The First Intifada

The content and consequences of the 1987 Palestinian uprising.


Until the events of September 2000, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987 was simply known as the Intifada (lit." shaking of" in Arabic). However, there is now a need to differentiate between uprisings. Intifada I began in December 1987; Intifada II began in September 2000.

The following article explores the causes and consequences of the beginnings of Intifada I. It is reprinted with permission from A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Times published by Alfred A. Knopf.

On December 8, 1987, an Israeli civilian truck driver lost control of his vehicle as he passed the Gaza enclave’s large refugee encampment of Jabaliya. The truck smashed into an oncoming automobile filled with local Arabs, killing four of them. Instantly riots broke out, this time of unprecedented magnitude. Wielding knives and axes and hurling rocks, huge throngs soon overwhelmed the single, isolated detachment of Israeli troops. The soldiers responded with tear gas and gunfire, wounding thirty Arabs and killing one. The crowds finally dispersed. The next day, however, violent demonstrations erupted on the West Bank, in Nablus and the Balta refugee camp. Again military gunfire inflicted several casualties. During the ensuing week, additional thousands of troops had to be rushed in to confront riots that were exploding elsewhere throughout the territories, assuming the character of a spontaneous mass intifada, an "awakening." 

In Jerusalem, the bubble of Mayor Teddy Kollek’s famed coexistence burst almost immediately. Police had to erect roadblocks on the streets connecting West and East Jerusalem. As Arab youths hurled stones at neighboring Jewish residences, Israeli troop reinforcements, confused and frightened, often overreacted, clubbing indiscriminately, firing tear‑gas canisters and even live ammunition into threatening crowds.

In Tunis, meanwhile, the PLO’s Fatah command had been caught as much by surprise as had the Israelis by the explosion of Palestinian rage and violence. Nevertheless, their representatives in the West Bank and Gaza moved rapidly to take control and direction of the uprising. In the effort, they worked closely with the various local resistance committees that swiftly coalesced out of the network of earlier professional and self‑help organizations. Veterans of mutual support, these trade unions, youth groups, feminist societies, and lawyers, academic, and student associations soon proved highly effective in offering information on Israeli police or troop movements, in providing legal counsel, medical care, hiding places, printing facilities, weapons caches. Possibly the women’s committees emerged as the biggest surprise of the intifada. Shielded from the harsher forms of military repression, they were able to establish child‑care centers, to visit prisoners’ families, and to provide food and clothing. When West Bank schools were closed in 1988, it was the women who organized makeshift classes in mosques, churches, and homes.

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Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.

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