Intifada: The Long Day of Rage (1)

The first boy was shot at around three o’clock. He was carried past, trying to be brave but sobbing with the pain of his shattered elbow. The next was shot 15 minutes later. The third was shot about 45 minutes after that. By early evening I had counted six seriously injured teenagers loaded into the ambulances drawn up a few hundred metres away and driven off to the hospital in Gaza City.

I was crouched by a cinder block wall around five feet high, surrounded by Palestinian youths making petrol bombs. Behind the wall was a warehouse and then a half constructed five story block, once intended to be apartments or offices. In front of the wall, about 50 metres away, was a crossroads guarded by an Israeli army bunker surrounded by a high, wire fence and dirt ramparts. The road to the right led down to the Israeli settlement of Netzarim. The road behind me led between olive groves, scruffy fields and small villages to the famous Erez checkpoint and ‘Israel proper’.

The road on the other side of the crossroads led further into the Gaza strip. All afternoon I had watched the same thing happening. The cycle was simple. It took half an hour for the youths around me to work themselves up to charge. Then half would run out into the road hurling stones and petrol bombs at the bunker. A single shot would ring out, dropping one of the demonstrators, a shout of ‘allahu akbar’ would go up from the others and the wounded youth would be carried by his peers back to the Red Crescent first aid teams and taken to hospital.

It was October 2000 and for the next two weeks and on through the next months I watched the same scene, almost a ritual, repeated again and again as the ‘al-Aqsa’ Intifada continued. The word intifada, as David Pratt, another witness to these same events, explains in his comprehensive and highly readable book, derives from the Arabic word nefada and means ‘shaking off’ as a verb and a ‘shudder, awakening, uprising’ as a noun. Few who witnessed the events of 2000 can have failed to grasp why.

In the opening chapter of ‘A Long Day of Rage’ Pratt vividly describes the scene at the West bank town of Ramallah, the seat of Yasser Arafat’s incompetent and corrupt Palestinian Authority where the demonstrations on the same stretch of road on the outskirts of town always followed an identical course. Pratt describes Israeli soldiers or border police watching them firing tear gas and ‘rubber bullets’, steel balls wrapped in a thin layer of rubber at the stone throwing demonstrators. The bullets were not unlike, as Pratt points out in a perceptive aside, musket balls of the 18th century. They were also, in a tragic ironic twist typical of the region, similar to the over-sized ball bearings that some of those behind the suicide bombers who attacked Israeli teenagers in nightclubs and bars at the time used to boost the destructive power of their blasts.

The violence at the checkpoints or in Ramallah had a bizarrely formulaic, demonstrative quality. If you did not have a profound understanding of local cultures and politics, it was difficult to comprehend what was happening or understand the complex messages that the two sides were sending to each other and to the international community. Luckily for the reader, Pratt has both the knowledge and the perception to understand and describe what was happening in 2000 and 2001, what happens today and what is likely to happen in the future. And though his writing occasionally slips into the classic ‘war correspondent’ narrative, Pratt is too much of a journalist to forget that it is the people who live the story every day, not the foreigners who chose to cover their plight, who are important and the book is crammed with revealing vignettes and well-observed dialogue.

Pratt is also honest enough to admit that he has a view and that ‘impartiality’, though often claimed, is far from common among reporters working in the region or commentators on the issue. ‘The state of Israel has a case to answer for in its appalling treatment of the Palestinian people’, Pratt says in his introduction. This is true as is the fact that both sides consider themselves victims and, in a sense, are write to do so. However I would contest the existence of a ‘Jewish lobby’ in America, arguing that there is a powerful ‘Zionist lobby’ instead. Such distinctions are important. The market is crammed with books on Israel, Palestine and the continuing and tragic conflict. However there is always room for another one by a conscientious journalist who takes time to get things right. This is an accessible, colourful and informed addition to the literature.

Jason Burke is the chief reporter of the Observer and author of Al’Qaeda:the True Story of Radical Islam and The Road to Kandahar (both published by Penguin)