The First Intifada Erupts, Forcing Israel to Recognize Palestinians

By Donald Neff
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
December 1997 

It was 10 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1987, that the Palestinian intifada, the uprising, erupted in the territories occupied by Israel. The violence was the worst since the fighting of 1948. But in this case the Palestinians had no arms and no help from the neighboring Arab countries.1 The uprising would continue until late 1993, with great suffering by the Palestinians and considerable damage to Israel's international image. In the end, the Palestinians gained the recognition of the world community they had so long sought, but failed to get Israel to live up to its commitments.

The immediate cause of the uprising came on Dec. 8, when an Israeli army truck ran into a group of Palestinians near the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing four and injuring seven. A Jewish salesman had been stabbed to death in Gaza two days earlier and there were suspicions among the Arabs that the traffic collision had not been an accident.2 The day after the traffic deaths, Palestinians throughout the territories exploded with pent-up rage.

Observers speculated that Palestinian rioters were motivated in part by a dramatic event of the previous month: the daring attack on a northern Israel army base by a solo Palestinian hang-glider, who killed six Israeli soldiers and wounded seven others.3 Another factor fanning Palestinian passions had been a recent increase in pressure by Jewish militants to take over Islam's third holiest site, the Haram al Sharif, the revered Temple Mount to Jews, in Arab East Jerusalem.4

Daily, the riots escalated throughout the territories, and were particularly severe in the Gaza Strip, a 5-by-28-mile area packed with about 550,000 people, mostly refugees. By Dec. 16, Gaza director Bernard Mills of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said: "We're in a situation of either total lawlessness or a popular uprising."5

There soon could be no doubt that what was happening was a national uprising against a colonial power that had been subjugating Palestinians by military occupation since 1967.

Palestinian outrage was inflamed on Dec. 18 when Israeli troops killed two and wounded 20 Muslims leaving Friday religious services, then invaded the Shifa Hospital in Gaza and beat doctors and nurses and dragged off wounded Palestinians.6 Casualties quickly mounted as Israeli troops responded to stone-throwing Palestinians with live ammunition. By Dec. 21, Israel was reporting a total of 15 killed and 70 wounded, while U.N. officials counted 17 killed and Palestinian sources reported 20 killed and 200 wounded.7

The televised beatings and killings of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli troops heavily equipped with U.S. weapons brought protests worldwide. The American Friends Service Committee on Dec. 21 deplored Israel's continued occupation and brutal suppression of the uprising. The Quaker statement also criticized Washington's "continued support of a policy that has acquiesced in occupation and failed to engage in a serious peace process."8

The next day the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0-1 to "strongly deplore [Israel's] policies and practices which violate the human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories." The United States was the lone abstainer.9 It was the 58th time the Security Council had passed a resolution critical of Israel since 1948.

The U.N. action brought immediate criticism from Israel's U.S. supporters. Republican Representative Jack F. Kemp of New York, a presidential candidate, said the U.N. was "picking on Israel."10 Jewish-American leaders denounced the vote, calling it, in the words of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an action that "will be seen by the Palestinians as a license for further violence."11

Nonetheless, the emotional impact of Israel's violent suppression of the Palestinians caused the Reagan administration, on the same day that it abstained in the Security Council, to scold Israel for its "harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition."12 The next day Washington urged Israel to use nonlethal riot control methods.13 (On Dec. 24, leaders of some two dozen American-Jewish organizations went to the State Department to complain that the administration's criticism was unfair.14)

Despite the White House criticism, Congress on Dec. 22 passed provisions that expanded U.S. aid to Israel by agreeing to refinance Israel's $9 billion debt to reduce its interest rates. The measure saved Israel as much as $2 billion in interest payments.15 In addition, Israel was granted its traditional $3 billion in economic and military aid, allowed to use $150 million of its military aid on an advanced aircraft research and development program in the United States and to use another $400 million of its military aid for defense procurement in Israel. Israel also received an additional $5 million for U.S.-Israel cooperative aid and $25 million for refugee resettlement.16

It was as though Congress was rewarding Israel for its cruel treatment of the Palestinians. That apparently was how Israel's Likud government saw it. Its response to international criticism was to impose a new "iron fist" policy on Dec. 23. This meant manhandling and arresting Palestinians en masse.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said: "We will fight with all our power against any element that tries by violence to upset our full control over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. I know the descriptions of what is going on in the territories, the way it is interpreted in the media, is not helping the image of Israel in the world. But I am convinced that above and beyond the temporary problem of an image, the supreme responsibility of our government is to fight the violence in the territories and to use all the means at our disposal to do that. We will do that, and we will succeed."17

In defense of the army's use of marksmen and high-powered sniping rifles against rioters, Rabin added: "They can shoot to hit leaders of disorder, throwers of firebombs, as much as possible at the legs after firing in the air fails to disperse the riot."18 U.S. officials urged Israel not to carry out its threat to expel ringleaders, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said with sarcasm: "We thank them for their advice but we shall act according to our own understanding."19

Under the tougher new policy, Israeli troops broke into homes, smashed furniture, hit women with rifle butts and dragged off suspects. Palestinian sources reported 350 arrested during the first day of the "Iron Fist" policy, and a total of 1,770. Deaths were reported at 21 as of Dec. 23.20 On Dec. 25, Israel admitted that nearly 1,000 Palestinians had been arrested, most of them in the previous three days. The Palestine Press Service put the number at more than 2,000 since Dec. 9. Casualties were placed at 21 dead and more than 150 wounded.21

Amnesty International's annual report for 1987 criticized Israel for using brutal methods to suppress the Palestinian uprising. It reported: "In December at least 23 Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza were shot and killed by soldiers during the widespread violent protests against Israeli occupation. There were also severe and indiscriminate beatings of demonstrators, and hundreds were summarily tried and imprisoned. There was an increase in reports of ill-treatment and torture of detainees by members of the Israel Defense Force and the General Security Service. Political activists, including prisoners of conscience, continued to be administratively detained or restricted to towns or villages or imprisoned in violation of their right to freedom of expression."22

Despite such criticism, Israeli Defense Minister Rabin on Jan. 19 announced a new policy of "broken bones." He said Israel would use "force, power and blows" to suppress the Palestinian intifada.23 He added: "The goal is to act against violence with punches and blows and not live ammunition."24

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, an old terrorist from the pre-Israel days, later said: "Our task now is to re-create the barrier of fear between Palestinians and the Israeli military, and once again put the fear of death into the Arabs of the areas so as to deter them from attacking us anymore."25

Israeli troops certainly tried to achieve that goal. Israeli press accounts said 197 Palestinians had been treated in the Gaza Strip for fractures as a result of beatings in the three days following Rabin's announcement.The New York Times added that the toll in all of the occupied areas "clearly runs well into the hundreds and perhaps higher."26

An UNRWA official in the Gaza Strip, acting director Angela Williams, said: "We are deeply shocked by the evidence of the brutality with which people are evidently being beaten. We are especially shocked by the beatings of old men and women."27 The State Department said on Jan. 21 that it was "disturbed" by the new policy.28

Such complaints had no outward effect on Israel. It continued its brutal tactics, often caught in the glare of world television. In turn, however, the Palestinians, the "children of the stones," as they became called, continued their struggle, no doubt encouraged by the TV coverage. The fact is Israel was receiving influential advice to continue its cruel suppression. The New York Times reported that Henry A. Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, had urged at a small private meeting of Jewish leaders in early February that Israel bar newsmen from the occupied territories and use force to end the uprising quickly.29

Kissinger recommended that Israel put down the Palestinian uprising "as quickly as possible—overwhelmingly, brutally and rapidly. The insurrection must be quelled immediately, and the first step should be to throw out television, a la South Africa. To be sure, there will be international criticism of the step, but it will dissipate in short order." He added: "There are no awards for losing with moderation." Kissinger's remarks were contained in a three-page, single-spaced memorandum of the meeting made by one of the participants, Julius Berman, former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Kissinger later denied he made the remarks, saying they were a "gross distortion of the truth."30

Despite Israel's cruel tactics, the intifada went on month after month, year after year, unarmed youngsters against heavily equipped Israeli troops. Despite Israel's superior power, the unequal struggle was debilitating on the Jewish state, and especially its image abroad. The little country that so long had presented itself as a "light unto other nations" and pleaded for international support because of its small population was now seen as the cruel suppressor of another people.

Behind the scenes, Israel under a Labor government secretly sought a way out of its image-destroying predicament. At the start of 1993, without informing Washington, Israel and the Palestinians began meeting secretly in Oslo, with Norway acting as the mediator. By late August 1993 the two sides had come to an agreement and the Clinton administration was finally informed.31

Two weeks later, on Sept. 13, amid great ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, generally referred to as the Oslo accords. Its aim was to "establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority...for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."32

The signing of the Oslo accords was an enormously celebratory moment. There were euphoric, indeed unrealistic, expectations of peace in the Middle East. This became clear when Israel in mid-1996 returned to another Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Like his predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu displayed the arrogant disregard of Palestinian rights that brought on the intifada in the first place. The Oslo accords basically died with Netanyahu's election.

But before then, during the initial enthusiasm for Oslo, with all its shining promises, the intifada essentially ended. Cost of the uprising to the Palestinians had been heavy. The Palestine Human Rights Information group reported at the end of 1993 that since the start of the intifada Israeli troops and settlers had killed 1,283 Palestinians. An estimated 130,472 Palestinians had been injured, 481 expelled, 22,088 held without trial, 2,533 houses demolished or sealed and, equally important for the eventual division of the land, 184,257 Palestinian trees uprooted.33

All told during the six-year uprising, 120,000 Palestinians were arrested and spent varying amounts of time in inhospitable Israeli jails.34 It is these veterans who will likely form the cadre for the next generation of Palestinian freedom fighters if the two sides cannot find an accommodation soon.

Recommended Reading:

  • Nakhleh, Issa. Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem (2 vols), New York, Intercontinental Books, 1991.
  • Roy, Sara, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995.
  • Michael Simpson, George J. Tomeh and Regina S. Sherif (eds.), United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, three volumes, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1988.


  1. Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 12/12/87. Also see Roy, The Gaza Strip; S.K.L., "The Gaza Strip," I&P, Israel & Palestine Political Report, No. 139, 1/88, pp. 4-5; Ann M. Lesch, "Prelude to the Uprising in the Gaza Strip," Journal of Palestine Studies, "Documents and Source Material," Autumn 1990, pp. 1-23; Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, pp. 735-88.
  2. John Kifner, New York Times, 12/15/87.
  3. Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 11/27/87.
  4. Stephen J. Sosebee, "Seeds of a Massacre: Israeli Violations at Haram al-Sharif," American-Arab Affairs, No. 36, Spring 1991, p. 114.
  5. John Kifner, New York Times, 12/16/87.
  6. Patrick J. Tyler, Washington Post, 12/19/87.
  7. Dan Fisher, Washington Post, 12/21/87.
  8. The text is in the Journal of Palestine Studies, "Documents and Source Material," Spring 1988, pp. 201-2.
  9. New York Times, 12/23/87, Resolution No. 605. For earlier abstentions see entries above and Michael Simpson, George J. Tomeh and Regina S. Sherif (eds.). United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, three volumes. Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1988.
  10. David E. Rosenbaum, New York Times, 12/31/87.
  11. New York Times , 1/18/88.
  12. New York Times, 12/23/87.
  13. New York Times, 12/24/87.
  14. New York Times, 12/25/87.
  15. David K. Shipler, New York Times, 12/24/87. Also see Clyde Mark, "Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance Facts," Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, Congressional Research Service, updated 7/5/91.
  16. Clyde Mark, "Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance Facts," Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, Congressional Research Service, updated 7/5/91.
  17. John Kifner, New York Times, 12/24/87. Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 12/25/87 and 12/31/87, had particularly insightful pieces on how Israel regarded the riots as a public relations problem and how the Palestinians failed to offer a political solution.
  18. Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 12/24/87.
  19. Juan O. Tamayo, Washington Post, 12/30/87.
  20. Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 12/22-23/87; Frankel's reporting from Gaza was particularly descriptive.
  21. Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 12/26/87; Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 12/26/87.
  22. Amnesty International, Amnesty Report: 1988, p. 239.
  23. John Kifner, New York Times, 1/20/88; 1/21/88; Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 1/23/88.
  24. Jonathan C. Randal, Washington Post, 1/21/88.
  25. Time, 2/8/88, p. 39.
  26. John Kifner, New York Times, 1/23/88.
  27. John Kifner, New York Times, 1/23/88.
  28. Chronology 1988, "America and the World 1988/89,"Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter 1989, p. 233.
  29. Robert D. McFadden, New York Times, 3/5/88. A copy of the memo was obtained and circulated among the membership by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Washington, DC. The text is in American-Arab Affairs, No. 24, Spring 1988, pp. 158-61, and Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1988, pp. 184-7.
  30. Barbara Vobejda, Washington Post, 3/6/88.
  31. Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 8/29/93.
  32. The text is in New York Times, 9/1/93; "Documentation,"Middle East Policy, Number 2, Volume II, 1993. For an analysis, see Burhan Dajani, "The September 1993 Israeli-PLO Documents: A Textural Analysis," Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1994.
  33. Palestine Human Rights Information of Jerusalem and Washington, "Living Under Israeli Occupation," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1994.
  34. Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 10/3/95.

Donald Neff is author of Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel since 1945.