the border — this time the Green Line that marked Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

A fascinating document highlights the prevailing mood of the time, summarizing the meeting of an Israeli think-tank team on the Middle East. Gen. (res.) Avraham Tamir, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during the national unity government (which was then headed by Prime Minister Shimon Peres), assembled the team. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and a handful of ministers received the summary, which is quoted or paraphrased below. The fate of the document and reactions to it provide revealing testimony to the attitude of the government toward the territories.

From the meeting of 06/25/85: “Gaza Strip: Economics, demography and the peace process”

“The team debated the above with the attendance of Avraham Tamir (director general), Emmanuel Sivan (team chairman), Gen. Ephraim Kam (Military Intelligence), Reuven Paz (Shin Bet security service). The Mossad representative was absent. Also participating were Brig. Gen. Yeshayahu Erez, head of the civilian directorate/Gaza Strip region; his adviser for Arab affairs, Lt. Col. David Hacham; as well as Col. Shalom Harari, coordinating adviser of activities for Arab affairs.”

The document opens with a dramatic statement: “The Gaza Strip is a demographic and economic — and therefore also a political and security — time bomb.

It continues: “(A) Demography: Area of 360 square kilometers [nearly 140 square miles], population 520,000. Population density is 1,391 people per square kilometer, among the highest in the world (the West Bank, in contrast, is 130 persons per square kilometer). Annual natural growth is 4.5 per 1,000 and mortality is 0.6; 20,000 babies are born per year. Net immigration is positive (through family reunification and the return of workers from the Persian Gulf because of a recession there). At the current growth rate, the population of Gaza will be 900,000 by 2000. From here, problems of housing, infrastructure, education and other services worsen from year to year (see section below).”

UPDATE: The number of residents in the Gaza Strip today is almost four times that 1985 figure — over 2 million.

“(B) Economy: The economic base of the Strip contracted, and therefore about half the workforce (42,000) is employed in Israel. Among those employed in Gaza itself, at least 16,000 work for Israeli companies (e.g., sewing factories). Changes in the Israeli labor market are liable to cause many hardships here (note that 20,00 of those employed in Israel work in construction, a sector that is particularly sensitive to economic fluctuations), and the Civil Administration has no budget for addressing unemployment.

“The employment structure in the Strip itself is very traditional (with an emphasis on agriculture and trade), and the size of the employed workforce (between Israel and Gaza) is only 20 percent of the entire population — a rate considered low even for the Third World.

“A particularly acute problem is employment opportunities for the growing number of educated residents, particularly among the refugee population craving higher education (7,000 high-school graduates and 600 university students annually). Because of the lack of skilled employment opportunities in the area, and the narrowing of opportunities in the Persian Gulf, there are already at least 3,000 academics not employed in their profession, i.e., half the academics in Gaza, and it is a potential focal point for bitterness and discontent.”

At this point, the document reviews Israel’s meager efforts to rehabilitate refugees (Israel rehabilitated 4,000 per year, while the natural growth rate was 10,000 annually).

The document also reviewed the few initiatives of the Civil Administration and their failure — usually due to lack of budget. There was a serious attempt to utilize the surplus supply in the citrus industry to establish a concentrated juice factory, but it failed because of the agriculture lobby in Israel. The only big plant was the packinghouse at the Erez crossing point, which employed 130 workers, but even that didn’t receive the status of preferred development zone. Water was noted as a serious problem, with Gaza consuming 110 million cubic meters but only supplying 65 mcm annually.

Growing affinity

The document also mentioned Gaza’s growing links to the West Bank. “The affinity of Gaza Strip residents to the West Bank has strengthened since 1974 and accelerated since 1977-1978, especially through external initiatives and enforcement because of the awareness inside the PLO that it needs to prevent a wedge being driven between the two territories, which are so different. An important tool for enforcing increased collaboration was the ‘National Guidance Committee,’ which allocated three spots for Gazans, and the matter helped increase coordination of positions (for example, on the issue of boycotting the Civil Administration).

“Since the disbandment of the Guidance Committee, the ‘Joint Council’ (Jordanian-PLO) sends funds to the Strip, although the matter contradicts its charter. All the organizations within the PLO have a pan-regional structure, and their press (which is published in East Jerusalem) makes sure to give widespread expression to the Strip and to hire journalists from among its residents. One can find many Gazans in the governors’ councils and student unions of the West Bank, as well as in national (political and cultural) conferences.

“Though most of the process operates from above, developments from below provide assistance, such as the fact that many Gaza workers live during the week in Arab cities in the ‘triangle’ along the Green Line [the towns of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira]; increasing marriage ties; the increase of Gazans in West Bank colleges, especially since the gates of education in Egypt were closed to them. Also, do not forget the old economic-demographic affinity between Hebron and Gaza, and the religious establishment’s connections with its colleagues in East Jerusalem and Hebron.

“(H) Conclusion: On the political-public level, the trend is to blur the differences and for accelerated cooperation. It does not seem that the ‘Gaza First’ idea [providing autonomy initially to Gaza in the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt) has a chance, and that any discussion of the peace process must relate to the West Bank and Gaza simultaneously.”

This is the heart of the document, which was meant to serve as a wake-up call to improve the situation. The team thought that face-to-face lobbying might help get its message out there.

At the same time, Brig. Gen. Erez and Lt. Col. Hacham tried to promote it among the army brass. Lt. Col. Hacham reported to me that he was having a hard time finding a sympathetic ear. He told me that “the establishment” was busy first and foremost in discussions about the initiative of Energy and Infrastructure Minister Moshe Shahal to create some sort of alliance with Saddam Hussein, who was stuck in the mud of the Iran-Iraq War, as well as another of Shahal’s initiatives to take control of the electric company in East Jerusalem.

Then I came up with the idea of approaching my childhood friend and high-school classmate Yaacov Tsur, who was then the immigrant absorption minister. I consulted with him, and he suggested that I speak with two ministers I knew, Ezer Weizman and Mordechai Gur. The two of them read the document, but it was clear their reaction was mere politeness. Tsur then suggested that I speak with the cabinet secretary, Dr. Yossi Beilin, a close associate of Peres, because Tsur himself was identified with the Begin camp and therefore his ties to Peres were tenuous.

Beilin hosted me just a few days after I turned to him. He was familiar with the document and I added some spoken explanations. He smiled politely and said, “You will no doubt know the story about the complex relationship between Peres and Rabin. So do you really expect Peres to enter into a confrontation with Rabin over Gaza? Gaza is under Rabin’s command.”

“But he’s the prime minister,” I protested.

“Nu, really. Be realistic,” Beilin replied and urged me to drink my coffee.

Beyond the polite tone, a mixture of apathy, complacency and arrogance hovered over our conversation, just like the talks with Weizman and Gur. It seemed that nothing of note had altered since what prevailed in 1973 — only the front had changed.

Did I have a feeling of impending disaster? Certainly not. I just got some kind of revelation (or epiphany), like in the stories of James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” which I was reading at the time.

It was an epiphany in the sense of getting to the bottom of things. The fate of hundreds of thousands of people over whom we ruled was unimportant. The main thing was to have (relative) quiet. And if problems emerged, it would be no big deal, we’d manage. The Labor Party had turned into “Likud B” — seeing it as possible and worthwhile holding onto the territories for a reasonable price.

The writer is a scholar on Middle Eastern affairs.

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