Cognitive dissonance: 1st Intifada v Arab Uprisings

The 1987 Intifada and the Arab Uprising are remarkably similar: grassroots movements consisting of local networks with the single unifying interest to challenge systematic injustice. Indeed, the Palestians – and many of their Arab brothers in Egypt, Syria and beyond – may have failed to achieve a more just world, but their cause is far from over.

Several academics/analysts on the left, however, continue to shop freely which injustice to adopt and which to ignore. For Stephen Kinzer (Brown University), Tim Anderson (University of Sydney), Jeffrey Sachs (Colombia University), Max Blumenthal (independent) and others, death Arabs is no problem. Unless it is at the hands of Americans or Israelis, of course.


Their cognitive dissonance is reaching levels of absurdity with the obsession on the “Oscar winning” White Helmets. What the White Helmets represent is a dent in the anti-imperialist narrative that all opposition members to Assad are in fact CIA-sponsored al Qaida. Therefore, the White Helmets have to be AQ too – or their argument crumbles.

The anti-imperialists, however, have longstanding support for Palestinian resistance – often supporting both non-violent and violent activities. When Palestinians resist it is acceptable and normalised, but when Syrians resort to similar measures it is suddenly labelled “terrorism”. The anti-imperialist have become the mirror image of the neo-cons and Israeli far-right. “Al Qaida, terrorists!!11”

Given this remarkable overlap, it makes sense to briefly compare how the first Intifada and the 2011 uprising started and what else they have in common. Of course there are obvious differences between military occupation by another nation and brutal dictatorship by a fellow countryman. But, actually, there are more similarities than the Stephen Kinzers and Max Blumenthals would like to acknowledge.

Injustice and frustration

Both uprisings started by a ‘minor’ incident: a car crash in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, and a confiscated fruit cart in Ben Arous, Tunisia. These incidents would soon culminate in regional uprisings by ordinary citizens seeking to challenge years of frustration. In effect, both challenged injust forms of being governed. Whether that governance manifests itself through occupation or dictatorship, the affects are eerily similar: lack of freedom of expression, economic marginalisation, brutal policing and illegitimate governors that care little about the well-being of those having to endure life under their control. Both military occupation and dictatorship often seek to portray their governance as benevolent but its hard to sustain this argument looking at the endemic human rights abuses.

Part of The Fifty Years War dealing with the outbreak of the 1st Intifada – the documentary can be found in full (5 hours) on YouTube


In the Palestinian territories a local network emerged, the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), that proved pivotal in organising protests. The Intifada was as much a surprise to Israel as it was to Yassar Arafat, Abu Jihad and the PLO.

The comparison to Egypt and Syria is quickly drawn. Local networks, individuals and communities such as football fans or labour groups were among the forefront of the urprising – not the Muslim Brotherhood or other institutionalised movements. Both the PLO and MB tried to capitalise on a revolt started outside of their direction or control though with mixed success.

Women played a significant roles in both occasions and forbidden flags (Israel had outlawed the Palestinian flag as a symbol of dissent) were waved by the protesters at the risk of being shot to death. Why do so many analysts support individual X waving the Palestinian flag in defiance of injustice, but ignore, and even actively tarnish, individual Z waving the flag of the Syrian opposition?

Denying this reality is denying the agency of local citizens – a closet racist analysis in which only the West (“CIA backed…”) is able to influence the course of history in the Middle East.

Role of Media

Closely linked to this networked agency is the role of media. In 1987, the UNLU handed out leaflets calling for civil disobedience, strikes and protests. In Egypt 2011, Facebook pages such as We Are All Khaled Said mobilised communities to take to the streets.

But also mainstream traditional media played a huge part in both cases. The First Intifada was picked up by international TV outlets and revealed the hidden occupation to a global audience. The images of boys throwing stones at tanks soon became symbols for their struggle. Tahrir Square, 24 years, later represented the reality that Arabs were no longer fearing their oppressive regimes – and were willing to die for (more) freedom.

And finally…. being framed as foreign-sponsored terrorists and extremists

Those that seek to continue the occupation or dictatorships often ignore the protesters demands, and instead start a smearing campaign. The legitimate demands were swept under the carpet in both the late 80/early 90s as well as today.

For neo-conservative hawks in the West, all Palestinians are terrorists. For anti-imperialists, all Syrians opposing Assad are terrorists – even rescue workers. The convergence of the far-right and far-left is perhaps the defining political story of recent times.

The neo-cons have already been tarnished (rightfully) by history as a result of their disastrous policies in the region, notably the Iraq War. The anti-imperialist will follow suit and go down the annals as closet racists denying the agency of ordinary Syrians – because you know, CIA, anti-imperialism, and stuff.

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