The First Intifada and the road to Oslo

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  • Life in the occupied territories
    • Conditions in refugee camps were harsh – crowded and unhygienic; Palestinians had to work in Israel where they were limited to unskilled jobs, paying Israeli taxes but without being able to vote.
    • PLO suspects experienced beatings, random detentions without trial.
    • Meanwhile Jewish settlers moved in to the West Bank – 35,000 by 1984; and 64,000 by 1988.
    • The settlement of Jews in the occupied territories was designed to create immovable ‘facts on the ground’ that would make any restoration of the status quo ante bellum impossible.
  • The first Intifada of 1987 – 1993
  • It is an Arabic word literally meaning, as a noun, “tremor”, “shivering”, “shuddering”. It is derived from an Arabic term nafada meaning “to shake”, “shake off”, “get rid of”, as a dog might shrug off water, or as one might shake off sleep, or dirt from one’s sandals
  • It was triggered in December 1987 when an Israeli market trader in Gaza was stabbed to death.  The following day an IDF van smashed into two vans carrying Palestinians workers, killing four and wounding seven.  There was rioting at the funerals.  When another Palestinian was killed 3 days later marching started and within 2 weeks the rioting had spread from Gaza to the West Bank.  The Intifada lasted 5 years.
  • The Intifada was recognized as an occasion where the Palestinians acted cohesively and independently of their leadership or assistance of neighboring Arab states.
  • As the Intifada continued it became more cohesive – from rioting in streets, mass demonstrations, anti-Israeli graffiti – throwing stones and petrol bombs at IDF troops and flying the Palestinian flag – it became a general strike in which Palestinians refused to buy Israeli goods, refused to work in Israel or to pay taxes, carry identification.
  • A leadership emerged known as the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU). 
  • The UNLU distributed leaflets, told people where to go and what to do, about upcoming strikes and boycotts and set up underground schools, medical care and food supplies.
  • Scale of Intifada – during the first 6 months of 1988 alone, the IDF reported over 42,000 acts of hostility – compared with an average of 3000/year previously.

Israel’s response: Iron First Policy

  • Reservists were called up and security was increased;
  • Schools were closed and curfews and censorship introduced;
  • Thousands of arrests; ringleaders detained and their homes bulldozed;
  • Arms and fingers of child stone-throwers were broken;
  • Hostile crowds were dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and, sometimes, live ammunition.

Impact of the first intifada

On Palestinians

  • 12000 were killed by Israelis (25% under 16 y.o.); 120,000 wounded (including 27,000 children);
  • 882 Palestinians accused of helping Israel were killed by other Palestinians;
  • Ordnary life became difficult – schools closed; water supplies restricted; curfews; houses bulldozed.
  • Economies destroyed as business collapsed; agriculture destroyed; trade fell by 80% and unemployment rose to 50%;
  • Many Palestinians nonetheless felt empowered.

On Israel

  • 160 died (100 were civilians)
  • Israel’s economy suffered because of the strikes, boycotts, increased security needs, and closed borders;
  • Increased extremism among zionists within Israel.
  • Israel’s international reputation suffered greatly – even Americans who had supported Israel in the past began to question Israeli tactics.
  • Another problem was that in July 1988 King Hussein renounced Jordan’s claims to the West Bank, severing its residual administrative and financial ties, leaving Israel to face up to the problems it had helped create
  • After 5 years of this, Israel began to consider an alternative to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
  • The obstacles were severe – making those territories part of Israel would not remove the threat of violence and yet handing those territories over to the Palestinians would be bitterly resisted by the Israelis who had settled in those territories, many of whom believed that the land had been promised to them by God.


The Intifada was a turning point for Yasser Arafat

  • It had come as a surprise for the PLO, now based in far away Tunis. 
  • Arafat’s leadership was threatened by the emergence of the UNLU (though largely loyal to the PLO) but also by the emergence of more radical terrorist organisations including Hamas (operating largely out of Gaza) and Islamic Jihad (operating largely out of the West Bank).
  • Arafat proposed that the PLO adopted a new, moderate position as a way of regaining control of the situation:
    • In 1988 at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers in mid-November, Arafat won a majority for the historic decision to recognise Israel’s legitimacy; to accept all the relevant UN resolutions going back to 29 November 1947; and to adopt the principle of a two-state solution in which Palestine would have Jerusalem for its capital.
    • In 1988, at the USA’s insistence, Arafat made a speech to the United Nations in which he renounced terrorism, called for Israel to remove itself from the occupied territories and join negotiations.  He was, in effect, finally accepting UN resolution 242.
    • This is in stark contrast to his previous position – which he stated in 1970 as follows: ‘Our basic aim is to liberate the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. We are not concerned with what took place in June 1967 or in eliminating the consequences of the June war. The Palestinian revolution’s basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it.’

The Impact of Arafat’s Speech

  • Arafat’s speech was completely groundbreaking for at least three reasons – 1. PLO was prepared to recognize the legitimacy of Israel; 2. It was prepared to adopt a two state solutin that had been resisted by Palestinians since 1917 (but particularly from 1937 and 1947); 3. it renounced violence and sought peace with Israel.
  • However, the impact of Arafat’s speech would be muted by three things:
    • Israel regarded the PLO as a terrorist organisation and did not accept Arafat’s two-state proposal.
    • Arafat’s peace initiatives were completely rejected by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which clung to original Arab goals of removing Israel altogether.
    • The end of the Cold War and the First Gulf War of 1991.

The End of the Cold War

  • The USSR’s over-commitment in Afghanistan is one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Economy and its retraction of control from Eastern Europe, until it finally dissolved itself in 1991.
  • The PLO lost its main source of finance and arms, weakening Arafat’s bargaining power;
  • 200,000 Jews migrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel and were being settled on the West Bank.
  • There were now fewer jobs for Palestinians among Israeli employers.
  • However, the USA no longer had to fear Soviet rivalry for influence in the Middle East – it was now the only real source of external funding and aid and therefore its influence among Arab states increased – meaning that it was less reliant on Israel as an ally.
  • This meant that the USA could bring more pressure on Yitzak Rabin to open negotiations with the PLO.

The Gulf War

  • The other great development in this period was the Gulf War which further decimated Yasser Arafat’s bargaining position.
  • When Iraq invaded the small oil producing Arab state of Kuwait, the USA improved its reputation among Arab nations by leading an international alliance that included Arab states Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria against Saddam Hussein’s occupying forces.
  • Israel’s reputation also improved.  Saddam Hussein fired missiles on Israel, hoping that Israel would retaliate and split the US-led coalition; but despite destroying over 4000 Israeli homes, Israel showed remarkable restraint and did not retaliate – no doubt because it was doing what it was told by the USA.
  • In contrast, Yasser Arafat’s reputation was severely damaged by the Gulf War because in contrast to the other Arab states, he supported Saddam Hussein because the latter had always supported the PLO.  As a result, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt withdrew their funding from the PLO and, after the war, 200,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait. 

Why these developments made negotiations more likely

Both the ending of the Cold War and the Gulf War had a negative impact on Yasser Arafat’s bargaining position, but ironically it made a deal more likely because he would have to reduce his demands in relation to issues like Jerusalem.  Similarly, the arrival of 200,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, meant that Israel needed American finance support more than ever. Meanwhile, America too came under pressure from its new found Arab allies who accused it of double standards – willing to remove the illegal occupying force from Kuwait, but not it seemed, from Gaza and the West Bank.

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