"Salam-shalom" : The First Intifadah

The first Intifadah uprising began on 8 December 1987, when an Israeli army truck killed four Arabs. But the "war with stones" was all but a co-incidence. It was the end of the "Year for Palestine": 70 years after the Balfour declaration in which Jews were promised a national home in Palestine; 40 years after the United Nations partition plan for Palestine; 20 years after the West-Bank and Gaza had been occupied; 10 years after the Camp David accords; 5 years after the siege of West-Beirut and the Sabra and Chatilla massacres.

The Intifadah gave a new credibility to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), at least in its first year. At the end of 1988, PLO-chairman Yasser Arafat would address the UN General Assembly in Geneva and, after renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel, the United States even ended its 13-year boycott to initiate talks with the PLO.

The "Al Awda" operation in the first months of 1988 was sign of this new "legitimacy" on the international scene. It was a remarkable PLO-initiative, intended to bring some 130 deported "terrorists" back to the "coast of Palestine." Most of all, it was high drama and a powerful symbol, drawing a direct link with the historic tragedy of the Jewish people.

After the end of the shoah, 4.500 Jews in 1947 tried to reach the "Promised Land" on board the "Exodus" vessel, with a Haganah recruited crew at the helm. Many of them were survivors of the nazi camps. Yet, the British navy intercepted the ship, and after other countries refused to take the refugees, the Exodus had no other choice than to return to Germany of all places, the land they had tried to escape from. In much the same way, 937 Jews had sailed from Hamburg in May 1939 on board the "St. Louis", hoping to find a better place in the new world. But neither Cuba nor the US granted refuge. At one time they were sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami - yet president Franklin D. Roosevelt decided not to let them enter. On 17 June, they arrived back in Europe in the port of Antwerp, only to be sent to Germany - three months before the beginning of World War II.

The Exodus vessel

The Palestinian Al Awda-1988 appealed to these highly emotional precedents. I covered the events in Athens, being promised by the PLO that journalists could join on the "journey to Palestine." Of course, the reissue of "Exodus-1947" never materialized. When the PLO had finally found an old ferry, "unidentified persons" placed a bomb and sabotaged the ship in the Cyprian port of Limassol.