Jabalia & the Intifada: Transforming Precariousness Into Strength In Gaza’s Refugee Camps

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I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories about resistance in Palestine. He, Abu Naser, was the chief military of Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He trained Laila Khalid, along with her group that hijacked two American and Israeli airplanes in 1969 and 1970, who had hoped to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. He also led many operations against the Israeli army, notably the 1968 battle of Al Karama (first Arab military victory over Israel). Despite spending years fighting from neighboring countries, he always believed that freedom for Palestine would ultimately have to come from within. I remember him always saying: “strength lays in weakness.” This unflagging believe in a nation’s ability to act even during the toughest times is worth contemplating now, especially after the weak and ineffective Palestinian response to Trump’s late decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem. “The toughest fighter,” he once told me, “is either idealist or has nothing to lose. We are both.” He retired from the political scene after the Lebanese war in late 1976, thinking that the Palestinian people themselves should simply take the lead.

Al Shanti Funambulist (3)
Beach and Jabalia refugee camps, and Israeli checkpoint during the First Intifada (1987-1993). / M. Nasr for UNRWA (FAMSI).

In 1987, Gaza and the West Bank did just that. They decided to shift their struggle for human rights, equality and liberation inwards. Jabalia refugee camp, in Gaza, was notoriously the birth place of the Intifada. Palestinians hesitated to rise up, and didn’t even know how to do it. But people who were living in devastating conditions found an effective and simple way, through the simplest and oldest weapon: stones. Balata refugee camp was the first in the West Bank to join the Intifada started in Gaza, which ultimately led to the 1993 Oslo Accord, and thus the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The refugee camps still have an important role in the conflict. Their substantial and reoccurring participation in any up-raise is attributed to the fact that they have more at stake — having lost their land and bearing the largest burden of oppression, they have the most to gain by active struggle. The relatively better economic situation faced by some of the non-refugees might be just enough comfort for them to keep their peace. Despite war and occupation, a bourgeois class — some of the original residents of Gaza city, who did not lose property in 1948 — still exist in Gaza and remains less affected by the occupation. In fact, they still own their businesses and have a higher life standard than the refugees, who end up working for them. This class is believed to prefer stability to protect their interests, as they have more to lose.