The first intifada (the Intifada, from the Arabic for “shaking off ”) was a popular uprising among Palestinians against Israel’s military occupation, confiscation of their land, and suppression of their collective identity.
The uprising started on December 8, 1987, in the Palestinian refugee camp Jabalya in the Gaza Strip, and quickly spread to the rest of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, all of which had been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
The Intifada was a spontaneous popular phenomenon caused by a number of domestic and international factors. The most important of these factors was a sense of hopelessness that had pervaded the occupied territories and the belief among Palestinians that neither the military efforts of the Arab states nor diplomatic efforts by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab states would end the occupation.
According to some analysts, the final catalyzing factor emerged in November 1987 when the Arab leaders at the Summit Conference in Amman, Jordan—just 40 miles away from the occupied territories—placed the Iran-Iraq War at the top of the Arab political agenda and relegated the Palestinian question to the end of the list.
In addition, the Palestinian economy had declined since the 1967 war, and the territories had become a reservoir for cheap labor for Israel and its second-biggest export market after the United States. The average income of the Palestinian worker had declined, and a growing number of Jewish settlers had moved into the territories.
The Intifada used mainly low-key violence and avoided the use of weapons. It was largely limited to political demonstrations, strikes, refusal to pay taxes, and some stone throwing. Nevertheless, the Israeli authorities moved to suppress the uprising; Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the troops “to break the bones of the Palestinian demonstrators.”
Following high casualties among Palestinians, the United Nations Security Council announced that it deplored the Israeli repression, but the confrontation continued and in the first 13 months of the Intifada more than 300 Palestinians and 12 Israelis lost their lives. The economic price of the Intifada was also high.
Between 1987 and 1990 the GNP in Gaza declined at least 30 percent; the situation in the West Bank was not much better. By the middle of 1990 the Intifada had lost much of its earlier impetus, and popular frustrations resulted in the killing of real or suspected collaborators.
In spite of these hardships and the lack of success, the Intifada was seen by the Palestinians as a major event in their recent history. It was a popular action that encompassed all social strata and groups.
The popular committees in towns and villages mobilized the population and looked after the families of the dead and wounded. However, the Intifada failed to achieve the long-term goal of self-determination and the end of the Israeli occupation.
In November 1988 the Palestinian National Council at Algiers declared an independent Palestinian state, but Israel deemed the declaration null and void. Although the PLO did not initiate the Intifada, it tried to play a leading role in the struggle, in the course of which the PLO and Hamas became political rivals.
This internal division weakened the popular movement. The Intifada did succeed in bringing international attention back to the Palestinian cause and was a factor behind the U.S. sponsorship of the Madrid Conference in November 1991.