The First Intifada

The content and consequences of the 1987 Palestinian uprising.

Reprinted with permission from A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Times published by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Accident That Sparked the Intifada

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 30 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 teargas canisters and even live ammunition into threatening crowds.

The PLO Reacts

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.

Civil Disobedience

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 60,000 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.

Economic Impact

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 700,000 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.

Effect on Israel’s Public Image and Palestinian Daily Life

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 300,000 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.

The Mossad Reacts

At its most sophisticated level of security intelligence, Israeli retaliation focused on the suspected PLO “brains” of the intifada. Thus, in February 1988, Mossad agents tracked down three of the Fatah’s principal military commanders in Limassol, Cyprus, and assassinated them. Two months later, another group of Mossad operatives was landed off the coast of Tunis by sea, then made its way to the suburban headquarters of “Abu Jihad,” Arafat’s deputy and the mastermind of innumerable acts of guerrilla violence against Israel over the years. Shooting their way in, the commandos cut down Abu Jihad and seventeen of his associates. Meanwhile, in Palestine itself, Israeli Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic security agency] personnel continued the hunt for PLO and Hamas militants, arresting and occasionally killing their prey in sudden break‑ins and firefights.

Discover More

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.