The First Intifada

The content and consequences of the 1987 Palestinian uprising.

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In the end, however, civil disobedience proved to be the intifada's most effective weapon. It took the form initially of mass strikes by the commuting West Bank and Gaza work force‑upward of sixty thousand laborers. A total stoppage could not be sustained for more than seven months. Nevertheless, within the territories themselves, thousands of Palestinian civil servants quit their jobs. Palestinian merchants and artisans closed their shops and workrooms three hours each day. Businessmen ceased paying their scheduled taxes to Israel, while the population in its entirety boycotted Israeli products. The damage to the Palestinian economy in lost wages and other income was grave, even critical.

But the disruption of Israel's own economy was also very serious. As early as February 1988, the cost of augmented military forces in the territories reached $5 million a day. Losses to the Israeli business sector were much heavier, reaching $19 million daily. For lack of commuting Arab labor, Israel's construction industry and its largest citrus plantations were all but paralyzed for more than half a year. Tourism suffered a 50 percent drop by midsummer of 1988. Meanwhile, the Bank of Israel reported that, by the end of 1988, the Palestinian boycott had cost Israel $650 million in export losses, including "exports" to the Palestine common market.                       

Neither did the intifada leave the seven hundred thousand Arab citizens of Israel unaffected. As early as December 21, 1987, a solidarity "Day of Peace" became the occasion for a vast public outpouring. From Jaffa to Haifa to Nazareth, local Arabs waved PLO flags and stoned and cursed passing Jewish automobiles. Even Negev Bedouin joined in, erecting roadblocks, burning tires, and hurtling rocks at police.

The [Jewish] Israeli public was stunned‑and terrified. It was humiliated, too, in its public image. Indeed, the uprising may have achieved its greatest success in the realm of world opinion. In their stone‑throwing, barricade‑erecting, and tire‑burning, the demonstrators very swiftly learned to alert foreign newsmen in advance, to ensure broad television and other journalistic coverage of Israeli repression. Less thoroughly reported were Palestinian killings and sexual mutilations of suspected local Arab informers. By the end of 1989, however, fully a third of the 2,700 attacks carried out by Palestinian activists were perpetrated against fellow Arabs.

Israeli countermeasures did not err on the side of restraint. Nightly curfews were imposed on Palestinian towns and villages. Even later, upon resuming their daily treks into integral Israel, Arab commuting workers were carefully screened for new registration cards, then obliged to undergo time‑consuming, often exhausting border examinations. When schools were closed in violence‑prone Arab communities, some three hundred thousand children were affected. Despite the best efforts of Arab women's committees, numerous secondary‑school pupils were unable to take their matriculation examinations, and accordingly were denied a possible higher education. Indeed, for more than four years, until early 1992, the West Bank's six largest colleges were themselves shut down for reasons of violent student protest. Birzeit [University] eventually conducted some of its classes at the homes of teachers, in mosques and churches, even in apartments and rented stores. It was an inadequate alternative; students were not permitted use of such vital campus facilities as libraries or laboratories.

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Howard Sachar

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.