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Intifāḍah

By:
Jeroen Gunning
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Intifāḍah

Intifāḍah, meaning literally “a shaking off,” is the term used to describe the popular Palestinian uprising of 1987. It has since entered the global lexicon, and lent its name to the Palestinian uprising of September 2000, the “al-Aqsā Intifā․dah.”

The 1987 intifāḍah was a turning point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was one of a long succession of protests resisting the dispossession of land which began well before the establishment of Israel in 1948 on three-quarters of what used to be British Mandate Palestine. But it was the first to mobilize all sectors of society, crossing class, gender, and rural-urban barriers, and, as such, was a defining moment for the Palestinian national consciousness.

The intifāḍah began in December 1987 in the Gaza Strip as a response to an Israeli truck killing four Palestinian workers, and ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. During this period, over 1,100 (some say 1,300) Palestinians were killed by Israelis, more than a quarter of whom were under sixteen years old, over 100,000 were wounded, and some 2,000 homes were demolished. An additional 1,000 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians on suspicion of collaboration. By contrast, 160 Israelis were killed by Palestinians during this period, sixty of whom were soldiers. Only five were less than seventeen years old.

The intifāḍah's most enduring image is that of rock-throwing youths, wrapped in checkered kaffiyehs (head scarves), confronting Israeli tanks. But protest methods ranged from bombing, shooting, and kidnapping to shopkeepers’ strikes, boycotts of Israeli goods, and tax rebellion. The initial weeks saw spontaneous mass protests sweeping the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (the two geographically separate parts of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967). But soon local grassroots leaders began to direct the intifāḍah in coordination with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in exile. The United Leadership of the Uprising, a coalition of nationalist and leftist factions (though not the Islamists), coordinated everything from protests to providing medical, schooling, and welfare services, and kept the general population informed through a sophisticated distribution system of underground leaflets.

The intifāḍah began spontaneously. But both its beginnings and its longevity had their roots in factors that had been years in the making. At one level, it was a response to twenty years of occupation, increasingly harsh and repressive military tactics, and the gradual loss of land to Israeli settlements. By 1987, over half of the West Bank and almost half of the Gaza Strip had been expropriated to make way for settlements and military installations. The rise of the Likud Party in Israel, and its more explicitly expansionist claims on the occupied territories, convinced the Palestinians that theirs was an existential struggle for survival.

At another level, the intifāḍah was a response to the dire economic conditions within the territories. Israeli-imposed restrictions on land use, external trade, and industrial development, Israel's refusal to maintain, let alone develop, the territories’ basic infrastructure, and the subordination of the Palestinian economy to the Israeli economy combined with the regional recession of the 1980s to create unprecedented levels of economic hardship. By the mid-1980s, only about a fifth of school leavers and university graduates could find employment.

But the intifāḍah was also the culmination of a series of far-reaching structural changes. Inside the occupied territories, socioeconomic changes, triggered by the integration of the Palestinian territories into the Israeli economy, the 1970s rise in oil prices, the concomitant expansion of tertiary education, and the expropriation of land, had led to the weakening of the traditional land-owning elite and the emergence of a counter-elite, drawn predominantly from the lower and lower-middle classes. This counter-elite was the driving force behind the expansion of the civil society organizations that would form the backbone of the intifāḍah.

By the late 1980s, economic growth had been superseded by recession. Expanding population growth and the out-migration of those seeking employment elsewhere had resulted in an increasingly youthful population, producing the volatile combination of a predominance of youths (in 1987, around half the population was under fourteen years old), economic hardship, and thwarted expectations—particularly among the newly graduated, who went on to play a leading role in the intifāḍah.

Israel's suspension of Palestinian municipal elections in 1980, and its attempts at decapitating the emerging nationalist leadership inside the territories, had served both to remove the more temperate leadership and to discredit traditional politics. By 1987, Palestinians inside the occupied territories had moreover come to realize that no external actor would come to their rescue. Despite fiery rhetoric and repeated attempts, the surrounding Arab states had failed to deliver a Palestinian state. The national Palestinian leadership in exile had similarly failed. In 1982, it had been driven out of Lebanon by the Israeli army and forced to retreat to Tunisia, where it had then been weakened by internal divisions.

Into this vacuum stepped the grassroots activists of the counter-elite, politicized by their participation in the newly created student unions and civil society organizations, and radicalized by their encounters with the Israeli army and years spent in Israeli prisons. Predominantly young and with a lesser stake in the status quo, they were more willing to embrace radical methods. Israel's adoption of “iron fist” tactics in the early 1980s only served to exacerbate this process.

The intifāḍah had a profound effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It led Jordan to renounce its claims to the West Bank, paving the way for a two-state solution based on an independent Palestinian state, as opposed to a Palestinian-Jordanian federation. It revived the PLO, enhancing its international leverage, but also increased the pressure to accept a two-state solution, leading to the PLO's historic recognition of Israel in November 1988. It forced Israel to reconsider its policy of creeping annexation, and triggered a process of economic and political separation that strengthened the argument for a two-state solution. And it affected public opinion across the world, inverting Israel's image as a Jewish David against an Arab Goliath and (temporarily) supplanting the 1970s image of the “Palestinian terrorist” with that of the stone-throwing Palestinian youth.

The intifāḍah's legacy, though, was double-edged. It laid the foundations for a participatory democracy through its incredible success in mobilizing society. But it simultaneously sowed the seeds for civil society's demise by exhausting it, spawning armed militias that marginalized civil society organizations and triggering a peace process that was designed, in part, to enable the PLO leadership to reassert itself and subjugate civil society. It paved the way for the reintegration of the internal and exiled leaderships, but it also helped to consolidate divisions between a resurgent internal leadership and the exiled leaders which played a role in Fatah's electoral defeat in the 2006 legislative elections. It empowered women's organizations, yet served to reinforce conservative gender hierarchies. It forced the PLO and Israel to explore diplomatic avenues, yet laid the foundation for the more radical violence of the 1990s.

Perhaps the intifāḍah's greatest paradox was that it both propelled the PLO back into the spotlight and triggered the establishment of the Islamic resistance movement Hamās. Like the intifāḍah, Hamās's creation had been long in the making. However, the intifāḍah provided the impetus for the Muslim Brotherhood to establish Hamās as a resistance wing, and helped to create the conditions that enabled it to become the main opposition party. Other factors played a part, such as the demise of the Soviet Union and its effect on the Palestinian Left, or the outbreak of the Gulf War and Arafat's decision to side with Saddam Hussein, which almost bankrupted the PLO. But the intifāḍah both provided opportunities for Hamās to take center stage and helped create an ideological climate within which its rejectionist and conservative message gained rapidly in popularity.

See also ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT; HAMāS; PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION; and WEST BANK AND GAZA.

Bibliography

  • Freedman, Robert, ed.The Intifāḍah: Its Impact on Israel, the Arab World, and the Superpowers. Miami, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1991. Assesses the intifāḍah in the context of regional and global politics.
  • Mishal, Shaul, and Reuben Aharoni. Speaking Stones: Communiqués from the Intifāḍah Underground. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Collection of leaflets distributed during the intifāḍah.
  • Nassar, Jamal R., and Roger Heacock, eds.Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990. Provides a balanced account of the relevant events.
  • Robinson, Glenn E.Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Places the intifāḍah in its wider historical context.
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