December 1987 in the Gaza Strip during the First Intifada

What was the First Intifada?

The Intifada began on 8 December 1987 and lasted almost six years. It was a great uprising that involved almost every Palestinian family in Gaza, in the West Bank and inside of Israel. It was an incredibly democratic revolt led from below that included every layer of Palestinian society. Women’s committees blossomed during the Intifada.

Strikes became integral to the fightback, with workers in areas of the Occupied Territories refusing to work for days on end. Desperate Israeli bosses had to appeal to the government to find a new source of labour to run hotels and restaurants and to pick fruits.

The Intifada’s energy and vitality showed that it was possible for Palestinian resistance to have an alternative leadership, different from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The great uprising began when an Israeli driver drove into Palestinian cars, killing several people.

Three of those killed were from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. It was there that the uprising took root and began to spread across Gaza and then into the West Bank. Just two days into the revolt, protests and action had effectively closed down Gaza. An international aid worker described that Gaza was “totally closed”.

“The roads are blocked. The streets are strewn with debris. The black smoke of burning tyres hangs over the city,” they said. The leadership was a new generation of Palestinian youth who fought back with stones. These new leaders had known nothing but the humiliation, poverty and violence that the Israeli state had imposed on them.

They were prepared to fight back in any way they could to change that. An article written by the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post captured the period when it wrote, “It is a situation of our 20 year olds (Israelis) battling their 20 year olds (Palestinians). Ours use armour and helicopters, and theirs use clubs, rocks and primitive Molotov cocktails.”

What was the context of the First Intifada, and why should new activists know about it?

Firstly, they should know there is a long tradition of Palestinian resistance to colonialism. No one should forget the wave of Palestinian resistance from 1936-39, which battled both the Zionists and the British. Extreme levels of violence suppressed this resistance. The Palestinians haven’t forgotten this struggle. For them, this period was another Intifada in itself. 

But it wasn’t just Israel’s brutality and violent oppression that made the Palestinians rise up in 1987. It was also about economic pressure and poverty. For more than two decades following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had occupied Gaza. The Israeli state turned Gaza into what was essentially a Bantustan—similar to the areas that white apartheid rulers in South Africa set aside for black inhabitants.

Thousands of workers from Gaza worked in Israel and were seen by the Israelis as a convenient and cheap form of Labour. By 1981, 110,000 labourers were travelling from the Occupied Territories into Israel. High rates of unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza helped to ensure that the Israelis could get away with keeping Palestinian workers’ wages low.

In 1987 the wages of Israeli workers were ten times higher than Palestinians. This rage at an oppressive system set up by the Israelis to starve Palestinians in every way meant the revolt spread with enormous speed. The ferocity and tenacity of the Palestinian resistance shook the Israeli state to its core.

Why did it take so long for Israel to suppress the Intifada?

During the 1948 Nakba, which marked the creation of the state of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. Some settled in neighbouring countries like Lebanon or Jordan. Here, they set up their own resistance organisations, including the PLO.

In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to try and crush the PLO, which had become politically influential in the country. During the invasion, Israel’s allies, the Lebanese Kataeb, murdered 2,000 Palestinians in Beirut. The Israelis believed that they had managed to crush the Palestinian national liberation movement. But they were wrong. 

It wasn’t fatally damaged. Instead it had been transformed into a mass struggle inside of Palestine itself. The guerrilla struggle waged by groups like the PLO against the Israelis throughout the 1960s had been brave, but hadn’t succeeded. But in 1987 tens of thousands of young Palestinians felt a sense that they were fighting in a new way. The experience energised them. On the other hand, the Israelis were only accustomed to battling guerrilla fighters.

They were unprepared for a democratically run mass movement of civil action from below, encompassing strikes and massive demonstrations. After a year of revolt Israeli deputy chief of staff General Ehud Barak was forced to admit the Intifada was having an exhausting effect on the Israeli state. He revealed that 10,000 Israeli troops were deployed in the West Bank and Gaza, and 3.5 million working days had been “invested” in putting down the Intifada.

Israel still tried to crush the resistance with repression, and during the years of the Intifada, it jailed around 30,000 Palestinians. The Israeli defence minister at the time Yitzhak Rabin had brought in the policy he called the “Iron Fist”. This attempted to crush Palestinian nationalism in 1985, which included deporting Palestinians.

It was used extensively by Israel for the next four years, but on its own it didn’t manage to stop the Intifada. If there’s one thing we must take from this Intifada, it’s that resistance in Palestinian society will never be extinguished. In the same way that Palestinians rose up against oppression and violence during the revolt, Israel’s latest assault will lead to more revolts for years to come.

Why did the First Intifada end?

Eventually, brute repression from the Israeli state did take its toll on the Palestinians, who after almost six years were exhausted. However Israel also relied on the leadership of the PLO to put an end to this wave of resistance for it. Leaders of the Fatah faction of the PLO, Yasser Arafat and others, wanted control over the movement that had risen up.

They did this in the hope that Israel would hand them an independent Palestinian state. They entered so-called peace talks, known as the Oslo Accords. The mass movement ended in September 1993, and what followed was a process that ended up being a lie and a deception. The peace talks allowed the Israelis to continue to operate a process of colonisation in the West Bank and turn Gaza into a prison zone. 

Ultimately, the agreement led to the creation of the Palestinian National Authority, which had partial control over the West Bank and Gaza. But it didn’t take long for Palestinian people to realise this deal was a fraud and abandon their support for the PLO and Arafat. In 2006, in free elections, Palestinians in Gaza instead voted for Hamas. The Israeli state initially wanted to facilitate the development of an Islamist group like Hamas as opposed to the secular PLO.  

It licensed the building of mosques in the Gaza Strip. Israel was happy that Hamas was, initially, primarily an organisation based on providing welfare, funding schools and nurseries and charity work. But that didn’t last. Hamas turned from a counterweight to the PLO. Today Israel is reaping what it sowed.

Did the First Intifada inspire revolt elsewhere?

The Intifada inspired movements across the Arab world from Lebanon to Jordan, North Africa, and the Gulf States. The character of those movements was important. People in the Arab world understood that this was an anti-imperialist fight. They knew they weren’t just demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians—they were fighting against their own governments as well.

One example of this was in Egypt, where mass demonstrations in universities were joined by workers from textile mills in Mahalla al‑Kubra. Workers walked out and led a march in support of the Intifada while also raising slogans against the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. 

Opposition to their rulers at home made solidarity demonstrations very dangerous. There were sustained efforts in Arab states to crush solidarity movements. In this, we see a pattern that goes back decades and highlights the cynicism of the Arab regimes. And across the world those who identified with the struggle against imperialism saw that a mass movement of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation meant that even the most oppressed in society could fight back.

Today the same is true. The Palestinians are still fighting and inspiring struggle across the world. For all of Israel’s imperialist backing and funding, it has still not been able to destroy the collective will to resist.

What was the reaction from the Arab ruling class outside of Palestine?

The Intifada and every other high point in Palestinian resistance has always agitated the Arab ruling classes because it often leads to resistance from below. But, when this happened, the PLO was there to come to the rescue of Arab rulers. Arafat developed a policy of no interference in the politics of other Arab states in the 1960s.

He assured Arab rulers that the PLO would not interfere with their domestic policy in exchange for money and weapons. The PLO’s message to all those inspired by the Palestinian struggle in other Arab countries was to go home and go back to work. It separated the struggle of the Palestinians from the struggle of the wider Arab working class.

A key lesson it’s important for us to learn is that the Palestinian struggle has always prompted solidarity across the Arab world. But the Palestinian leaders, especially the PLO, have never expressed that this could be a key to liberation.

Instead they have isolated Palestinian nationalism and isolated the Palestinian struggle more broadly. To win this strategy must be rejected. The Palestinian movement is always at its strongest when it fights together with the Arab working class.

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