The First Intifada

Xander Byng, Dickson College, 2010

The following essay was written in response to the question: 'What were the causes of the First Intifada?' It was submitted as part of the the Modern Middle East unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

The First Intifada was the Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in December 1987. Aside from the religious, political and territorial conflict that had heightened tension in the region for decades, there were some short term causes and triggers for the violent uprising. One long term cause was the issue of Israeli presence and settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, two areas that had been occupied by the Israelis in the 1967 war. These territories were amongst those included in the United Nations (UN) Resolution 242, which requested the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” (UN 1967). The issue was, however, that Israelis continued to settle in these areas and had no intention to cease settlement. As well as the issue of settlement and occupation, a stronger sense of Palestinian nationalism was a product of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) defeat and expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. The economic hardships and low quality of living in the occupied territories due to government policies also pushed the Palestinians to rise up against the controlling Israelis. The main trigger for the First Intifada was the stabbing of an Israeli in the Gaza Strip and the subsequent road accident in a Gaza refugee camp. There were a number of other contributing causes, notably the lack of attention the Palestinians were receiving from their Arab neighbours due to the Iran-Iraq war. These frustrations were shared by the whole Palestinian community; with a larger sense of Palestinian nationalism, organisations such as the PLO were handed more power to conduct the uprising against Israel.

The issue of land ownership and occupation was perhaps the most widespread and long term cause of the First Intifada. Unlawful occupation, control and settlement of territories in which the Arab population were not adequately cared for pushed the Arabs a step closer to taking the fight to the Israelis. In June 1967, Israel seized all of the surrounding regions of Palestine and some of Syria, Jordan and Egypt during the Six Day War. After the war, the UN requested that Israel withdraw from their newly acquired territories and recognise “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area” (UN 1967). Resolution 242 was approved but Israel’s occupation in the territories continued. In the twenty years following these events, up until the First Intifada, Israel made their presence felt in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, two of the areas included in the resolution. Brynen (1991, 1) provides evidence of this in his book Echoes of the Intifada: Regional Repercussions of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict:

In addition to the constant presence of the Israeli Defence Forces, some 67 500 settlers now made their homes in more than one hundred and thirty settlements.

The large Israeli presence in these territories, primarily the West Bank, caused much frustration amongst the Arabs in these regions. In a 1986 survey, 85% of the Arab population living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip considered their quality of life to be poor (Brynen 1991) and attempted improvements, including an economy revival, were shut down by the Israeli government. One extreme case of this was when the proposed building of a cement factory that would create jobs for Arabs in the West Bank was rejected by the occupying government (Aronson 1990). The control the Israelis had over land that was not lawfully theirs frustrated the Palestinians, as did the Israeli movement that called for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be annexed just as the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were by 1982. According to Don Peretz (1990, 27), some claimed it essentially already belonged to the Jews:

After twenty years of occupation, many observers asserted that for all practical purposes the West Bank with its 60 000 Jewish settlers and its 800 000 indigenous Arabs had been annexed.

Israel had clear intentions to continue mass settlement into Palestinian territory for many years following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. A prominent Israeli politician, Michael Pekel, had said that by 1987 there would be one hundred thousand Jews in the West Bank (Aronson 1990). Geoffrey Aronson also wrote that the World Zionist Organisation predicted that there would be approximately one million three hundred thousand Jews in the West Bank by 2013. Goals and predictions such as these “intensified Arab anxieties about the intentions of the Israeli government” (Peretz 1990). An Israeli government policy dubbed the “Iron Fist” was approved by the Israeli cabinet on the 4th of August 1985. The defence minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was considered to be the architect of the policy, which essentially toughened policing of Palestinians in the occupied territories (Aronson 1990). This policy was further suppression of Palestinian rights, and led to a greater need for action in the years leading up to the First Intifada.

A series of murders are considered to be the direct cause of the First Intifada, when tensions finally boiled over. On the 6th of December 1987 an Israeli shopkeeper, Shlomo Takal, was stabbed to death in the Gaza Strip by a man who was presumed to be Palestinian (Fisher 1987). Two days later, an Israeli truck hit two vans in the Gaza Strip’s largest refugee camp Jabaliya, killing four Palestinians. These deaths were considered to be the most significant “sparks” (Aronson 1990) of the First Intifada, but according to Fisher (1987), there were other murders that were “linked to Arab-Israeli tension in the Gaza Strip.” Rumours soon spread that the driver of the truck that killed the four Palestinians was a relative of Takal seeking revenge, and riots began to break out in the Gaza Strip on the 9th of December (Isseroff 2008). The outbreak of the First Intifada seemed inevitable, yet these events are considered to be its true sparks.

Although the First Intifada was essentially a disorganised revolt by people from all over the occupied territories, it became an uprising that was partially coordinated by a number of prominent groups and people. The PLO did not have any initial involvement, but as a group that supported the same causes as the First Intifada, quickly helped coordinate aggression towards Israeli soldiers and civilians. Offshoots of the PLO directed at the First Intifada also appeared:

The PLO-dominated Unified Leadership of the Intifada… frequently issued leaflets dictating which days violence was to be escalated, and who was to be its target”. (PalestineFacts 2010)

Isseroff (2008) states, “Sari Nusseibeh of the Fatah… relates that he and other friends soon set up an underground printing press and distribution network”. Rather than being directly caused by certain people and organisations, the First Intifada was supported by them, which helped it spread and become a more powerful and effective rebellion.

After the initial events of the First Intifada, the rebellion spread throughout the territories occupied by Israelis. Despite the eruption of violence in the Gaza Strip being the trigger for the uprising, a sense of Palestinian nationalism helped push the revolt to other Palestinian regions. This movement had been revitalised in the early 1980s when Israel invaded Lebanon and expelled the PLO, the secular nationalist representative of the Palestinian people. Ariel Sharon, the Defence Minister in 1982, wanted to force the Palestinians to comply with Israel by removing the PLO from nearby areas. The Israeli government’s intentions failed, as “it led Palestinians in the territories to conclude that only the PLO held hope for future salvation” (Peretz 1990). Support for the PLO grew and Palestinians began a reignited struggle to regain their occupied territory. The origins in Palestinian nationalism lie in Arab nationalism; hundreds of years ago the Arab people united for liberation from the Ottoman Empire (Kuttab 2009). Similarly, the Palestinian Arabs strive for a solution to Israeli occupation. The 1987 Intifada and the Palestinian nationalism movement propelled each other to become more widespread and successful revolutions.

The international attention given to the Iran-Iraq war was a more insignificant cause of the First Intifada. In the late nineteen eighties, the Iran-Iraq war was coming to a close and international attention was on this conflict, rather than the Palestinian struggle. Lockman and Beinin (1989, 5) outline the situation:

A month earlier [than the First Intifada], an Arab summit meeting in Amman had resolved the usual moral support for the cause of Palestine, although the various kings and presidents had also indicated that their primary interest was not Palestine but the Iran-Iraq war… the occupied territories had already had twenty years of a regime designed to suppress, humiliate and perpetually disenfranchise Palestinians, and that the likelihood of an outside force actually improving the situation had gradually disappeared. Instead the situation for Palestinians had gotten worse, and their sense of embattled loneliness, even abandonment, had increased… An intensification of resistance therefore seemed required.

This is an example of how relatively minor things can stack up to cause larger problems, as stated above. The “partial demotion of Palestine” (Lockman & Beinin 1989) by their fellow Arabs preceding the First Intifada caused heightened tensions and called for action to be taken into Palestinian hands, which is what happened a month after the Arab summit in the form of the First Intifada.

The First Intifada was a foreseeable uprising against a force that had unlawfully controlled the Palestinian people for decades. International attempts to balance the situation had failed, and attention was being directed elsewhere, away from the Palestinian cause. Israelis were creating new settlements and immigrating into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the thousands; Israeli government policies called for and predicted yet more settlement into the nineteen eighties and beyond. Action was needed and after a number of minor incidents, built up tension overflowed and spread across the occupied Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation gained power, as did many other organisations opposed to the Israeli occupation alongside the revived Palestinian nationalist movement. A newly united Palestine fought for their land and their rights. As Peter Boullata put it in his poem ‘Intifada’, the Palestinians were “a people willing to die on their feet, rather than live on their knees”.


Literary sources

Aronson, Geoffrey 1990, Israel, Palestinians and the Intifada: Creating Facts on the West Bank, Kegan Paul International Limited, London
A very comprehensive, easy to understand book relevant to the topic. Used more broadly than any other source. Covered the PLO’s struggle and the effects of that on the Palestinian people, as well as details on settlements and government policies in the 80s, before the Intifada.

Brynen, Rex (editor) 1991, Echoes of the Intifada: Regional Repercussions of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Westview Press Inc., Colorado/Oxford
Introduction was the only particularly relevant part, but had great figures on settlement and government intentions.

Lockman, Zachary & Beinin, Joel (editors) 1989, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising against Israeli occupation, South End Press, Boston
Relevant introduction, but not really used past that. Interesting quote on the Iran-Iraq war as an example of deviated international attention and how it made the Palestinian community feel demoted and abandoned. Quoted in essay. Also the source of the poem by Peter Boullata, which was at the beginning of the book.

Peretz, Don 1990, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising, Westview Press Inc., Colorado/London
Great information on the Palestinian nationalist movement, the Lebanon invasion, the PLO etc. Israeli intentions are included.

Boullata, Peter (n.d), ‘Intifada’ (poem) (in Lockman & Beinin’s book)

United Nations 1967 (web version), Resolution 242 (sighted 23/10/10)

Fisher, Dan 1987, [[ |Dismantle Settlements in Gaza, Peres Proposes]], Los Angeles Times 2010 (article originally from Time) (sighted 28/10/10)
Discusses incidents leading up to the outbreak of the Intifada – an interesting perspective on the building tensions, as it is the day before violence breaks out in Gaza.

Iran Chamber Society 2001-2010, Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (sighted 28/10/10)

Isseroff, Ami 2008, Intifada, MidEastWeb (sighted 29/10/10)

PalestineFacts 2010, What was the nature of the Intifada from 1987-1993? (sighted 29/10/10)
Information on the Intifada and the Unified Leadership of the Intifada

Kuttab, Daoud 2009, Palestinian nationalism, Common Ground News Service (sighted 30/10/10)