Explainer: The First Intifada

December 16, 2012 IMEU

What does "intifada" mean?

  • "Intifada" is Arabic for "shaking off" and is used to describe Palestinian uprisings against decades of brutal Israeli miltary rule and theft of their land

What was the First Intifada?

  • In December 1987, a large-scale popular uprising by Palestinians known as the First Intifada began against Israel's then 20-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Sparked by an incident in which four Palestinians were hit and killed by an Israeli driver in Gaza, Palestinian frustration at living under racist, oppressive Israeli military rule boiled over, grabbing international headlines and drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
  • Palestinians used tactics such as protesting, stone throwing against Israeli soldiers, commercial strikes, refusing to pay taxes to Israel, and other acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Activities were organized largely by grassroots ad hoc committees of Palestinians in the occupied territories not the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized internationally as the political represenatives of the Palestinian people, whose leadership was exiled in Tunisia.
  • Israel's occupying army used brutal violence to suppress the mostly unarmed popular rebellion. Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin infamously ordered Israeli soldiers to break the arms and legs of Palestinians protesters.
  • The First Intifada gradually tapered off as a result of Israeli repression and political co-optation by the PLO, effectively ending by 1993, when the first of the Oslo Accords were signed by Israel and the PLO.

How many Palestinians were killed & imprisoned by Israel during the First Intifada (1987-1993)?

  • Israeli soldiers and settlers killed more than 1,100 Palestinians during the First Intifada, including 250 children
  • More than 100,000 Palestinians were injured, mostly from gunshots, beatings, and tear gas inhalation. According to Save the Children, an estimated 50,000 to 63,000 Palestinian children required medical treatment for injuries sustained in the first two years of the First Intifada alone, including at least 6,500 who were shot by Israeli soldiers.
  • Approximately 120,000 Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel during the First Intifada.
  • In 2000 it was revealed that between 1988 and 1992 Israel's internal secret police, the Shin Bet, systematically tortured Palestinians using methods that went beyond what was allowable under government guidelines for "moderate physical pressure," Israel's official euphemism for torture. The methods included severe beatings, including kicking, violent shaking, tying prisoners into painful positions for long periods, and subjecting them to extreme heat and cold. At least 10 Palestinians were tortured to death and hundreds maimed.

Results of the First Intifada

  • The First Intifada created immense international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, leading to pressure on Israel to finally address Palestinian demands for freedom and self-determination.
  • While initially caught off guard, PLO leaders attempted to harness the First Intifada to push for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories as part of a "two-state solution" in Palestine/Israel. In 1988, the PLO officially recognized the state of Israel. This was a major compromise by the PLO, effectively renouncing claim to the 78% of historic Palestine (see map) that Israel was established on in 1948 through a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
  • Despite this major compromise and pressure from the international community, Israel refused to acknowledge the PLO and rejected peace talks with Palestinian representatives. Frustrated with Israel's intransigence, US Secretary of State James Baker famously read off the White House telephone number during Congressional testimony and told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who wasn't present, "When you're serious about peace, call us."​

The Madrid Conference (1991) & Oslo Accords (1993-2000)

  • Following threats by President George H.W. Bush to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel unless it stopped building illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Shamir finally agreed to meet with Palestinians - but not PLO officials. As a result, talks between Israel and Palestinians based in the occupied territories (who were in close contact with PLO leaders behind the scenes), began in Madrid, Spain, in 1991.
  • Soon afterwards, bypassing the Palestinian representatives from the occupied territories who were insisting on a complete cessation of settlement expansion and adherence to UN resolutions and international law, Israel began secret direct negotiations with the PLO leadership, believing it would be more willing to compromise on issues like settlements and the right of return for refugees expelled from their homes and land during Israel's establishment. 
  • In 1993, the PLO and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1995) exchanged official letters in which the Palestinians recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." In return, Israel only acknowledged the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Crucially, Israel did not recognize or accept the idea of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The exchange of letters paved the way for a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords.
  • The Oslo Accords were supposed to lead to a final peace agreement within five years. However, instead of rolling back its occupation, Israel deepened its control over the lives of Palestinians and massively accelerated the expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Israel also began to impose more severe restrictions on Palestinian movement between Israel and the occupied territories, between the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and within the occupied territories themselves, making life ever more difficult for Palestinians.
  • In October 2000, Palestinian frustration at seven years of Israel dragging out negotiations endlessly while continuing to entrench its brutal occupation and expand its illegal settlements on their land erupted into a second uprising, sparked by a provocative visit by notorious far-right Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Noble Sanctuary mosque complex, the third holiest site in Islam, in occupied East Jerusalem. Sharon is reviled by Palestinians for numerous massacres and other war crimes he was responsible for when he was defense minister and an officer in the Israeli army. 
  • While most of the Second Intifada still consisted of nonviolent resistance, it became more violent than the First Intifada after Israeli soldiers and police used live ammunition on unarmed Palestinian protesters in its early days, killing at least 47 people and wounding around 2,000 others in just the first five days, setting off a downward spiral of events in which Israel’s violent repression was far more deadly. By 2005, when the Second Intifada was largely crushed by Israel, Israeli soldiers had killed more than 3,000 Palestinians, while about 1,000 Israelis were killed. 

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