The Stone Children

views updated

The Stone Children

PLO's Terrorist Campaign (First Intifada)

Magazine article

By: Rod Nordland

Date: May 2, 1988

Source: "The Stone Children," as published in Newsweek.

About the Author: Rod Nordland is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Philadelphia. He began his work at Newsweek as bureau chief for the Middle East in 1984. He was first based in Beirut, Lebanon but later moved to Cairo, Egypt after he was the victim of a kidnapping attempt. He covered events in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan. Nordland serves as Newsweek's correspondent-at-large and reports from posts around the world.


In December 1987, a spontaneous protest began among Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank territories controlled by Israel. This Intifada, or popular uprising, developed into six years of unrest in the region. The ongoing conflict did not abate until Palestinian leaders and Israeli government officials met at the negotiating table in Oslo, Norway, in 1993, to discuss the implementation of a long-term strategy for peace in the region.

On December 8, 1987, four Palestinians died in a car accident involving an Israeli army vehicle. As a result, a flood of Palestinians living in nearby refugee camps protested by throwing rocks at Israeli troops. The Israeli troops fired on the demonstrators and killed a teenage Palestinian boy. The event sparked the Intifada.

Palestinians protested at the beginning of the Intifada by throwing rocks, and those participating in these protests were not merely a disenfranchised few. Much of the general population took part in the activities, which were not all violent in nature. Palestinian protests took the form of organized strikes, closures, demonstrations, and boycotts of Israeli products. Violent protest escalated as rocks were replaced with Molotov cocktails, glass bottles filled with ignited flammable liquid. Over a twenty-seven day period in June of 1988, Palestinian militants set fire to Israeli interests in the region.

While the Israeli authorities demanded Palestinian leaders quell Arab resistance, they failed to prevent the expansion of Jewish settlements in the region (many established by fundamentalist or radical Jews) that spurred on much of the conflict. In July of 1988, Jewish settlers began to dig a tunnel between the Islamic holy sites at al-Buraq and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. Muslim clerics called on Muslim Arab Palestinians to defend the holy sites. Widespread fighting broke out with Israeli police. The bloody clashes led to the declaration of a state of emergency.


Educated and prosperous, the Abdulfattahs have a lot to lose. But every member of the West Bank Palestinian family supports the recent uprising, each in his own way. They know they may well go to jail for what they do, or even for what they say to reporters. "Please say nothing to harm my family," says Jaber Abdulfattah, 68, the eldest, a member of the generation that struggled with the Israelis for Palestine in 1948 and lost. Jaber is circumspect, but his sons and grandsons prevail. "For myself, I don't care," says his son Kamal, 45. "I want the whole world to know what it is to be a Palestinian." Kamal and his peers saw the West Bank occupied by Israelis in 1967 and despaired; the unrest has renewed his hopes. "I'll go to jail gladly," says Kamal's son Qays, 18. "I am not afraid." It is Qays's generation that picked up the Holy Land's plentiful stones and, by hurling them at the occupier's formidable Army, created the uprising, the Intifada.

The three generations have seen their land become someone else's. From the family's white stone house in the town of Jenin, they can see the lush Plain of Esdraelon, divided by the Green Line that separates the occupied West Bank from Israel. In the two decades of the occupation, that line had all but disappeared. Now Israeli roadblocks mark it again, keeping the Palestinians in. Off in the haze, some 10 miles away, it's possible to see the Israeli village of Umm al Fahm, the Abdulfattahs' original hometown. Jaber and his young family were caught on the Arab side of the Green Line in '48 and chose not to return. "I didn't want to go back and live among the Israelis," says his wife, Fawzyeh. "Little did I know that after 1967 the Israelis would come and live next to us."

Jaber's lands in Israel were confiscated; some of them were given to Jewish settlers, who built a community on it named Miami. Still, the Abdulfattahs were not a family of firebrands. Even after 1967, Jaber continued to work in the local school administration; his brother was the police chief. Detached from their land, they threw their energies into educating their children, a phenomenon that has given the Palestinians, a largely rural people before the birth of Israel, the highest rate of college education in the Arab world. Now nine of Jaber's 10 children have college educations, gained in five lands. Two are medical doctors, and eldest son Kamal has written three scholarly books. Even the grandsons, not yet in college, have learned to speak English. "They were always saving for our education," says Kamal. "I remember that for five years my mother wore the same dress." The older children worked, often in the wealthy gulf states, and financed the younger. Jaber and his wife lived in a small apartment rather than building a home.

The only one of Jaber's brood not to go to college was his second son, Kamel, 37, but of him Jaber seems the proudest. While his older brother studied during the first years of the occupation, Kamel met with fellow high-school students, plotting underground work for the Palestine Liberation Organization. "I was disappointed, frustrated and depressed by the Arab defeat," Kamel recalls. "Everything before me shattered like a broken vase." Sometimes small events move people more than grand, historic ones. In Kamel's case, the motivation was supplied by the sight of female Israeli soldiers insulting old Palestinian men. On March 18, 1971, Kamel threw a hand grenade at a passing patrol car, injuring two Arab policeman and 15 Palestinian bystanders. Kamel claimed he did not mean to hurt his own people, but he "believed in what Mao said: whenever you see your enemy, hit him."

An Israeli court sentenced Kamel to life in prison; he served 15 years before being freed in 1986 as the result of a PLO-Israeli prisoner exchange. "When I saw my brother go to jail, I was a baby," says Sura, 27. "When he came out I had graduated from college." The family was punished as well. Even the youngest of Jaber's children remember watching soldiers with axes and crowbars demolishing the Abdulfattahs' apartment. Jaber, a pious man, praised Allah that he had been too frugal to buy a house. Kamel went to prison a perpetrator of a quixotic PLO operation, but he emerged a local hero. Even strangers came from all over Jenin to meet him. Children called to him in the streets; storekeepers refused his money until finally he was too embarrassed to go shopping.

Kamel is not the only Abdulfattah to experience an Israeli jail. His sister Sura spent four months in administrative detention in 1986 for her role in demonstrations at Bir Zeit University, where she is a graduate student. When his nephew Qays was 13, he was arrested for throwing a stone at a car. "In this case I didn't do it," Qays said. "They handcuffed me to a wall, put a black sack on my head and kept me like that for two days and nights. Whenever anyone came by, they kicked me." Even his younger brother Usayd, now 14, was arrested at the age of 11 in a sweep of youth in Jenin. Kamal's sons are now shebab, activist youths; recently they were with one of their friends when he was shot dead; the group was throwing stones at soldiers.

At home they are obedient youngsters, jumping up to serve coffee on their father's orders. But when he urges caution, they can barely conceal their impatience. When their uncle Kamel is around, they hang on his every word. He seems to be the boys' hero, although their father insists that his sons' heroes are Yasir Arafat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader. Who is Kamel's personal hero? He tries the names of Palestinian luminaries, but he sounds tentative, until finally he declares, "Aftal al hejara," literally, "The children of the stones."

Now it is the children who lead their elders. "Before the uprising, our parents would say, 'Don't go out'," Usayd recalls. "Now they say, 'Don't throw a rock if you're in the line of fire,' or, 'Do it from a hiding place so the soldiers won't shoot you'." Parents strike, stockpile foodstuffs, sew the outlawed Palestinian flags, tend vegetable gardens in case of prolonged curfews. "Everyone is joining the Intifada, each in his own way," says Kamal.

Adults can also be atfal al hejara. In the neighboring village of Yabad, Qays's newlywed aunt Sura has gone to live with her husband, Yousef al Sheyleh, a dentist. When the West Bank erupted in protest over the assassination of the PLO's second-ranking military leader, Yousef the dentist was in the front row of the demonstration in Yabad, his fists full of stones. Sura was at home, pregnant with her "Intifada baby," as she calls it. She is a thoroughly modern woman who keeps her own name, rare in the Arab world, and asserts that it will be easier to defeat the Israelis than Arab male chauvinists. "Before the Intifada," says Yousef, "I only wanted two children. Now, many, many, 10 at least." Sura agrees. "We will have so many we will outnumber them in our land. And then, if they go to a demonstration and get killed, there will be others." Jaber is delighted by the couple's plans. Preoccupied with their own lives, his 10 children have given him only five grandchildren. "Be sure that 10 years from now I will have not less than 40 grandchildren. In so many ways has the Intifada changed our lives."

Most of those changes have made life harder for the family. Electricity and phone service are regularly cut off; stores are rarely open; schools and universities are closed by Israeli order. Grandfather Jaber's furniture shop has been closed for four months as a gesture of protest, and all but a handful of family members are out of work. (And those paychecks that are coming in are hard to cash, the Israeli bank in Jenin is a favorite target for Molotov cocktails.) Israeli occupation authorities often deny permits for Palestinians to leave the West Bank, and on many days they also prohibit the Arabs from visiting neighboring communities. Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, has just begun, and the family group that gathers at the Abdulfattah house is smaller than usual. Relatives abroad are afraid that, if they return, they won't be allowed to leave again. Grandson Qays will not be able to go to college in France next year as he had hoped.

Death or jail may wait, quite literally, around the corner. "The Army doesn't bother to gas us anymore," says Qays. "They only shoot to kill, immediately when they see you with a stone." The womenfolk grimly plan what they will do if one of the men is killed on the streets. They will wear white clothes, not black, and serve their guests sweet coffee rather than bitter, because one does not mourn a martyr.

What has the Abdulfattah family won for all this? Such a stupid question, says the old man, Jaber, shaking his head. All three generations know the answer. "The Intifada is the future and it's our life," says Qays. "Who writes of us?" asked Kamel. "We have been like ants." The Intifada has focused attention, even sympathy, on the Palestinians in a way that PLO exploits never did. "So you see," explains Jaber, "already we have gained so much," even more than the prospect of numerous grandchildren. "We know that only the great powers can return our land. [Secretary of State George] Shultz never cared to come here before. The Russians never wanted so much to make the peace process work." The old man shifts from the historical to the personal: "The very fact you have come to a small house in a small town like Jenin, a place they never heard of in America, shows what we have gained." Someplace else that would seem to be a victory of scant significance. To the Abdulfattahs, it repays the risks they take.


The six years of violence leading to the Oslo Agreement electrified Palestinians and restructured their leadership. Yasir Arafat (1929–2004) and other members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) lived in exile. In an effort to provide Palestinians with alternatives to the PLO, Israel permitted Islamic groups to run their own schools, health clinics, mosques, and social institutions. This possibly allowed Islamic fundamentalism to grow and spread in Gaza and the West Bank. As a result, groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad began to gain power. Suicide bombings became a popular terrorist strategy in the region. Being exiled in Tunisia made it difficult for Yasir Arafat and the PLO to wrestle control of the Intifada away from increasingly violent Islamic fundamentalists who supported the Palestinian fight against Israel.

Within Israel, differences in dealing with the struggle affected the coalition between Likud and Labor parties in the 1990s. The public shift, due partly to media coverage, created a divide in the coalition government. The Likud party, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, preferred a military solution to the Intifada. The Labor party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, concluded that the Intifada could not be suppressed and that Palestinian statehood must occur. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in Israel. Rabin moved quickly toward secret talks with Arafat and the PLO.

Through the Oslo Agreement, Israel and the newly created Palestinian Authority officially recognized each other. A second round of Oslo Accords granted limited self-rule to Palestinians in Bethlehem, five other major towns, and over 450 small villages. In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist opposed to the ongoing peace process with Palestine. The assassination placed the Oslo Agreements in jeopardy and sparked a new wave of violence in the region. Violence reached a peak from 2000–2005, a period which became known as the Second Intifada.



Lockman, Zachary and Joel Beinin, eds. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1989.


Shikaki, Khalil. "Palestinians Divided." Foreign Affairs. (2002): January/February.

Web sites

NPR. "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict Part 6: From the First Intifada to the Oslo Peace Agreement." <> (accessed July 8, 2005).