On 9 December 1987, 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. Over three decades later, the struggle for Palestinian freedom continues.
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.
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.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the First Intifada, an event which fundamentally altered the profile and trajectory of the Palestinian national struggle against occupation. It shifted political leadership away from the exiled Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership, reconfigured local political arrangements and, most crucially, challenged the Israeli occupation at its weakest and most vulnerable points.
However, its full significance has not been, to my mind, sufficiently acknowledged, whether by international observers or by younger generations of Palestinians. This is unfortunate, as the Intifada is not purely an historical event – in my view it has much to contribute to discussions that relate to the conceptual framing, theorisation and tactics of contemporary resistance. This article does not, however, propose to engage at any of these points. It has instead been conceived and developed as a personal account which is grounded within my own perspectives and experiences.
In the late 1980s, I lived in the village of Burqa, which is close to Nablus, in the northern West Bank. My home village – like the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – had been subject to Israeli occupation for two decades. At the time, the wider world knew little of this reality: insofar as it engaged with the Palestinian “question”, it tended to fixate upon the diaspora refugee communities who had been at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle in Lebanon and Jordan. In the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, this emphasis was inverted. The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) became the focus of international attention and Palestinian refugee communities became, at best, a secondary preoccupation.
For Palestinians in the OPT, there was no possibility that they could be similarly blind to the occupation, whose curfews and collective punishments imposed themselves upon almost every aspect of everyday life. Refuge could not be sought in political quietism: the occupation did not distinguish between the politically active and apathetic. Indeed, this was one of the main oversights of the occupation: it politicised ordinary Palestinians by making resistance an imperative which weighed equally upon every Palestinian man, women and child. My own parents, who had previously shown little inclination to join in revolutionary activities (quite the contrary – they tried to dissuade me and my sisters from participating), joined a protest after Israeli soldiers killed a ten-year-old boy who was playing in his backyard in my home village.
Looking back, I remember how, in imposing collective punishment upon my home village, the Israeli occupiers forced all adult males to congregate in the school courtyard. They made little allowance for age, seniority or status: teachers and doctors were forced to run around while shouting senseless and random words like “tomato” and “potato”. They were sometimes detained for more than six hours, and were not allowed to use the toilet or speak to each other during that entire time. Fathers, brothers, relatives and neighbours were deliberately humiliated in front of each other.
The occupiers inflicted this treatment on my own father. One day, soldiers told him to bring down a Palestinian flag which activists had placed on top of an electricity pole. He was over 60. When he told the soldiers this and tried to make them see how difficult it would be for him to climb the pole, they refused to accept his “excuse” and threatened him with violence if he did not obey. He also knew that if he refused, his ID card would be confiscated and he would have to travel to the military offices in Nablus and wait for hours or even days to get it back.
Israeli soldiers did not therefore always have to resort to direct violence. More often than not, this was unnecessary. In the OPT, violence was an implicit undertone, ever-present in the background. During one prolonged curfew, my sister sneaked out to visit my aunt, who lived around a ten minutes’ walk away. She did not encounter a single Israeli soldier. The Israeli army knew full well that their orders and directives did not require direct enforcement.
This suddenly changed when the First Intifada broke out on 9 December 1987. Yitzhak Rabin declared an “Iron Fist” policy to tame Palestinians, and a man who would later be near-universally venerated as a “dove” of peace openly called upon Israeli soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protestors. This violence also took other forms. Birzeit University, an important centre of popular resistance and struggle, was forced to close. A number of students (myself included) were prevented from graduating on time.
While Rabin’s actions said much about his own considerable capacity for violence and intransigence, they said an equal amount about the settler-colonial mentality. In adhering to its guiding tenets, Israel’s political-military establishment believe that Palestinians cannot be engaged with as equals. Instead, it is more appropriate to engage with “them” with treatment commensurate to their level of personal and social development. Violence presents itself as an appropriate mode of conduct at this point.
While the Israeli political-military establishment continually endeavours to gain insights into the mindset of its Palestinian adversaries, it appears to be structurally predisposed to underestimate Palestinians and their capacity for collective organisation and mobilisation. In other words, the influence of Zionism’s implicit racism and ethnocentrism invariably frustrates the initial aspiration to understand. It is true that the PLO leadership had been similarly blind to the possibilities of mass mobilisation. However, as Frantz Fanon observes, the colonised “…is overpowered but not tamed; he is treated as an inferior but he is not convinced of his inferiority”.
The profound flaws within this misconception were clearly exposed when the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) took control of what was initially a spontaneous outburst of popular anger and resentment and turned it towards clear ends and purposes. The Intifada rapidly coalesced into a disciplined, broad-based and democratic uprising that was focused upon clear ends and objectives. The uprising became a source of immense pride for Palestinians, and it was characterised by a sense of self-sacrifice and commitment to the wider struggle. Patriotic poems were smuggled from prisons; Palestinian musicians composed Intifada songs, and their tape cassettes helped to raise Palestinian spirits. Sharif Kanaana, a professor at Birzeit University, collected what became known as “Intifada jokes”. He noted that there was a clear difference between jokes told in the pre-Intifada period and those told after it. In the latter instance there was a stronger sense of defiance, and the humour was invariably at the expense of the occupying power.
When the Israeli army closed schools, the popular committees created home schools. When these home schools were then banned, Palestinians continued to operate them underground. One father, whose furniture and television set were confiscated after he refused to pay the occupation tax, spoke of how his son had told him not to protest on his own behalf. He refused to grant the Israelis this minor victory. His son said: “I don’t want to watch cartoons. Do not ask them to keep it.” When I joined solidarity visits to the injured at Al-Makaseed Hospital I was struck by the pride and defiance that shone in the eyes of the injured.
In the current context devoid of any real sense of purpose, it is unsurprising that Palestinians should look back on the Intifada as a “golden age” of Palestinian struggle. However, there is a clear danger that these recollections will romanticise the uprising. It is crucial not to fall into this trap. After all, the Intifada was not entirely cohesive (there were ongoing tensions between the UNLU, the PLO and Hamas) and it could be argued that it was ultimately a failure – after all, its main contribution proved to be the abortive Oslo Accords.
These limitations do not detract from the essential fact that the Intifada has a perhaps unparalleled significance in the history of the occupation, standing apart as the point at which Palestinians gathered the strength and collective sense of purpose which enabled them to confront an occupation which had imposed itself upon Palestinian society for two decades. It will always remain a source of pride for Palestinians, and will always to some extent reside at the level of imagination. In reflecting back upon it, Palestinians should take pride in its many achievements but also resist the temptation to idealise or romanticise. If this caveat is taken into account, then there is every reason to suppose that looking back will produce concrete benefits in the present.
Palestine experiences a plethora of daily human rights violations by the Israeli occupation. However, the soundtrack of gunshots, teargas thrown between homes, the armoured jeeps’ doors closing behind detained Palestinians, and the violence screaming at us in the form of land annexation and discrimination is not new.
This invasion of brutality and violence into the most intimate places of Palestinians’ life has not only been present from before 1948; it has also been incessantly confronted in revolts and uprisings, and even daily by our steadfastness and mere existence. For today’s young generation in Palestine, the story of rebellion and resistance is entrenched in the chronicles of our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, as they defied Israeli occupation in the 1980s.
The narrative of the First Intifada is not easily forgotten, but despite its importance, it is also a story that can seem to be gathering dust on the museum shelf, its power diminished by nostalgia and lament.
I often listen to the stories of my grandparents and the feda’yeen of the 50s and 60s, while simultaneously collecting the stories of my parent’s generation. The accounts come with a mouthful of references to the muqawimoon (resistors) and munadiloon (strugglers).
The language which comes naturally to the generation of the 1948 Nakba and the generation of the 1987 uprising, compared with our new young generation, is telling of what has happened to us throughout the years as a Palestinian population.
Feda’ee, which stems from the word feda’ in Arabic translates to redemption. The generation of my grandparents fought to redeem the homeland from colonial conquest. Their battles still ring in their ears, the scars passed on to their children in the hope that we do not cease seeking justice.
After constant betrayal by the Palestinian leadership, coupled with an expanding Zionist project, the generation of my parents bred an army of munadiloon which later became muqawama. Al-nidal in Arabic translates to struggle, and al-muqawama is resistance. It was the generation that struggled and resisted the Israeli aggression.
Our generation did not grow up with this kind of language, save for the few years of the Second Intifada. We are the generation that grew up under the banner of the Oslo Accords, the words of normalisation which compromises our rights, of “two states”, and a plethora of legal terms that we learned at a young age.
Those that continue to mobilise against Israeli aggression are given the titles of activist or human rights defender. This breaks them into a segment exclusive from the rest of Palestinian society. It is a stark contrast to those in the First Intifada and before who were taught the sense of a collective struggle and community.
For Palestinian youth today, the First Intifada means more than an echoed chronicle heard through our parents’ generation. It is a testament that if we allow elitist representatives and flawed leadership to speak on our behalf, our struggle will be misconstrued and hijacked. Just as happened in 1994 with the signing of the Oslo Accords and its corollaries, which not only killed any sense of confrontation but further buried Palestine with a neoliberal capitalism that makes our daily survival completely dependent on Israel.
There are lessons to be learned from the First Intifada. Not only of collective solidarity and mobilisation through all possible fields like art, theatre, agriculture and more, but the fact that if we allow the silencing of the population, even for a moment, we will lose. The latest declaration by US President, Donald Trump, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise the city as the capital of Israel, is telling of that.
Thus, while the First Intifada is hailed for its grassroots efforts and communal work, it is also associated with the failure of leaders to take it and nurture it into the powerful movement that it had the potential to be. This failure bred a new fear in Palestinian youth, not only of the Israeli aggression but also of each other, accompanied by a growing schism characterised by mistrust.
The resentment amongst youth today towards the Palestinian leadership comes from the sense of betrayal felt by the generation of our parents, which is extended to us by their reactions to any new efforts at mobilisation. The older generation is bitterly polemical largely due to having witnessed first-hand not only mass solidarity, but also how easily it was taken from them.
A leadership that partook in and were veterans of the First Intifada continues to monopolise the history of their resistance while not bringing any genuine results for Palestinians.
The First Intifada offered a glimpse into the potential of mass uprising and revolt, yet given the context that we presently live in, it does not seem to be achievable anymore. With the fatigue and exhaustion overwhelming Palestinians, and the large debt facing youth due to the implementation of neoliberal capitalism by Fayyadism, new avenues must be found to push the Palestinian agenda of justice, dignity and liberation forward.
This would mean that both Middle Eastern countries and the international community must listen to Palestinian demands, and work with them to bring a just solution to the region. The focus should not be concern about the Palestinian reaction toward Israeli aggression, but rather on the roots of the reaction, the answering of why Palestinians resist, and how to help finally bring forth peace, equality and the implementation of human rights without discrimination.
This intifada (which means “shaking off” in Arabic) was a popular mobilisation that drew on the informal organisations and institutions that had developed under occupation. It rapidly acquired the support of hundreds of thousands of people, many with no previous resistance experience, including children, teenagers and women. Local people embarked on varying forms of civil disobedience, including massive demonstrations, the building of barricades, general strikes, refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli products and political graffiti. There was also an intensification of “illegal” education...
Students reacted by throwing stones at the soldiers, burning tyres and demonstrating in all sorts of places. Sometimes children were the ones leading the struggle. The situation led quickly to the army starting to close the schools and universities as a pre-emptive measure. As the university was closed for ever-longer periods, we started to joke that the Israeli government was trying to save on paper. Students were continually attacked by the army. Anybody caught with textbooks would immediately be targeted. This was the beginning of Birzeit’s longest closure.
With the intifada, the whole population revolted in an act of solidarity. The atmosphere became very exciting. The students’ commitment to changing the situation was heroic at times, but both activists and others paid a high price. Some of this was due to Israeli misconceptions. The occupation authorities seemed not to understand that all our students would naturally see life under occupation as humiliating and unbearable, and so a search began for hidden leaders, shadowy figures seen as planting such ideas and corrupting their minds.
How does an occupying power identify leaders? Well, Israel had no compunction about using torture on a huge scale. Palestinians under interrogation have been clubbed, hung by their arms for days, immersed in sewage, burnt and given repeated electric shocks to all parts of the body, including the genitals. Ever more brutal methods were devised to extract names from the young detainees.
And, once alleged student leaders had been identified, they would be tortured in turn to find out when they planned to demonstrate again or to stone Israeli soldiers. The notion that many of these activities were spontaneous did not enter the interrogators’ minds. Nor could they understand that in a situation like ours new leaders emerged constantly and were easily replaced by others feeling equally oppressed.
Gabi Baramki, “Peaceful Resistance: Building a Palestinian University under Occupation”, London: Pluto Press, 2010, pp.98-99.
Reprinted with kind permission of Pluto Press
“The outbreak of the First Intifada in December 1987 was as great a surprise to the leadership of the PLO as it was to everyone else, although in the first few days there was little to set it apart from previous confrontations with the occupying power. However, as the weeks went by the insurrection took on a distinctive character. One aspect of this was its scale. Whereas previous outbursts had been dispersed in nature, which made them relatively containable, this time whole sectors of society became involved as the revolt spread from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, from the refugee camps to the towns and villages. There was for a time significant evidence of mass involvement in the struggle. The resistance was coordinated through a network of popular committees. In August 1988 the Israeli authorities declared such committees to be illegal, with membership punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment. Being aware of how widespread participation in the uprising had become, one Israeli commentator wryly observed that this move was tantamount to declaring all Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be illegal.”
“All political organisations in the territories have long been illegal. Last week, the popular committees were outlawed, and alongside them their supporters, those who follow their instructions and those who do their work and aid them verbally, materially, actively or by default. There is a popular committee in every village and municipal district, and all residents accept its authority. We cannot, therefore, escape the pleasant conclusion that we have finally managed to outlaw all the inhabitants of the territories.”
No analyst of the First Intifada would claim that the historic social divisions that had fractured Palestinian society for so long had disappeared. But there can be little doubt that for a while, during the first two years of the uprising, the traditional divisions were to some degree subordinated to a strong sense of shared identity as Palestinians living under occupation and suffering at the hands of the Israeli state. The shared experience of oppression and suffering resulted in a barrowing of social divisions, with a corresponding increase in the level of reciprocity and mutual aid amongst all sectors of society. Underpinning this there emerged – at least for a while – a common commitment to a body of values and beliefs, centred on the need to maintain the struggle in order to end the occupation.
This phenomenon of social solidarity in struggle did not just happen. To a significant degree it was created in the context of a sustained organising effort within the OPT from the mid-1970s onwards...
Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby, “Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance”, London: Pluto Press, 2015, pp.pp.100-101.
Reprinted with kind permission of Pluto Press
The First Intifada is typically dated from 9 December 1987.
It involved many forms of civil disobedience, including: massive demonstrations, general strikes, refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli products, graffiti and underground ‘freedom schools’, as well as unarmed forms of resistance such as stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails.
By the end of 1988, there had been 23,092 demonstrations in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
In the first three weeks of the uprising, more than 20 Palestinians were killed, with no Israeli fatalities.
According to B’Tselem, by September 1993, Israeli forces had killed 1,070 Palestinians in the oPt, including 237 children, with an additional 54 Palestinians killed by Israeli settlers.
A further 38 Palestinians were killed by state forces and civilians inside the Green Line.
During the same time period, 162 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed, the majority in the oPt.
The Israeli army conducted extrajudicial assassinations using undercover units.
Army commanders instructed troops to break the bones of demonstrators.
During the first two years of the uprising, over half of the more than 5,000 wounded were children.
Deportation orders were issued by Israeli occupation authorities against 58 Palestinians in the first two years of the uprising, in violation of international law.
In 1992, Israel deported more than 400 Palestinians suspected of membership in Hamas and Islamic Jihad to southern Lebanon.
Some 175,000 Palestinians were jailed at one time or another during the intifada.
During this period, Israel had the highest per capita prison population in the world.
In the first two years of the intifada, more than 5,000 Palestinians were held in administrative detention (no charge or trial).
Thousands of Palestinian detainees were tortured.
In a systematic method of collective punishment, around 2,000 Palestinian homes were demolished by the Israeli army in the oPt.
On this day 36 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 was it like to be part of the uprising?
What does the First Intifada mean to young Palestinians today?
Gabi Baramki, former Birzeit University president
Extract from ‘Popular Protest in Palestine’
Fatalities, injuries, detention and deportation - what are the key statistics about the First Intifada?