On this day 30 years ago, the First Intifada broke out in occupied Palestine. It was an uprising which would last for over five years, and witness the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. Three decades later, the struggle for Palestinian freedom continues.
What: The First Intifada
When: 9 December 1987 – 13 September 1993
Where: The occupied Palestinian territories and Israel
The backdrop to the uprising was the then 20-year Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel ruled the occupied territories with an iron fist, enforcing curfews and conducting raids, arrests, deportations and house demolitions.
After hundreds of Palestinians witnessed the killing of four men when they were run down by an Israeli jeep outside Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza on 8 December, the indignation felt at their situation was immense. The funerals of those killed were attended by some 10,000 people, but they were forced to mourn once again the following day, when Israeli troops fired aimlessly into a crowd, killing 17 year-old Hatem Abu Sisi and wounding 16 others.
As Palestinian leaders gathered to discuss the escalating situation, protests and clashes broke out within the refugee camps, spreading rapidly across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians took control of neighbourhoods, barricading roads to prevent Israeli army vehicles from entering. Largely unarmed, they defended themselves only by throwing stones at the soldiers and their tanks. Shopkeepers closed their businesses and labourers refused to go to their workplaces in Israel.
The army defined such acts as “rioting”, and moved aggressively to suppress the protests by firing rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas canisters into the crowds. The protests grew larger, involving tens of thousands of people, including women and children. By 12 December, six Palestinians had been killed and 30 had been injured in the violence. Those rising up against Israeli injustice were part of a generation that had been raised in the shadow of what remains a brutal military occupation; this opportunity to take a stand against the violations of their rights was not to be missed.
As the protests showed no signs of dissipating, Israel used mass arrests to try to dissuade people from taking part. Universities and schools in the West Bank were closed; according to Professor Wendy Pearlman, curfews were enforced 1,600 times in the first year. Palestinian farms and homes were razed, trees were uprooted and protestors who refused to pay taxes had their properties and building licences seized. Illegal Jewish settler-colonists also launched regular attacks against the Palestinians; the latter threw stones in self-defence and faced settler brutality. In the first year alone, 300 Palestinians were killed, 20,000 had been injured and some 5,500 were detained by Israel, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
The Swedish branch of Save the Children estimated that “23,600 to 29,900 children required medical treatment for their beating injuries in the first two years of the Intifada”; one third were under the age of ten.
Images played an important part in the way that the Intifada was perceived within the international community as the asymmetry between the unarmed Palestinians protestors and the Israeli army was depicted in all its brutality. One particular video caused outrage in 1988 when Israeli army personnel were filmed beating two Palestinians teenagers and deliberately breaking their arms. Israel’s image as the underdog, as a Jewish nation surrounded by hostile Arab neighbours, was slowly being reversed.
What happened next?
From 1988, Palestinian leaders attempted to control the ever-escalating situation. Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was then based in Tunisia, and attempted to rein in the violence and work with the United Nations. Such efforts met with little success; instead, the recently-formed Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged in the Gaza Strip, presenting itself as the alternative to the Fatah-based PLO. Hamas called on the Palestinians to abide by the basic goals of their national struggle, above all else the liberation of Palestine. The movement encouraged resistance fighters to carry out attacks in Israel; it was something that Tel Aviv would use to justify further persecution of Palestinians for decades to come.
After the late King Hussein of Jordan cut all administrative and economic ties with the West Bank in 1988, the statelessness of the Palestinians was once again thrown into sharp relief. As the bloodshed continued, calls for an independent Palestinian state grew stronger. In the same year, the Palestinian National Council, a government-in-exile, accepted the two-state solution, as envisaged by a 1947 UN resolution.
However, the violence continued and in 1989 at least 285 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli security forces, while an additional 17 were killed by Jewish settlers. In the same period, 19 Israeli civilians and six members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were killed by Palestinians. From 1989 to 1990, the United States continually vetoed UN Security Council draft resolutions which deplored Israel for its human rights abuses and non-compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
It was not until 1991, when the US convened the Madrid Conference and recognised the PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people that Israel was pushed to the negotiating table. Secret talks between the PLO and the Israeli government, encouraged by Norway, took place the next year and eventually culminated in the Oslo Accords –
Oslo called for a five-year transitional period during which Israeli forces would withdraw from the occupied territories and a Palestinian Authority would be set up, leading to an independent state. The agreement was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the presence of US President Bill Clinton.
Despite the peace attempts made on the world stage, the backdrop to the political negotiations remained one of ongoing violence. By the end of the intifada in 1993, almost 1,500 Palestinians and 185 Israelis had been killed; more than 120,000 Palestinians had been arrested. The hugely disproportionate violence and casualties on the Palestinian side provoked widespread international condemnation which influenced the UN Security Council to draft resolutions 607 and 608, demanding Israel to stop deporting Palestinians from their land.
Whilst in the eyes of historians the Intifada was significant for sparking the beginnings of the peace process, 30 years later the promise remains unfulfilled. Oslo proved to be another false dawn; Israel’s occupation and illegal settlement blocs encroach on Palestinian rights and land more than ever before. The First Intifada has never really ended, and the Palestinians have continued to resist in the face of Israel’s occupation, tyranny and oppression.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.