The First Intifada, 1987-1993

The First Intifada, 1987-1993
Exhilaration of Revolt, Promise of Freedom

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A Demonstration in the Streets of Ramallah

Taken during the First Intifada, this photograph captures a demonstration roaming the streets of Ramallah.

The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Joss Dray Photographs

Like all transformational events, the intifada of 1987 began unexpectedly, born of causes that were then immediately understood: a cruel, deceptively “liberal” settler-colonial occupation, difficult and fluctuating economic conditions, and the thorough politicization of the Palestinians, who saw the PLO as their sole leadership. Demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank in which Palestinians were killed or imprisoned, had marked the entire year, since December 1986, as had spectacular though circumscribed armed confrontations. But the detonator was an incident in which four Palestinian laborers from Gaza were killed when an Israeli military truck smashed into their cars. Demonstrations broke out on 9 December 1987, in Jabalia, the largest refugee camp in Palestine, resulting in the death of seventeen-year-old Hatem al-Sisi, killed by a soldier’s bullet in the heart. Protests immediately spread through the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and West Bank camps, villages, and towns.


Under defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli military adopted the so-called “iron fist” policy of violent repression: it used live ammunition against unarmed protestors, jailed demonstrators, and imposed punitive curfews and closures. These measures simply drove the Palestinians into ever more massive demonstrations against occupation: the barrier of fear had fallen away. Within days, local leadership cadres had emerged, and within two weeks the first of hundreds of communiqués were distributed at night throughout the territories. They bore the signature of the newly formed, clandestine United National Leadership of the Intifada (UNLU), made up of representatives of the four principal PLO-affiliated groups: Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) (later renamed Palestinian People’s Party). The communiqués set out political, social, economic, and cultural priorities (sometimes, in the case of general strikes, directives). Most groups opposed to Yasir Arafat and the mainstream PLO likewise joined in the resistance. The Muslim Brotherhood, hitherto devoted to activities centered on family life and religious ritual, created a militant wing, Hamas (acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement), which became increasingly involved in the uprising, issuing its own communiqués, only sometimes concordant with those of the UNLU.


During at least the first six months, Palestinians of all generations, both male and female, not only peopled but also controlled the intifada, acting in lockstep with the local and national leadership. Massive outpourings of the usually well-disciplined crowd foiled all of the repressive strategies devised by the occupation: long-term school and university closures in early 1988, arrests (18,000 the first year alone), ongoing deportations of alleged leaders (and, later, of Hamas members), administrative detentions (nearly 3,000 in 1988). In the first year, at least 300 Palestinians had been shot dead and tens of thousands injured. Under instruction from Rabin, the military adopted a policy of bone-breaking. Despite Israel’s violent repression, the Palestinian consensus against the use of firearms remained in place for the duration of the uprising—over five years.

All Gaza and West Bank Palestinian members of the Israeli police resigned; many collaborators publicly confessed and were socially and religiously rehabilitated (although some of those under deep cover continued their activities). The population had, since June 1967, learned how to deal, cat-and-mouse-like, with an occupation whose only concerns were suppressing resistance, maximizing settlement expansion, and collecting taxes and fines. People now proved eager to act with discipline and commitment in response to military and settler assaults and in line with the continuous flow of leadership communiqués, viewed as an alternative and legitimate combined legislative and executive branch, the first effective indigenous Palestinian government.


In the spring of 1988, popular committees were established in villages, camps, and urban neighborhoods. These committees were in many cases a simple expansion of voluntary work committees that had for years organized to assert Palestinian agency and remedy the occupation’s administrative neglect. Coordinated at the grassroots level by a follow-up committee (lejnat al-mutab‘a), they included units devoted to health, education, security, vital supplies (tamwin), and agriculture. Together, they embodied the will to restructure society from the bottom up. They had varying levels of success: the committee to re-supply refugee camps placed under permanent siege and curfew, sometimes for weeks on end, provided a lifeline to camp residents; committees responsible for alternative education and self-sufficiency in food production had limited effectiveness. But their symbolic importance as indices of self-determination was so great that Israel declared them to be illegal and threatened anyone found to be a member of a popular committee with a ten-year prison sentence.

Palestinian schools and universities were key elements in enhancing the fortitude and vigor of popular participation. Taking advantage of enforced closures, students returned to their towns, camps, and villages to organize and invigorate the insurrectionary energies of the local population; they communicated orientations and decisions that political parties (often represented by these returning students themselves) had of late determined. Academic and other staff participated actively in decision-making at the local, and, crucially, national levels; some of them were at various periods members of the UNLU, and many participated in formulating and drafting the key documents of the intifada, those mixed legislative/executive communiqués (bayanat) which for months served to direct, modify, often escalate (and more rarely, de-escalate) the pace of events. Although these directives usually corresponded to the self-perceived interests and ambitions of the people—the resignation of policemen and recantation of collaborators were insistently demanded by means of the bayanat—they appeared vital to the intensification of resistance and the strengthening of popular unity. And in this respect, staff, faculty, and administration of the various universities, most notably Birzeit, Najah, Bethlehem, and Hebron Polytechnic, were constantly active. Universities in the Gaza Strip (their prime example the Islamic University) were in their formative stage; essential institutions in Gaza included NGOs such as the Palestine Red Crescent and the Gaza Blood Bank Society.

The Inside and the Outside

Within a few weeks, the PLO leadership had asserted its authority over local cadres, a process in which the fax machine played a significant role. (The PCP, Hamas, and Jihad, headquartered in the occupied territories, had greater autonomy.) The wording of communiqués was negotiated in real time. But this factor was less significant than one might think, because of the role of the multifarious crowd, which regularly surged forth in defiance of occupation, on various designated days and ineluctably on Fridays and Sundays after mosque and church prayers, and in a real sense deeply impregnated the tenor and the contents of the communiques. It was clear from these spontaneous expressions of public sentiment which initiatives were acceptable, which were not, and which were demanded by the people. After half a year of Palestinian struggle, King Hussein renounced Jordan’s claim to represent the Palestinians (symbolized by the annexation of the West Bank in 1950) in his speech from the throne on 31 July 1988. Another clear example of the Palestinian leadership responding to public pressure, exercised through a variety of channels and crucially, on the ground, is the Palestine National Council’s nearly unanimous decision, announced by Yasir Arafat in Algiers on 15 November 1988, to declare the creation of a Palestinian state. In the words of Mahmoud Darwish, author of the declaration of independence, “[b]ecause of the intifada and its revolutionary and irreversible impulse, the history of Palestine has therefore arrived at a decisive juncture.”

Revolutionary Routine

By the end of the first year, the uprising had created many facts on the ground, and in the process had exacted a hefty price from the population: through deprivation of schooling for children and young people (for which this generation would pay dearly later on), lives lost and freedom denied for the victims of repression, and a terrible economic price paid for months of daily strikes. Stores opened, and demonstrations took place, in the mornings until 12 noon. Then commercial centers throughout the territories would close down, cars would disappear from the streets, as would, usually, the immediate military presence. Normal working hours had been, for several years, reduced to half a day.

The process continued unabated over the following years: the issuance of communiqués, strikes, Israeli violent repression, demonstrations, the formulation of demands: the very regularity of events made them the rule, no longer the exception. Shop closures became less spontaneous, and their enforcers ever younger, sometimes in their early teens. A type of revolutionary routine set in, coupled with a type of fatigue. But never was there any inclination to end the movement until the goal of self-determination had been achieved. People demanded results, and some of the decisions taken by the leadership in Tunis reflected this pressure. Pressure came from another direction as well: Israel had begun retaliating against the top leadership (Arafat excepted), most notably through the assassination in Tunis of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), two bodyguards and a gardener on 16 April 1988; Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and two comrades were assassinated (by Abu Nidal’s Fatah Revolutionary Council) on 14 January 1991. Meanwhile, the domestic situation also deteriorated, with the machine-gunning of seven Gazan workers on 20 May 1990 in Rishon LeZion (11 more were killed by the armed suppression of ensuing demonstrations), and crucially, the massacre by police of eighteen worshipers at al-Aqsa Mosque on 8 October 1990.

These events coincided with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The Iraqi president promptly promised to evacuate Kuwait on condition that Israel evacuate the occupied territories. A majority of Palestinians, driven by anger and frustration, supported Iraq, and Arafat saw fit to make this support explicit through a visit to Baghdad and multiple declarations. The swift defeat of Iraqi forces in January 1991 left the PLO isolated on the diplomatic scene and bereft of its usual financial support from oil-rich Gulf states. The intifada, by no means defeated, found itself in a type of political wilderness.

The Outcome of the Intifada

Thus began the negotiating process, first in Madrid (30 October 1991), then in Washington, led by trusted and representative figures, some veteran leaders (Haydar Abd al-Shafi, Faisal al-Husseini), others having emerged during the intifada (Hanan Ashrawi, Ghassan Khatib, Saeb Erakat). The people and their local leadership were prepared to mix their resistance activities with ongoing negotiations (supported, it should be noted, by diaspora Palestinians, including refugee camp residents), predicated on achieving national self-determination. For the most part, they did not have any idea about secret negotiations in Oslo between the Tunis-based leadership and the Israeli government. Had they been asked, they would have rejected any accord that did not promise a halt to settlement activity, guarantee sovereignty over the haram al-sharif, provide a solution to the problem of refugees, and promise an independent Palestinian state.

And so, when the agreements between Arafat and (by then prime minister) Rabin were revealed, people were at first shocked. But when Arafat signed the agreement on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, formally putting an end to the intifada, most people, again including diasporic Palestinians, came around to supporting it, confident that it entailed the rapid realization of their dream of freedom and national self-determination. The September 1993 ceremony marked the formal end of the intifada ; in no way did it end the Palestinian struggle for justice and self-determination, which resumed immediately and marked the period which followed, from 1993 to 2000, and known as the “Oslo” years.

Selected Bibliography: 

Farraj, Khaled. “The First Intifada: Hope and the Loss of Hope.” Journal of Palestine Studies,  47, no. 1 (Autumn 2017): 86-97.

Farraj, Khaled. “The First Intifada (Part 2): The Road to Oslo,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 49, no. 1 (Autumn 2019): 93-100.

Hilterman, Joost. Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women's Movements in the Occupied Territories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Legrain, Jean-François, ed. Les voix du soulèvement palestinien, 1987-1988 : Edition critique des communiqués du Commandement National Unifié du Soulèvement et du Mouvement de la Résistance Islamique. Cairo : CEDEJ, 1991.

Lockman, Zachary and Joel Beinin, ed. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation. Boston: South End Press, 1989. 

Nassar, Jamal and Roger Heacock, eds. Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Schiff, Zeev and Ehud Yaari. IntifadaThe Palestinian Uprising--Israel's Third Front. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

هيكوك روجر وعلاء جرادات (تحرير): "انتفاضة 1987: تحوّل شعب". بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 2020.