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

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In contrast with the Second Intifada, which Israeli politician Ariel Sharon deliberately provoked when he and 1000 Israeli police officers marched on to the Haram al-Sharif in September 2000, the First Intifada (the Arabic word means “popular uprising”) began almost by chance. On December 8, 1987, an Israeli Defense Forces truck crashed into a line of cars stuck at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, killing four Palestinians. This was probably an accident, notwithstanding a pervasive Palestinian belief that it had been an intentional IDF attack. A demonstration that broke out at the funerals that evening turned into mass Palestine Liberation Organization-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.

Of course, this uprising didn’t really start because of a car accident. The accident was the spark, but the kindling was laid over decades, going back at least as far as the Six Day War in 1967. The Israeli occupation following that war shut Palestinians out of all but the most menial jobs, and the combination of strict 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 surveillance, adding to a general Palestinian feeling of powerlessness and national humiliation. Large-scale demonstrations and isolated acts of violent resistance against the occupation had already begun well before December 1987, and the usual Israeli response to these actions, deportation, fueled Palestinian speculation that the Israeli government was planning to ethnically cleanse 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 policy wasn’t effective so much in terms of the information it provided to Israeli authorities, but for the level of mistrust it fueled among the Palestinians. Of the 2000+ Palestinians who died during 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 as political cover to moderate the PLO’s position on several key points, like the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. Such concessions helped create the conditions for the Oslo Accords. Although we now realize that Oslo was doomed to fail almost from the start, at the time these things seemed like steps, albeit tentative ones, toward peace