Palestinian Intifada Begins

Beginning in the Jebalya refugee camp and later spreading to the rest of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Palestinians started the Intifada (uprising) to resist Israeli military occupation.

Summary of Event

Protests in the Palestinian Jebalya refugee camp Jebalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip during the second week of December, 1987, were severely repressed by the Israeli army, with heavy Palestinian casualties. These protests became the cornerstone of the uprising known as the Intifada, one of the most important political events in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To understand the factors behind the Intifada is to understand the cumulative effect of Israeli policies on the Palestinians, who have been under occupation since 1967. Intifada
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
[kw]Palestinian Intifada Begins (Dec., 1987)
[kw]Intifada Begins, Palestinian (Dec., 1987)
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
[g]Middle East;Dec., 1987: Palestinian Intifada Begins[06600]
[g]Israel;Dec., 1987: Palestinian Intifada Begins[06600]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec., 1987: Palestinian Intifada Begins[06600]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec., 1987: Palestinian Intifada Begins[06600]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Dec., 1987: Palestinian Intifada Begins[06600]
Rabin, Yitzhak
Shamir, Yitzhak
Arafat, Yasir

In general, the Israeli government followed a strategy that brought the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a firm grip through the use of three control mechanisms: infrastructure, labor, and market. Israel linked the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to its economy in several ways: by making the occupied territories a captive market wherein nearly 90 percent of annual imports were Israeli products, by linking the physical infrastructure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israel through roads and water and power grids, and by employing Palestinians as cheap, unskilled labor.

This process was accelerated after the Likud Party came to power in Israel in 1977. Freely elected mayors were dismissed and replaced by Israeli military officials. Land confiscation increased rapidly, and by 1987 more than 52 percent of the land was confiscated. Jewish settlements were built rapidly. Palestinian labor grew even more heavily dependent on the Israeli economy. Nearly 120,000 Palestinians, representing 54 percent of the West Bank labor force and 67 percent of the Gaza Strip’s, commuted daily to work in Israel. The lopsided relationship became evident in other areas as well, most noticeably in poor health care services and inadequate education for Palestinians.

On August 4, 1985, Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin introduced his “iron fist” policy. The policy turned the Palestinian population into virtual prisoners, requiring them to have permits to travel abroad. An increasing number of Palestinians were jailed, placed under administrative detention without charge or trial, or exiled. An estimated 200,000 Palestinians out of a population of 1.7 million had been arrested at one time or another before the uprising. Collective punishment—including extended curfews, school closures, and house demolitions—increased.

These practices, Palestinians believed, were designed to drive them out in the course of Israel’s “creeping annexation” of the occupied territories. The critical turn in this perception took place in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and drove the Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) away. The PLO split into two factions and was rendered ineffective. Palestinians in Lebanon were under constant attack, as “the war of the camps” between 1985 and 1987 demonstrated. Anxiety, frustration, and humiliation simmered as conditions deteriorated. A series of incidents involving the Gaza Strip prepared the ground for the Intifada to erupt there at the end of 1987.

On December 4, 1986, the Israeli army shot dead two Birzeit University students who happened to be from Gaza. On April 10, 1987, another Birzeit student, also from Gaza, was killed. On October 1, the Israeli army ambushed and killed seven Gaza men believed to be members of the Islamic Jihad movement. Five days later, four more Gaza men and a high-ranking Israeli prison official were killed in a shootout. Several days later, a settler shot a schoolgirl in the back. In the deteriorating situation, demonstrations became more frequent, and Palestinian youths pelted Israeli cars with stones. On December 7, a Jewish merchant was stabbed in the city of Gaza. On December 8, an Israeli military tank transporter slammed into a line of cars loaded with day laborers. Four Palestinians from the Jebalya camp were crushed to death, and seven others were injured. That night, ten thousand camp residents turned out in protest. The following morning, the burial procession turned into a spontaneous demonstration. The Israeli army responded by firing into the crowd. Another Jebalya resident was killed, marking the first casualty of the Intifada.

Protests engulfed the entire Gaza Strip, and by late December, West Bank refugee camps such as Balata, Balata refugee camp near Nablus, became involved; the same cycle of protest, repression, and death occurred again. December alone saw 288 demonstrations, two thousand arrests, twenty-nine killed, and a total of thirty-six curfew days. By mid-January, 1988, leaflets signed by the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) began to appear. The UNLU was made up of four activists representing four major groups within the PLO. The leaflets, called bayanat, contained communiqués that called for specific acts of civil disobedience to be followed by the population. These ranged from confronting the military to forming popular committees.

Yasir Arafat.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The most visible acts of the Intifada were the constant demonstrations by Palestinians, which Israeli troops broke up with tear gas, with rubber-coated or plastic-coated bullets, and sometimes with live ammunition. These confrontations were also accompanied by stone throwing; stones assumed symbolic status as the protesters’ only defense. In response, Rabin allowed the Israeli army to use the “beating” policy, which led to thousands of brutal beatings, some of which were televised internationally. It was during demonstrations that most fatalities occurred. In April, 1988, for example, 416 demonstrations took place, and sixty-one Palestinians were killed.

Commercial strikes, which were introduced first in Nablus and were later endorsed by the UNLU, became another feature of the Intifada. Before the strikes became a daily routine, the Israeli military tried to break them by forcing merchants to reopen their shops. This “war of the shops” was won by the activists, and from March onward, shops were open for only three hours of the day.

Because curfews sometimes extended for weeks, the UNLU encouraged each neighborhood to establish its own popular committees for the distribution of food and other necessities. Agricultural committees provided a model for the “return to the land”; every available plot was cleared, plowed, and planted by neighborhood youths. Along with the promotion of cottage and national industry, such methods emphasized self-sufficiency and economic independence. Eventually, the UNLU called for a boycott of Israeli products except for those that had no Palestinian equivalent. After schools and universities were closed, education committees provided basic instruction, especially on the primary school level. Health care committees provided instruction in first aid and tended to the injured and the needy. Popular committees became an extension of the UNLU, and both were fully accepted and supported by the population. The UNLU and the popular committees became the political leaders of their community and formed an alternate political structure to that of the Israelis. They assumed many features of the institutional structure of a state.

The Israeli military intensified its attack against the Intifada and its activists by tightening economic controls and increasing the use of force. More than 200,000 Israelis served in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the first two years of the Intifada. This was met with equal intensity on the part of the Palestinians. Whenever a lull in the Intifada took place, a new storm of protest would follow. The continuity of the Intifada led many to believe that the Intifada could not be stopped militarily, since it had grown from a demonstration into an active political movement calling for national self-determination.


The Intifada transformed the Palestinians from refugees and “residents” in their own land to a society seeking to achieve its nationhood. Carried out largely by youths who were born under occupation, the Intifada shifted the center of political gravity to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It signaled Palestinians’ impatience with the inability of the external forces, the PLO and the Arab governments, to bring about a just and peaceful solution to the Palestine question. Despite the enormous price that the Palestinians paid in deaths, injuries, and incarcerations, the Intifada represented a self-empowerment. It won them a new confidence and created a cohesiveness among the various sectors of the society that had not existed before.

The creation of the UNLU and the popular committees established an alternate political authority that gave the population directions to sustain the Intifada and to create institutional bases for a future state. Respected and supported by the population, the UNLU became the instrument for the political unification of the various factions and political trends within the PLO.

It was largely because of the Intifada and the demands of the UNLU that the PLO changed its political positions. The PLO declared its acceptance of two United Nations Security Council resolutions as bases for a political settlement, recognized Israel, and renounced the use of terrorism in a framework of a two-state solution. The PLO declared on November 15, 1988, through the Palestine National Council, the establishment of a Palestinian state, which was gradually recognized by a majority of the world’s nations.

The Intifada had a strong impact on Israeli government and society as well. The perpetuation of military occupation became impossible. Many Israelis began to favor a two-state solution. The Israeli military expressed on several occasions that it could not stop the Intifada. A growing number favored negotiations with the PLO. The Intifada had serious implications for Israeli social structure, since many of Israel’s Arab citizens participated in the uprising by providing political support, food, and medical and other aid to the protesters.

More serious for the Israeli government was the failure of its plans to annex the occupied territories through the infrastructural changes that it introduced after 1967. The Intifada had grave consequences for the Israeli economy. Merchants and others refused to pay taxes. Popular committees supervised the boycott of Israeli goods. Tourism, the construction industry, textile factories, agriculture, and other concerns that grew dependent on cheap Arab labor suffered after the outbreak of the Intifada. The use of Israeli reservists in the army caused more economic and social disruptions.

The outbreak of the Intifada and the way Israel treated the Palestinians had important global repercussions. Israel’s control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was no longer viewed as a benign occupation. World public opinion was galvanized by images of youths with stones confronting well-equipped soldiers. More people began to realize that a political solution to the Palestine question was necessary and urgent so that further conflict and bloodshed could be avoided. Progress to that end took place with the Oslo Accords of 1993, Oslo Accords (1993) which created the Palestinian National Authority. Palestinian National Authority The Intifada had already subsided in 1991, and the new Palestinian authority offered a political outlet for Palestinian nationalism, but when peace negotiations collapsed again in 2000, a second Intifada broke out as the difficult question of Palestine continued to defy ultimate resolution. Intifada
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]

Further Reading

  • Bregman, Ahron. Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Provides detailed analysis of the history of Israel and Palestine. Chapter 6 is devoted to the Intifada. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Brynen, Rex, ed. Echoes of the Intifada: Regional Repercussions of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. Experts in various fields evaluate the Palestinian uprising in the context of Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights during the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and discuss the impact of the Intifada on political thinking in Israel, in the surrounding Arab countries, and among the superpowers.
  • Kaminer, Reuven. The Politics of Protest: The Israeli Peace Movement and the Palestinian Intifada. Portland, Oreg.: International Specialized Book Services, 1996. Discusses the positions of the various political groups in Israel. Includes an examination of the Intifada.
  • Nassar, Jamal, and Roger Heacock, eds. Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads. New York: Praeger, 1990. Collection of essays includes discussion of the background of the Intifada, its major events, and its participants. Shows the impacts of the Intifada on local, regional, and international political developments regarding the Palestine question. Makes a valuable effort to assess the impact of the Intifada on Palestinian society.
  • Robinson, Glenn E. Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Provides in-depth examination of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza before and after the Intifada. Includes index.
  • Schiff, Ze’ev, and Ehud Ya’ari. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising—Israel’s Third Front. Edited and translated by Ina Friedman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Two well-known Israeli journalists discuss the background and events of the Intifada from its start in the Jebalya refugee camp to the capture of members of the UNLU.

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