Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Passing of Yitzhak Rabin, Whose "Iron Fist" Fueled the Intifada

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Passing of Yitzhak Rabin, Whose "Iron Fist" Fueled the Intifada

Article excerpt

The formation of a right-wing, Likud-led government this spring ended Yitzhak Rabin's six-year reign as Israeli defense minister. Like the terms of presidents in the US, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is divided into eras characterized by policies formulated under the ministers of defense of the Israeli government. The Rabin era was perhaps the most significant period in the modern history of the Palestine-Israel dispute, for it witnessed the birth of one of the most unique revolutions of the 20th century: the intifada.

The intifada as a mass popular uprising against foreign domination, of course, is not finished, and it seems clear that Mr. Rabin's star has not disappeared in the ever-unpredictable world of Israeli politics. Due to the completion of his reign as defense minister, however, Rabin's rule deserves particular examination, for his contribution to the nature of the Israeli occupation may have left a lasting mark on future prospects for peace in the Middle East.

A Hated Name

Though the lack of political or civil rights of the Palestinians made the mass uprising a matter of time, it is the name "Rabin" that most young Palestinians spit out as the Israeli most responsible for their current suffering. Though few remember his stints as prime minister and chief of staff, occupied Palestinians recognize that his rule as the defense minister greatly influenced their lives during the mid-1980s.

It was, in fact, Rabin's policies that gave direction to the timing, scope, and intensity of the intifada. Furthermore, the intifada's domestic political effect on Israel has been the collapse of the second Likud-Labor coalition government, resulting from a deep lack of consensus between the two parties in dealing with the Palestinians. As a result of the collapse, Rabin, who arrogantly threatened, and tried for more than two years, to crush the revolt, has been chalked up as the intifada's greatest victim.

The Rabin era in the occupied territories began in 1984, with the formation of the first Likud-Labor coalition government. While most Middle East observers at this time were watching the slow and bloody Israeli withdrawal from central Lebanon, the new defense minister from the Labor Party initiated a policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip called the "iron fist."

Though the Israeli occupation has never been anything but planned and formalized misery for the Palestinians, the "iron fist" in 1985 turned the screws further by increasing administrative and collective measures carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against the civilian population. Rabin was quoted then as saying the purpose of these new measures was "to make life so difficult for the Arabs that they leave the territories."

The basic error of Rabin and the Israeli government at this time was to underestimate the determination of the Arabs to stay, rather than making the mistake of leaving Palestine as they did in 1948 and 1967. Remaining in Palestine despite inflicted misery became the basic form of resistance to the "iron fist." That changed, however, in December 1987, when a spark in Gaza ignited pent-up mass frustrations, creating an unexpected and unprecedented revolt.

The documented human rights abuses of the IDF in the occupied territories after 1984 reveal significant increases in the level of mass collective and indiscriminate punishments. Before 1985, the demolition of homes -- a form of collective punishment illegal under international law and used nowhere else in the world except by the state of Israel in its occupied lands -- was confined basically to cases where Palestinians were suspected of killing or wounding Israeli soldiers or settlers. In 1982, for example, the Israelis destroyed 17 Arab homes for this reason. In the second year of Rabin's rule, however, the IDF blew up or bulldozed more than 102 houses for "security-related" charges which included non-violent resistance to Israel's occupation and virtually anything concerning manifestations of Palestinian national identity. …

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