The First Intifada: A grassroots movement

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The First Intifada, or uprising, differed greatly from the intense violence and bloodshed seen in the Second Intifada. Even without the same level of violence, the events from 1987-1993 completely altered Israeli history. Noam Weissman asks what caused the Intifada, how it shifted the Arab-Israeli relationship and why it changed Israel’s reputation on the global stage forever.

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Episode Transcript

Intifada. What does this word mean? What does it evoke?

For many Palestinians, they might hear the word “intifada” and associate it with words like resistance, freedom, revolution, and maybe even liberation. For many Israelis, they might hear the word “intifada” and think of “fear,” “terrorism,” and “violence.”

If when you hear “intifada” you think of  intense and horrific bloodshed – suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings, you’re probably thinking about the second intifada in the early 21st century. Those were bloody, violent years that saw over 1100 Israelis killed — the vast majority of them civilians and 8000 wounded. The Palestinians saw over 4,900 deaths and over 8,500 wounded. But this episode is about the First Intifada, which began in the late 80s and was very different from the second. Due to a multitude of factors including the intensity of the violence of the second Intifada, and the recency of it, I think most people tend to think of this time period when they hear the word “Intifada.” 

The way I see it – while the second intifada and the imagery it evokes is what many of us remember, it is actually the first intifada that changed Israeli history forever. 

By the late 1980s, Israel had fought and won several major wars with its Arab neighbors and even made peace with Egypt. Things were looking pretty good. Israel controlled Judea and Samaria – the West Bank, which also contained a sizeable population of Palestinian Arabs, as well as Gaza, which had a million plus Palestinian residents. 

In many ways, things were looking relatively good. There were meeting points and moments of coexistence between the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Israelis would drive to the West Bank to buy spices from Palestinian shops, there were Palestinians who worked with Jewish Israelis, and Israelis might have thought all was good, but something was brewing.

On December 8, 1987, an Israeli truck driver caused a motor accident in the Gaza strip in which four Palestinians were killed. Amongst many Palestinians, rumors spread like wildfire that this accident was a deliberate act on the part of the Israeli civilian, because he happened to be related to a young Israeli who was just killed by Palestinans a few days prior.

The funeral took place the day after the accident in the Jabalya refugee camp – and what started as a procession and event of mourning turned into mass demonstrations. Over the next 10 days, riots erupted throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This rioting turned into the Intifada. 

Intifada means “shake off” in Arabic. The metaphor the Palestinians used was a dog shaking off the water from its fur, like the way Palestinians were trying to shake off the Israelis.
The intifada turned into an international story that lasted for 6 years, and ultimately ended with the Oslo accords. It began as a grassroots movement, but devolved into much more as the Palestinian leadership, otherwise known as the PLO, tried to grab hold of the resistance and take lead. The Palestinians boycotted Israeli businesses, and some utilized stone-throwing and molotov cocktails to assault Israeli citizens. In the end, many Palestinians and Israelis were killed.

What we are interested in for this episode is two things: 

Firstly, WHY? What caused the intifada? Why now? The Israelis took over Gaza and the West Bank 20 years earlier. Why did the Palestinians start rioting in 87?

The second thing is, how did this totally shift Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli relationships forever? Because it really did.

Let’s start with the first: 

Sari Nusseibeh, a former president of Al Quds University, explains the beginning of the Intifada in the clearest terms. No, it was not the fatal accident that caused the intifada. “No one starts a volcano,” Nusseibeh explains. “The conditions for the explosion simply build up. When it’s time for eruption, the eruption happens with fury.” 

What were the conditions for the explosion? Well, Moshe Dayan, famous Israeli icon who you may remember with an eye patch and all, used to refer to the first years, in the territories in the West Bank and Gaza – after the 1967 6 day victory – as the “enlightened occupation,” meaning he recognized that the Israeli government was administering people who were not Israeli citizens until there could be a guarantee for peace, but all in all, they had it pretty good. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were employed in the part of Israel that was on the western side of the Green line. 

Additionally, after the 6 day war in 67, there were no Arab universities, but as Israel encouraged higher education in the land it controlled, seven Arab universities popped up. Education is great and having more places of learning is important – I mean, I’m all for it. I was a high school principal for years – so yes, A plus for more education, buttt in this case there were other unforeseen outcomes. 

The first is that the radical Islamist movements grew exponentially in this university setting. (We’ll get to this later when discussing Hamas.) 

The second is that now the Palestinians were developing a middle-class, educated group of people who could not find work that was adequate or really commensurate with their education, and they were forced into inferior employment in Israel, especially as the economy had tanked.  Israeli historian Anita Shapira explains that this caused bitterness and resentment. There were checkpoints and sometimes heated conversations with Israeli soldiers. All in all, Shapira explains: “The Palestinians learned to speak Hebrew, but their acquaintance with the Israelis bred hostility, pent-up rage and hatred.” 

With a greater nationalist intention, growing Islamism and a really terrible and worsening economic situation, Gad Gilbar, University of Haifa Professor, called this the “double deprivation syndrome.” 

And so, the intifada was born and the Israelis were about to fight a battle which they could never have imagined.

What were these years like? What was the fighting like? 

If not suicide bombs, then what are the defining images of the first intifada?

The young Israeli nation became military legends thwarting five Arab enemies in the war of independence in 1948, thoroughly taking down the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians in the 6 day war of 1967 and then defending itself again on its holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur in 1973. Israel knew how to win wars, but how do you defeat teenagers who are throwing stones and molotov cocktails dressed in street clothing? 

No matter how high-tech Israel was, battling in densely populated areas against teenagers was perhaps its hardest battle ever. 

Micah Goodman, one of my favorite Israeli writers, talks about how the reservists were often now in a position they never could have imagined. “They were not handed weapons to guard the country’s borders from a foreign invasion.” Instead, he says, “they received clubs to patrol civilian neighborhoods, and found themselves chasing children who had scribbled graffiti or waved Palestinians flags.” 

Clearly, the intifada was much more violent than that, but these reservists were used to fighting, not policing. Daniel Gordis from Shalem College quotes the idea that many Israeli soldiers were “yorim vi’bochim.” They were “shooting and crying.” It was a terrible place to be with one Israeli soldier saying: “18 year olds ask me if it is frightening to serve in the territories. I tell them the greatest fear is of myself – what i would become, what I could be drawn into. It’s a jungle with its own laws.”

This was a battle unlike any other.

It was also during this intifada that the radical anti-semitic group Hamas was born. Hamas’s charter included references to the Protocols of elders of Zion, you know, that old antisemitic forgery which claimed Jews ran the world. Hamas’s charter included lines like “The Jews founded the United Nations and the security council in order to rule over the world.” 

The ironic thing about Hamas – and this is really hard to understand – is that Hamas initially received support from Israel because Israel actually viewed the secular-nationalism of the PLO as more dangerous than the religiosity of Hamas, which was initially focused on educating the Palestinian youth to focus more on Islam, charities, welfare and health services. Obviously, this all changed pretty rapidly and Hamas developed into one of the more sinister, anti-semitic terrorist groups in the last 30 years. But, in Gaza, instead of PLO flags being raised, it was green flags of Hamas and Islam. This is major impact #1 of the intifada. Hamas became a legitimate rival to the PLO regarding who should lead the Palestinians. 

Major impact #2 is that world opinion stopped viewing Israel as the David in the battle against the Arab countries which were the Goliath. This is the power of the media. TV screens across the globe were filled with images of young protestors facing off with heavily-armed Israeli police. The demonstrators knew to alert journalists and photographers to scenes of protest. Now, with images of Israeli tanks and kids with stones, international media started portraying Israel as the Goliath and the Palestinians as the little David. Israel’s international image started to tarnish. Except for the Americans. In a strategic and diplomatic mess up of epic proportions, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat made the decision to support Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. If you don’t know much about the Gulf War, make sure to look it up. Basically, the Americans, who were fighting Iraq, were not keen on this support of Hussein and the Palestinians lost some of the high ground that they had developed. 

It was not just world opinion that started to shift, but fractures in the Jewish world started to deepen. American Jews who are typically more progressive minded than conservative were now seeing images of Israeli soldiers fighting against Palestinians in street clothes, and hearing that the Defense Minister Yitzchak Rabin, ordered his soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian violent rioters. Now, according to Shapira, it is doubtful Rabin ever said this, but it is certainly the way Israeli troops understood his directives in response to the stone throwing and molotov cocktails.

Israel was always good at winning wars, but winning a PR war during the intifada was nearly impossible. 

Another lasting impact is that Israelis started feeling that the “golden occupation” or “enlightened occupation” was not tenable long term. Micah Goodman points out how Israeli society had developed during this time. The secular right was wounded. In 1987, only 21% of Israelis favored the establishment of a Palestinians state, but by 2001, that number had ballooned to 57%. Gordis wrote that “it might take years or decades, but for an increasing number of Israelis, there was now little doubt that Israel would have to leave most of the West Bank sooner or later.”  More Israelis than ever did not think they should be in the territories governing another people. Interestingly, this would all change during the second Intifada, which we will discuss in just a few episodes.

Another outcome of the First Intifada is that the PLO became a force to be reckoned with. Right or wrong. Good or bad. After being expelled from Jordan in the early 70s, and then Lebanon in the early 80s, the PLO was at a low point.  But once the PLO took control over the Intifada, its image was greatly enhanced. Now media coverage depicted Palestinians as victims, not terrorists, and garnered international sympathy for their cause.  This ended up pushing Yassir Arafat to present a more moderate-looking political program. 

In November 1988, Arafat decided to go against decades of PLO policy of seeking Israel’s destruction, and instead recognize Israel. Israeli leadership doubted Arafat’s sincerity seeing as the PLO continued to engage in violence.  

Defense Minister Rabin was deeply affected by the violence and conflict with the Palestinians. When he became Prime Minister, he entered office with a clear goal in mind, to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. On June 23, 1992, he was elected by a significant majority as prime minister for his second go around on the job.

A year later, in September 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accords, the First Intifada finally came to an end.

Last thing I’ll mention that was another outcome of the first intifada is that King Hussein of Jordan finally relinquished his kingdom’s “right” to the West Bank which Israel won in 1967. Hussein was more and more troubled by the Islamization of the Palestinians and wanted to make sure Jordan was not part of this anymore. Hussein disengaged from the West Bank and wanted anything other than a spillover of the violence from the West Bank. Before Jordan left the West Bank and gave up any of its claims, some Palestinians hedged and did not give their full support to the PLO, but now that Jordan was gone, Palestinians in the West Bank invariably showed support for the PLO. In fact, in November of 1988, Arafat declared independence with Hussein recognizing the Palestinian state. Israel, the US and the vast majority of the western countries, however did not recognize this and still do not. Regardless of Hussein’s position on the Palestinians, his country’s disengagement from the West Bank, eventually led to the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement in 1994.

So, that’s the story of the first intifada. 

It is NOT the second intifada. 

Although many of you might have heard more about the second intifada, the first really set the stage and changed how Israel and Palestinians would interact for decades to come. It altered the process of peace, changed public opinion, and even changed internal opinions within Israel and Palestinian communities. Here are your 5 fast facts on the first intifada. 

5 Fast Facts

  1. The First Intifada was a lot less violent than the Second Intifada, but no less impactful .
  2. The Intifada began as a grassroots movement and only later did the PLO take over the organization and implementation.
  3. The First Intifada was a watershed moment in how the media presented Israel. By the end, Israel was presented as the Goliath rather than the David in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
  4. The First Intifada created fractures within the Jewish community worldwide about how Israel should be responding to Palestinian violence
  5. Lastly, The First Intifada was the push for the King of Jordan to disengage from the West Bank, leading to Israeli-Jordanian peace. 

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. The battle for a good reputation can be harder than a military battle. The intifada proved this to the world. Over the next few decades, the Israeli government and other Jewish institutions started spending significant money on the good name of Israel. Regardless of your political perspective, I see this as a tragedy – not that the Israeli government and others spent millions of dollars on PR – but on the fact that they felt they had to. That’s the thing about reputations. Once someone smears you, once you’re pegged in a certain way, once the media covers something in a way that is not nuanced, you can feel like your back is against the wall, and you start behaving defensively. Since the first intifada, this is what Israel has felt like it’s had to do. Let’s learn our lesson here. Let’s make sure to reveal the layers of the onion, the textures, the shades. 

Let’s reclaim nuance.

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