Today in Middle Eastern history: the First Intifada begins (1987)

In contrast with the Second Intifada, which began with a deliberate provocation when Ariel Sharon and 1000 Israeli police officers marched on to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in September 2000, the First Intifada began almost by chance. On December 8, 1987, an IDF truck crashed into a line of cars stuck at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, killing four Palestinians. This was probably an accident, notwithstanding a pervasive Palestinian belief that it had been an intentional Israeli attack. A demonstration that broke out at the funerals, that evening, turned into mass PLO-led protests throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem the next day, and that turned into nearly four years of violence. Over 2200 people lost their lives, more than 2000 of them Palestinians.

“Palestinian youth starting a fire during the First Intifada” (via

Of course, if you know anything about the history of the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, you know that the First Intifada (the word, intifada, means “shaking” or “awakening,” although now it has come to mean “popular uprising”) didn’t start because of a car accident. That accident was the spark, but the kindling was laid over decades, at least back to the Six Day War in 1967. The occupation following that war shut Palestinians out of all but the most menial jobs, and the combination of strict Israeli restrictions on new construction and the beginnings of the Jewish settler movement combined to force the Palestinians into ever tighter, denser living space. Israeli authorities maintained their control over the Occupied Territories with a combination of violence, intimidation, fear, and pervasive surveillance, adding to a general Palestinian feeling of powerlessness and national humiliation. Large-scale Palestinian demonstrations and isolated acts of violent resistance against the occupation had already begun well before the First Intifada started, and the Israeli response to these actions–generally deportation–fueled Palestinian speculation that the Israeli government was planning to deport all Palestinians from the territories so that it could annex the land completely.

The Intifada was unprecedented both for the size and scope of the uprising and for the fact that Israel’s usual tactics for stifling Palestinian protest–police brutality, collective punishment like home demolition, deportations, curfews, etc.–had little effect apart from deepening Palestinian resolve. The one thing that did prove effective was the Israeli effort to cultivate thousands of informants and collaborators among the Palestinian population. This wasn’t effective so much in terms of the information it provided to Israeli authorities, but for the level of mistrust and infighting that the existence of those collaborators created among the Palestinians. Of the 2000+ Palestinians who died as a result of the Intifada, over 800 of them were killed by their fellow Palestinians, and this infighting eventually took a lot of the steam out of the uprising.

Ultimately the uprising ended with the opening of an Israel-Palestine peace conference in Madrid on October 30, 1991, although some people argue that it continued through the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Given how little has actually changed for the Palestinians since 1987, except insofar as things have gotten worse, it’s hard to argue that the uprising achieved anything of significance. However, it did bring global attention to the Palestinian struggle, and it clearly established the PLO as the closest thing the Palestinians had to a political leadership. PLO leader Yasser Arafat used that prestige to moderate the PLO’s position on several key points, like the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and of the two-state solution as the ultimate goal of peace talks. Those concessions helped create the conditions for the Oslo Accords, and even though we now realize that Oslo was doomed to fail almost from the start, at the time these thing seemed like a very big deal.

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3 thoughts on “Today in Middle Eastern history: the First Intifada begins (1987)

  1. Funny you should mention this.

    Just yesterday the local Hasbarat in the county paper was shrilling that Jimmy Carter is totally ignorant of world history and took it upon himself to lecture us – in the unfortunate absence of President Carter – on Israel’s alleged three thousand unbroken years as a modern nation-state as distinct from the TOTAL FRAUD THAT IS THE VERY IDEA OF THIS SO-CALLED “PALESTINE.”

    He didn’t mention anything about any Intifada, of any number, so it must be some kind of trivial coincidence.

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