The First Intifada
“Intifada” means “shaking up” or “shaking off,” and is the term applied to the uprisings against Israel in modern times. Though the term is used in other countries to refer to uprisings against the ruling government, the word has special significance in Israel. Israel’s First Intifada lasted from 1987 until 1991, finally dying off with the onset of the Gulf War.
Palestinian resentment had been building for years, ever since Israel conquered those territories in the 1967 Six Day War. Though the Palestinians and Israelis had managed to live in relative peace for a few years, with Palestinians entering Israel each day to work and shop, the Palestinians felt growing anger with what they saw as the “Israeli occupation” of their rightful land. Skirmishes and occasional violence had broken out, especially as Jewish settlements in those areas increased. The Palestinians grew more militant, and they objected to what they believed was a slow annexation of their land to Israel. They were also disillusioned with the Arab leadership in general, and the PLO in particular, which they felt had not come to their aid or worked toward their independence. The Jordanians, no lovers of the PLO themselves, had retreated from the West Bank, taking with them whatever moderation they had been able to exert, and Egypt had withdrawn any claims to the Gaza Strip. The West Bank and Gaza Palestinians felt politically powerless, and that they would remain so unless they took care of the matter themselves. They also felt that the Intifada was a justifiable reaction to the perceived brutality committed by the Israeli army, especially “house demolitions,” which the Israeli army employed as a deterrent to terrorists (homes of terrorists were destroyed, even after their deaths or incarceration), but the Palestinians (and many on the Israeli left) viewed as gratuitously violent. In addition, the high birthrate of the Palestinians led to a lack of adequate housing and employment, placing a strain on the Palestinian economy. Incendiary speeches from mosques and spreading of rumors about alleged Israeli atrocities helped fan the flames and incite the Palestinian mobs.
While tensions had been escalating for years, a few specific incidents brought them to the breaking point. In the beginning of December 1987, a Jewish salesman in Gaza was stabbed to death. A few days later, on December 8, an Israeli tank at the Erez Crossing accidentally hit some residents of the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing four. The general consensus among Palestinians was that the Israelis hit the group deliberately, as payback for the death of the salesman. The traffic accident is considered the “official” beginning of the First Intifada. Though the uprising was not officially organized by any one group, the PLO became the de facto head, though it was challenged for leadership rights by the terrorist groups Hamas, which was created at the beginning of the Intifada, and Islamic Jihad. One of the emerging leaders of the Intifada was Faisal Husayni, the grandnephew of the former Grand Mufti Hajj al-Husayni.
After a seventeen-year old who threw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli tank was subsequently killed, hundreds of Palestinians attacked Israeli troops. The uprising, started in the Jabaya refugee camp, quickly spread throughout Gaza and the West Bank. It included acts of civil disobedience as well—strikes, boycotts of Israeli products, and refusal to pay taxes. Initially, the attacks were crude and low-tech—stone throwing, tire burning, road blockades. Soon, though, Molotov cocktails, hand grenades, and explosives entered the mix; toward the end of the Intifada, suicide bombers were used. The Palestinians also encouraged the use of children as human shields, to protect their fighters from Israeli fire. The IDF was at a loss as to how to respond. After years of military victories based on the prowess of their tanks, air craft, and high-range weaponry, they did not know how to respond to groups of people, including children, hounding them with rocks. The sophisticated weaponry was useless against these primitive, but effective, tactics. The uprising grew more organized, especially with the help of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who initiated terror attacks and kidnapped Israeli soldiers. In April of 1988, the Israelis assassinated a PLO leader in Tunis, sparking an increase in the rioting and attacks on Israel.
The Palestinian rioters did not limit their attacks to soldiers, and set out to harass Jewish civilians as well. But the violence was not even limited to the Jews. Palestinians killed many of their own, those whom they accused of collaborating with the Israelis. During the Intifada, approximately the same number of Palestinians who were killed by Israelis died at the hands of their fellow Palestinians. By the end of the Intifada, approximately 160 Israelis had been killed, 1,100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, and 1,000 Palestinians were killed for being “collaborators.”
From the Palestinian perspective, the uprising was a success. It succeeded in cementing a national identity for them, separate from Jordan or any other Arab country. Israel was condemned in international media for excessive use of force during the Intifada, even from countries which had historically supported Israel, such as the US. The uprising is also linked to the PLO’s eventual return from Tunis to the West Bank.