The First Intifada: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Was Transformed

What began as a series of local demonstrations shifted the focal point of the Palestinian national struggle from the 'outside' to the 'inside'.

Avraham Sela
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Avraham Sela

The first intifada erupted 25 years ago. What started as local demonstrations snowballed into a sweeping popular uprising that did not die down until the convening of the Madrid peace conference at the end of 1991. The intifada reinvigorated the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was at a low ebb in its history after its forced evacuation from Lebanon and the concomitant loss of the military and political option. More important, the intifada shifted the focal point of the Palestinian national struggle from the “outside” to the “inside.”

Following Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, the intifada underscored the transformation undergone by the Israeli-Arab conflict. No longer international, it now became an internal ethno-national conflict playing out within one geographic unit. The Palestinization of the Israeli-Arab conflict called for new modes of thought and action, and their absence would become a liability in the management of the Oslo process.

The intifada was a total intelligence surprise, and even when it persisted, security personnel and decision makers failed to grasp its significance. Contrary to the claim by the government of Yitzhak Shamir that the PLO initiated the intifada it was a spontaneous outburst caused by economic, social and national factors alike.

To this day there is no good explanation for the intifada’s vitality and survivability in the face of the price it exacted from the Palestinians in human life and material resources. Financial aid from the Arab states to the Palestinians was minimal and of secondary importance. It was mainly women’s organizations, workers and students who preserved the revolutionary ardor and social solidarity.

The PLO, whose leaders were in Tunisia, were quick to jump on the bandwagon and try, with only partial success, to rein in the horses, which threatened to wrest control of events from the organization. From the outset the intifada had two heads. One, with its center in Jerusalem, was secular and led by public figures academics, journalists and members of the “free professions” (lawyers, engineers, physicians and others). This was the United National Leadership, and it included all the organizations within the PLO framework. The united leadership limited the uprising to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and for the most part made do with the use of stones and Molotov cocktails.

The second head was Islamist-jihadist in character, in the form of a newly created movement in Gaza, called Hamas, which presented itself as a national, ideological and organizational alternative to the PLO. Hamas called on the Palestinians to abide by the basic goals of the Palestinian national struggle, above all the liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

The new movement injected Islamic meaning into the strategy and tactics of the struggle and extended the campaign into Israel. The threat Hamas posed to Israel and the PLO under Yasser Arafat played a major role in setting in motion the process that brought about the end of the Oslo Accords.

The fomenters of the intifada represented a generation that grew up in the shadow of the Israeli occupation, with all its internal contradictions: between an “enlightened occupation” and threatening Jewish settlement. Some Palestinians adopted the idea of nonviolence, which guided the uprising in its initial stage, but this approach ultimately collapsed under the weight of the violence and counterviolence.

The popular character of the intifada generated unprecedented international sympathy for the Palestinians and their struggle against the Israeli occupation. This was the Palestinians’ “finest hour” and enabled them to add a creative new chapter to the epic of their national struggle.

At the same time, the uprising contained seeds of self-destruction. The longer it lasted, the more it shifted from civil rebellion demonstrations, work strikes and a boycott of Israeli products to increasingly uncontrolled violence against both Israel and internal “traitors.”

Indeed, internal terror gradually assumed serious dimensions, recalling the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. The more violent the uprising became, the more it justified greater use of force by Israel. Still, in comparison with the murderousness of the second intifada at the beginning of this century, the first round almost evokes a feeling of nostalgia.

The intifada deepened the political rift between the Arabs in Israel and the Jewish state. For the first time, Arab national parties were established that were not satellites of a Zionist party, and with time they won the support of the majority of the Arab electorate. Still, the Arabs in Israel maintained a separation between their emotional solidarity with their brethren across the Green Line and their participation in protest activity, still less violent activity.

The success of the intifada can hardly be exaggerated. It brought about renewed American diplomacy to further an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian settlement. Less than a year after it erupted, King Hussein of Jordan was compelled to declare his country’s disengagement from the West Bank.

This put an end to the illusion of a “Jordanian option” as a way to solve the Palestinian question, and left the PLO as the sole legitimate claimant to the territory. The immediate result was a declaration of independence by the Palestinians in November 1988, in Algeria, followed by the start of an American-Palestinian dialogue, even if this proved short-lived and produced no results.

Following these developments, Israel’s national unity government came out with a peace initiative in May 1989, which for the first time in the history of the conflict categorized the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the primary side in negotiations for the future of those areas. It was the first and last time that an Israeli government responded to the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising by expressing readiness for dialogue (though the hard hand did not disappear). Even if this was a stratagem to gain time and lessen international pressure on Israel, it was followed not long afterward by the opening of a dialogue with representatives of the territories at the Madrid conference. From there the way was short to the creation of a back channel to the PLO, which led to the Oslo Accords.

The Palestinian uprising reminded the Israeli public of the ongoing problem of the future of the territories and their inhabitants. They had been under Israeli occupation for two decades even if the Military Government had been replaced by the Civil Administration at the start of the second decade with no sign of a political solution. The Israeli public’s sensitivity to the image of the army and its mode of suppressing the uprising was a restraining factor that influenced Israeli politics. In time, though, that influence vanished.

The intifada gave rise to militant slogans that would also accompany the second intifada and the evacuation from the Gaza Strip. Among these were “Let the IDF win,” and the denunciation of anything that did not meet the settlers’ needs as “not Jewish.”

The army was obliged to reinvent itself and adopt “moderate” methods of suppressing a civil rebellion. The result was the use of rubber bullets, the gravel thrower and other means. In time, the army’s combat ability was downgraded, as its regular units were routinely employed in frustrating and hopeless policing activity.

The processes that engendered the intifada gave rise to a definitive description of the boundaries of the Palestinian geographical and communal space: a state comprising the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. This had the result of shunting aside the refugee population in the Arab states and the diaspora, and effectively ruling out the possibility that they would be able to realize their “right of return” to the territory of Israel. In this sense, despite the prolonged deadlock in the political process since 2000, the PLO effectively shrank into the Palestinian Authority, and the political aim of the Palestinian national movement was fixed at establishing a state on 22 percent of the territory of Mandate Palestine. This goal is also accepted by Hamas, even if for internal Palestinian political reasons, Hamas tends to oscillate between a revolutionary Islamic vision and a practical state approach.

Prof. Avraham Sela is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research fellow of the university’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers order Gazans to clear up a road block, a few weeks into the first intifada, in December 1987.Credit: AP

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