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The Arabic term intifada—“the act of shaking-off”—was coined by Palestinians to refer to the Palestinian uprising of December 9, 1987, conjuring the image of shaking off the shackles of twenty years of Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The event that sparked the Palestinian uprising occurred in the refugee camp of Jabalya in Gaza on December 8, 1987, when an Israeli truck ran into two vans transporting Palestinian workers, killing four and injuring seven. At the funeral of three of the men in Jabalya refugee camp, which drew more than six thousand people from the Gaza Strip, the crowd protested the killings in a spontaneous demonstration that targeted the army outpost in the camp. The Israeli military used live ammunition, tear gas, beatings, and arrests to suppress the demonstrators, and in the process killed twenty-year-old Hatem Al-Sisi, who became the uprising’s first martyr. Simultaneously, clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers spread rapidly to the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.
The intifada represented both a departure from as well as a reproduction of prior forms of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation since 1967. The Palestinian repertoire of resistance up to 1987 had consisted of sporadic cycles of spontaneous demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins, usually violently suppressed by the Israeli military and often resulting in Palestinian deaths. Those deaths were mourned in elaborate, mass-attended funerals that often ended in street protests, which were met by further Israeli military punishments, including the closing of universities, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and olive trees, and the detention without trials and deportation of the activists. The difference with the intifada was that although it was initially spontaneous, it quickly became an organized and sustained popular resistance with a clear agenda of ending the Israeli occupation and demanding Palestinian self-determination. A broad strategy was articulated by its local leaders, the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), an underground umbrella coalition of the main Palestinian political factions in the occupied territories. The UNLU periodically published leaflets to inform the public and coordinate resistance activities in various parts of the territories; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), stationed in Tunis, lent its support. Posing as an alternative to the UNLU, the Muslim Brotherhood mobilized a militant wing, Hamas, and joined the uprising, issuing its own leaflets that incorporated an Islamic ideology into the struggle.
The main aim of the uprising was to denormalize life under the Israeli occupation while increasing the cost of the occupation on Israel by using civil disobedience and protests. The UNLU leaflets urged Palestinians to strikes and peaceful protests (armed struggle by the civilian Palestinian population under occupation was rejected, and when it occurred, was limited); to stop paying taxes (which led to the tax rebellion in the town of Beit Sahour in the West Bank); and to boycott Israeli products, work in Israel, and all posts connected to Israeli administration of the territories.
The uprising was a decentralized movement involving coordination between the underground leadership and the “people’s committees” that sprang up in the refugee camps and the villages of the territories and organized local initiatives. The mass-based structure of the uprising was possible only because people’s committees had already been in place since the 1970s as part of Palestinian institution building to counteract the deteriorating conditions under occupation. When Palestinians realized in the 1970s that a speedy reversal of the occupation was not in sight, they focused on surviving on their occupied land, awaiting liberation from the external Palestinian national movement, and applied the term steadfastness to the process. In the absence of municipalities, they mobilized volunteer work committees, including medical relief committees that provided preventive medical care to the camps and villages and women’s work committees that offered income-generating projects and support for prisoners’ families. These and other groups formed the basis for sustaining the uprising and its goal of delinking from the occupation by meeting civil needs, from health to agriculture.
The Israeli response was repression, curfews, labor control through border control, and general movement restrictions. The repressive and often violent tactics supported by the Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) in January 1988 translated into high Palestinian casualties and detention rates. Between 1988 and 1990, one in twenty-two Palestinian children was either killed or injured, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. By the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 between the PLO and Israel, the intifada had already waned, and casualties topped 1,500.
The uprising made visible the Palestinians as a people struggling against Israeli occupation through the images of the stone throwers—previously their plight had been coded under the “Arab-Israeli conflict”—and made it difficult for Israel to continue the occupation as before. Moreover, the uprising realized Palestinian will to be represented solely by the PLO (Jordan halted its administrative responsibility for the West Bank in July 1988). The Palestine National Council session in Algiers in November 1988 issued a Declaration of Independence of Palestine, making Jerusalem its capital. Shortly afterward, Yasser Arafat (1929–2004) promised future, formal recognition of Israel and Palestine’s readiness for territorial concessions in the United Nations General Assembly address in December 1988.
Although Palestinians greeted the arrival of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 1994 as a symbol of the triumph of their intifada, their hopes for an independent state were not realized. Israel retained military and economic controls over Gaza’s borders, air and sea routes, international relations, and overall security even after its disengagement, and more than half of the West Bank remained under Israeli control in 2000, with additional areas under Israeli security control. Palestinian living standards continued to deteriorate, falling to pre–intifada levels, as the Israeli policy of border closure since March 1993 placed Gazans in a prison-like situation with limited work options, mostly in the inflated Palestinian security forces.
A second widespread uprising broke out in reaction to events on September 28, 2000, when the controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon (b. 1928) made a provocative visit to Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, deploying thousands of security forces to seal off the area. The urprising of December 9, 1987, came to be referred to as the “first intifada” and the September 28, 2000, uprising came to be referred to as the “second intifada,” or the “AlAqsa intifada.”
By 2000 the Palestinian Authority was present in parts of the territories and more of the Palestinian population was armed, so during the second intifida there was greater focus on armed struggle and greater use of full military force by Israel, which constructs the intifada as a war between states. The Palestinian Authority is caught in a double bind: Israel expects them to contain the armed struggle, but at the same time they must maintain legitimacy among Palestinians, and this perpetuates not only the uprising but also internal Palestinian confrontation, with increased hardships for daily life for Palestinians.
- Al-Haq. 1990. Punishing a Nation: Israeli Human Rights Violations during the Palestinian Uprising, December 1987–December 1988. Boston: South End Press.
- Carey, Roane, ed. 2001. The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid. New York: Verso.
- Farsoun, Samih. 1997. Palestinian Resistance to Israeli Occupation: The Intifada. In Palestine and the Palestinians, 213–252. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Heacock, Roger, and Jamal Nassar, eds. 1990. Intifada: Palestine at the Cross Roads. New York: Praeger.
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