In 1987 the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had endured for twenty years. In 1967, the Israelis captured (among other places) the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, both of which were all that remained of former historic Palestine, and both had large Palestinian populations of refugees and indigenous residents.
During that time, under both Labor and Likud governments, Palestinians had been subjected to humiliating occupation policies—known to Israelis as the "Iron Fist"—designed to prevent the possibility of collective political action. Israeli authorities acted to suppress Palestinian political, social, and economic activity and institution-building by means of school and university closings, press censorship, curfews, control of travel, arbitrary arrests, deportations, home demolitions, limited access to markets and other restrictions on trade, border closings, destruction of agricultural property such as orchards and olive groves, and general harassment. Israel also established numerous permanent settlements in the territories, confiscated land and other property, took control of water resources, and established a physical infrastructure of roads and public works for the use of Israelis only. Israel also annexed and formally incorporated East Jerusalem and surrounding areas. The effect of these policies was not only to impoverish Palestinians and severely damage Palestinian society, but to establish "facts on the ground" that would make it difficult for any future Israeli government to agree to withdraw from the territories. At the same time, the Palestinian issue seemed to be disappearing from the official consciousness of the Arab world; the Arab League summit of November 1987 in Amman devoted almost no attention to it (the Iran-Iraq War was the primary issue).
When the cumulative humiliation, anger, and frustration of the Palestinians came to a head beginning in December 1987 in the popular rebellion against the occupation that came to be known as the (first) Intifada ("uprising"; literally "shaking off"), the intensity of the outrage was almost uncontainable. The Intifada began on 8 December 1987 in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Four Palestinians were killed and seven injured by an Israel Defense Force (IDF) truck that crashed into a line of cars at a border checkpoint. That evening a demonstration involving thousands arose spontaneously and continued over several days. Protests arose and spread rapidly in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. There were clashes with the IDF, which responded with tear gas and live ammunition against stone-throwing demonstrators, mostly young and many of them children (this early phase became known as "the war of stones"), killing twenty-four of them by the end of December.
Neighborhood committees were soon organized, taking upon themselves the responsibility to provide social services, including health care and schooling, as well as to carry out acts of resistance. These began to coordinate their activities through a national structure, the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), which incorporated local members of Fatah, the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). These new leaders, mostly young and having grown up under the occupation, became known as "Palestinians from inside." The established leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then in exile in Tunis—"Palestinians from outside"—was surprised by these developments but soon began to provide assistance to (and attempted to exercise some control over) the spontaneous, populist movement of resistance.
In January 1988, members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza organized the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or HAMAS), which worked independently of the UNLU. The UNLU and HAMAS operated by means, at first, of anonymously printed leaflets (bayanat), and then of electronically distributed texts that were reproduced and distributed locally, with instructions and directives. Most called for nonviolent acts of civil
disobedience, including boycotts, withholding of labor and taxes, general strikes, and demonstrations. As Israeli responses increased in severity, however, violence was often the result. Administrative measures included university closings, increased numbers of house demolitions, confiscation and destruction of agricultural land in the name of "security," mass arrests, curfews sometimes lasting for as much as a week at a time, and other forms of collective punishment. The IDF, encouraged publicly by the government to "break their bones," attacked demonstrators with beatings, tear gassings, and use of both rubber bullets and live ammunition. Palestinians were also attacked by armed settlers (it is estimated that about three hundred were killed by settlers, rather than by the IDF, during the Intifada). As the Intifada wore on, economic damage increased for both sides, and violence became more widespread, not only between Israelis and Palestinians but among Palestinians themselves. Fighters attacked the IDF; suspected collaborators were killed; rival factions fought among themselves. Islamic groups became prominent in Palestinian affairs for the first time. After the first four years, the Intifada was less coherent, but the disorder threatened both sides.
Yasir Arafat had been suggesting for some time that he was willing to negotiate a compromise solution to the Palestinian issue, but the Israelis had been unresponsive, instead pursuing policies intended to achieve permanent possession of the territories, with apparent success: by 1987 the Palestinian population seemed helpless to resist, the occupation was not disrupting Israeli society, and the PLO had been severely weakened by the IDF and its Lebanese proxies during the early 1980s. The Intifada, however, brought the message that suppression of Palestinian national feeling could not continue indefinitely, or at least not without an unacceptably high price. Images of the Intifada, particularly those of Palestinian adolescents confronting armed Israeli soldiers with stones, had a significant impact on public opinion, both Israeli and international. Though the Intifada provoked extreme responses—some, particularly among the settlers, revived the idea of deportation ("transfer") of all Palestinians—Israeli public opinion shifted in the direction of negotiations. In July 1988, King Hussein renounced all of Jordan's legal and administrative claims and responsibilities in the West Bank (including canceling the Jordanian citizenship of all West Bank Palestinians), thus leaving the PLO as the only institution with a plausible claim to represent Palestinian interests.
In November 1988, at the urging of Arafat, the Palestine National Council (PNC), meeting in Algiers, adopted a program favoring a peaceful settlement with Israel, based on UN Resolutions 181 and 242. Arafat was proposing Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza—the two-state solution. He reiterated this position before the UN General Assembly in Geneva the next month, explicitly accepting coexistence with Israel. The dangerous conditions represented by the Intifada and the Gulf War of 1991 led to the Madrid Conference on Middle East Peace. The Israelis continued to refuse to talk directly with Arafat or other representatives of the PLO, but shortly after the June 1992 Israeli elections a new government led by Yitzhak Rabin, elected on a platform of "land for peace," began the secret negotiations with it that led to the Oslo Accords. The Intifada began to die down around the time of the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Washington, D.C., in September 1993. Estimates of casualties vary by source; according to Bʾtselem, the Israeli human rights organization, from 8 December 1987 to 13 September 1993, 1205 Palestinians and 172 Israelis were killed; about 175,000 Palestinians were arrested.
SEE ALSO Arafat, Yasir; Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Fatah, al-; Gaza Strip; Gulf War (1991); HAMAS; Hussein ibn Talal; Iran-Iraq War; League of Arab States; Madrid Conference; Oslo Accords; Palestine National Council; Palestinian Communist Party; Rabin, Yitzhak; Resolution 181; Resolution 242; West Bank.