In December 1987, the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza started a mass uprising against the Israeli occupation. This uprising, or intifada (which means “shaking off” in Arabic), was not started or orchestrated by the PLO leadership in Tunis. Rather, it was a popular mobilization that drew on the organizations and institutions that had developed under occupation. The intifada involved hundreds of thousands of people, many with no previous resistance experience, including children, teenagers and women. For the first few years, it involved many forms of civil disobedience, including massive demonstrations, general strikes, refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli products, political graffiti and the establishment of underground schools (since regular schools were closed by the military as reprisals for the uprising). It also included stone throwing, Molotov cocktails and the erection of barricades to impede the movement of Israeli military forces.
Intifada activism was organized through popular committees under the umbrella of the United National Leadership of the Uprising. The UNLU was a coalition of the four PLO parties active in the Occupied Territories: Fatah, the PFLP, the DFLP and the PPP. This broad-based resistance drew unprecedented international attention to the situation facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and challenged the occupation as never before.
Under the leadership of Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, Israel tried to smash the intifada with “force, power and blows.” Army commanders instructed troops to break the bones of demonstrators. From 1987 to 1991 Israeli forces killed over 1,000 Palestinians, including over 200 under the age of 16. By 1990, most of the UNLU leaders had been arrested and the intifada lost its cohesive force, although it continued for several more years. Political divisions and violence within the Palestinian community escalated, especially the growing rivalry between the various PLO factions and Islamist organizations (Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Palestinian militants killed over 250 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the occupation authorities and about 100 Israelis during this period.
The intifada shifted the center of gravity of Palestinian political initiative from the PLO leadership in Tunis to the Occupied Territories.
Although the intifada did not bring an end to the occupation, it made clear that the status quo was untenable. The intifada shifted the center of gravity of Palestinian political initiative from the PLO leadership in Tunis to the Occupied Territories. Palestinian activists in the Occupied Territories demanded that the PLO adopt a clear political program to guide the struggle for independence. In response, the Palestine National Council (a Palestinian government-in-exile), convened in Algeria in November 1988, recognized the state of Israel, proclaimed an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and renounced terrorism. The Israeli government did not respond to these gestures, claiming that nothing had changed and that the PLO was a terrorist organization with which it would never negotiate. The US did acknowledge that the PLO’s policies had changed, but did little to encourage Israel to abandon its intransigent stand.
Published January 2001