The First Intifada was a grassroots uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Intifada is an Arabic word for “civil uprising” that literally means “shaking off.”
It began on 9 December 1987 in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip, when an Israeli truck crashed into two vans carrying Palestinian workers killing four of them. This event served as a catalyst sparking rebellions throughout the occupied territories.
No single person or organization was responsible for the uprising and in fact it caught the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) by surprise. Palestinian youths, tired of Israel’s repressive policies in the occupied territories, carried the Intifada. They were directed by the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, which was a coalition of the PLO’s four main parties operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestine People’s Party (PPP). The Intifada aimed to end the Israeli occupation and establish Palestinian independence.
Palestinians were frustrated and angry with Israel’s increasingly oppressive and colonialist policies towards them. Palestinians were forced to pay taxes to Israel, while they were subject to army raids, random detentions, and denied basic civil rights. Their collective national aspiration for their own state was also denied. These injustices were compounded by Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Palestinians’ frustration had been simmering for years and the deaths of the Palestinians in Gaza on 9 December 1987 made it boil over.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians engaged in a variety of civil disobedience, including: strikes, demonstrations, refusal to pay taxes, and boycotts of Israeli products. Israel responded harshly, closing Palestinian schools, making mass arrests, imposing closure and curfew, and shutting down demonstrations with brutal force. In 1990 former Israeli Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin (who would later sign the Oslo accords with the PLO) famously ordered his soldiers to “break the bones” of the demonstrators. From 1987 to 1991 Israeli forces killed over 1,100 Palestinians, many of who were children, and injured tens of thousands.
The Intifada attracted International attention. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 605 condemned Israel for the large number of Palestinian deaths that occurred in the first weeks of the Intifada as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. News coverage of the uprising – depicting stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers confronting armed soldiers – also generated new international sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
The Intifada demonstrated to the world the legitimate national sentiments of the Palestinian people. It paved the way for future negations between Israel and the PLO culminating in the Oslo Accords.