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Fact Sheet: 25th anniversary of the First Intifada

Twenty-five years ago this past weekend, a large-scale popular uprising by Palestinians began against Israel’s then 20-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Sparked by an incident in which four Palestinians were hit and killed by an Israeli driving in Gaza on December 8, 1987, Palestinian frustration at living under repressive Israeli military rule and Israel’s growing colonial settlement enterprise erupted, grabbing international headlines and drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. On this 25th anniversary, the IMEU offers the following fact sheet on the First Intifada.

By The Institute for Middle East Understanding

Palestinian women at the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip confront Israeli soldiers over the mistreatment and arrest of Palestinian youths. (photo: flickr / Robert Croma CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Facts and figures

During the First Intifada, Palestinians employ tactics such as unarmed demonstrations, including rock throwing against soldiers, commercial strikes, a refusal to pay taxes to Israeli authorities, and other acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. They are coordinated largely by grassroots ad hoc committees of Palestinians in the occupied territories rather than the PLO leadership abroad.

In response, Israeli soldiers use brutal force to repress the mostly unarmed popular rebellion. Then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin implements the infamous “broken bones” policy, ordering security forces to break the limbs [WARNING: Graphic video] of rock-throwing Palestinians and other demonstrators.

More than 1000 Palestinians are killed by Israeli forces during the First Intifada, including 237 children under the age of 17. Many tens of thousands more are injured.

According to an estimate by the Swedish branch of Save the Children, as many as 29,900 children require medical treatment for injuries caused by beatings from Israeli soldiers during the first two years of the Intifada alone. Nearly a third of them are aged ten or under. Save the Children also estimates that between 6500-8500 Palestinian minors are wounded by Israeli gunfire in the first two years of the Intifada.

In 2000 it is revealed that between 1988 and 1992 Israel’s internal security force, the Shin Bet, systematically tortures Palestinians using methods that go beyond what is allowable under government guidelines for “moderate physical pressure,” Israel’s official euphemism for torture. These methods include violent shaking, tying prisoners into painful positions for long periods, subjecting them to extreme heat and cold, and severe beatings, including kicking. At least 10 Palestinians die and hundreds of others are maimed as a result.

Approximately 120,000 Palestinians are imprisoned by Israel during the First Intifada.

In 1987, Hamas is founded in Gaza, formed from the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. During the 1980s, Israeli authorities encourage and tacitly support the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, viewing them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO, part of a strategy of divide and conquer.

In 1992, in the face of protests from the international community, including the UN Security Council through Resolution 799, Israel deports more than 400 suspected members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to southern Lebanon, including one of the founders of Hamas, Mahmoud Zahar, and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza today. Refused entry by the Lebanese government, which doesn’t want to confer legitimacy on Israel’s illegal deportation of Palestinians, the exiles spend a harsh winter outside in a no-man’s land limbo. Many observers consider this a turning point for Hamas, whose members are given assistance to survive by the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. In addition to basic sustenance, Hezbollah gives the Palestinians advice and military training honed during a decade of struggle against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon that began following the bloody Israeli invasion of 1982. Hamas subsequently begins to use suicide bombers against Israeli targets, a tactic that was a signature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel’s occupation. Under pressure from the US, Israel agrees to let the exiled Palestinians return to the occupied territories in 1993.

The First Intifada gradually tapers off in the face of brutal Israeli repression and political co-optation by the PLO, ending by 1993.

Political repercussions: Madrid, Oslo and beyond

The outbreak of the First Intifada surprises nearly everyone, including Israeli military and intelligence officials, and the leadership of the PLO, which is then based in Tunisia after being forced out of its base in Lebanon in 1982 by Israel’s invasion.The First Intifada creates immense international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and leads to international pressure on Israel to address Palestinian demands for freedom and self-determination.

While initially caught off guard, the PLO under Yasser Arafat attempts to harness the Intifada and exploit it politically. In 1988, the PLO recognizes the state of Israel. This is a major and historic compromise on the part of the Palestinians, who effectively renounce claim to 78 percent of historic Palestine. (See map here.)

Despite this compromise and pressure from the international community, the Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir (1989-1992) refuses to acknowledge the PLO or to engage in peace talks with Palestinian representatives. Frustrated at Israel’s intransigence, US Secretary of State James Baker famously reads off the White House switchboard telephone number during congressional testimony, adding to Shamir, who isn’t present, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

The Madrid Conference

President Bush addresses the Middle East Peace Conference at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain (photo: David Valdez / George Bush Library)

Following threats by the administration of George H.W. Bush to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees unless Israel ends settlement construction, Israeli Prime Minister Shamir finally agrees to meet with Palestinian representatives – but not PLO officials, despite the fact that the PLO is considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the UN and international community. Talks between Palestinians based in the occupied territories, who are in close contact with PLO officials behind the scenes, begin in Madrid in 1991.

Soon afterwards, in an attempt to bypass the Palestinian representatives sent to Madrid, the Israeli government begins secret negotiations with the PLO, weakened politically since the disaster of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and Arafat’s support for Iraq during the first Gulf War, believing it will be more willing to compromise on issues such as settlement construction and fundamental Palestinian rights like the right of return for refugees expelled from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1947-9.


In 1993, the PLO and the government of Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1993-1995) exchange official letters in which the Palestinians formally recognize “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security. In return Israel only acknowledges the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Pointedly, Israel does not recognize or accept the notion of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

The exchange of letters paves the way for the first of a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords. In September 1993, Rabin and Arafat sign the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. Oslo creates the Palestinian National Authority (PNA or PA), which is headed by Arafat.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

Oslo is supposed to be an interim agreement leading to a final peace agreement within five years, however the Israeli government under Rabin (1992-1995) and subsequent prime ministers has no intention of allowing the creation of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Although Rabin publicly agrees to a settlement freeze, Israel continues to build Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land unabated. Israeli officials also refuse to agree to any provisions in Oslo that would explicitly call for an independent Palestinian state, going so far as to refuse to allow the title of President to be used for the leader of the Palestinian National Authority (in the years to come, this title slowly comes into common use by journalists and others, despite Israel’s opposition.)

During the Oslo years (1993-2000), Israel begins to impose more severe restrictions on Palestinian movement between Israel and the occupied territories, between the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and within the occupied territories themselves. This is part of a policy intended to separate Palestinians and Israelis, and to separate the West Bank from Gaza, which are supposed to be a single territorial unit under the terms of Oslo.

Israel also rapidly expands its settlement enterprise. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), nearly doubles, from 110,900 to 190,206 according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Accurate figures for settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, which are mostly built and expanded before 1993, are harder to find, but as of 2000 the number of settlers in East Jerusalem stands at more than 167,000 according to B’Tselem. (See here for Peace Now’s up-to-date interactive “Facts on the Ground” settlement map.)

Settlements, which are illegal under international law, are strategically placed in locations to divide the occupied territories into a number of cantons, with Palestinian population centers isolated from one another and from the outside world. The settlements are connected to one another and to Israel by a network of roads and highways, most of which only Israelis are allowed to use, forming part of what has been dubbed Israel’s “matrix of control” over the occupied territories. Today, nearly 20 years after the start of Oslo, there are more than half a million Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In October 2000, Palestinian frustration at seven years of fruitless negotiations, during which time Israel further entrenches its occupation rather than rolling it back, boils over into a second, more violent uprising, sparked by a provocative visit by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who is reviled by Palestinians for his brutal record as an officer in the Israeli military and as defense minister, to the Noble Sanctuary mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem.

In July 2010, a video surfaces showing Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to a group of settlers in 2001, when he was in the opposition, bragging that he had sabotaged the Oslo peace process during his first term as prime minister (1996-1999), stating: “I de facto put an end to the Oslo accords,” adding that “America is a thing you can move very easily.” In the video, he also tells the settlers that the way to deal with Palestinians is to “beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it’s unbearable.”

The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) is an independent non-profit organization that provides journalists with quick access to information about Palestine and the Palestinians, as well as expert sources, both in the United States and in the Middle East. This fact sheet was originally published on the IMEU’s website. Read more about the IMEU here


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    1. rsgengland

      The term “non-violent” and “unarmed”
      to refer to stone throwers and slingshot users is a misnomer.
      The throwing of stones by slingshot or hand is an act of VIOLENCE.
      Rocks and stones break bones and can kill.
      Many Israelis have been injured or killed by these selfsame “non-violent” and “unarmed” stone throwers.
      The “left wing/right wing” anti-Israel alliance use these terms to mitigate the violent actions of certain groups, who use these actions to try and provoke Israeli soldiers.
      If the Israeli soldiers respond it is rated as a victory by these groups, irrespective of the circumstances in which they occur.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        This piece of propaganda also convieniently left out the prominent use of firebombs which are quite deadly and caused casualties among Israelis. I guess the writer figured it is better no to mention them because unlike rockthrowing, which as was pointed out above, is also a dangerous act of violence, firebombs can’t be merely dismissed as a “symoblic non-violent” non-violent act.

        Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      Two things, first a remark:
      . The first intifada was linked in Israeli minds (no doubt helped by what politicians and press pundits told them) to the attacks on Israelis and Jews that preceded it, from the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the bus 300 attack to Entebbe and Maalot. It looked to Israelis like the latest in a long series of attempts to annihilate them.

      And then a question:
      As the Israelis had already occupied south Lebanon for 10 years by 1992, why didn’t they take the 400 Hamas men straight into Lebanon instead of leaving them in no-man’s land in the hope that the Lebanese government would grant them entry?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Post 2000 suicide bombings are not even mentioned herein, let alone their death toll.

      I do not think discourse for Palestinian rights is enhanced by ignoring events which have been crucial to the formation of present Israeli public opinion. If you want relief, be honest; for dishonesty, and omission here is dishonest, will only help your opponents.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Greg, I wish you were right, that dishonest propaganda (which this article is) is counter-productive. But lies do work.

        Reply to Comment
      • sh

        This article deals with the 25th anniversary of the first intifada. The year 2000 saw the start of the second intifada which is outside its scope. My remark was just to give context to the first one, at least as seen through Israeli eyes because that’s the side I know about. It would have been good to have some through Palestinian eyes too. Anyone?

        Reply to Comment
    4. And don’t forget that Madrid was used by the zionist thugs to get Resolution 3379 revoked, equating zionism with racism. Once this was done, nothing stood in their way of continuing their colonial policies. Only now it seems that there is as much international outrage about the ongoing zionist crimes, comparable to the years after the 1967 war.
      But in the mean time, the facts on the ground have been immensely augmented and the attitude has gotten worse. So we should all regret the 1975 resolution is no longer valid.

      Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      Each round of violence the Arabs have initiated since 1920, they say “this time we will get it right and finish them off”.

      In 1936 they said “this time we will wreck their economy as well as kill them as we did in 1920, 1921 and 1929.
      In 1948 they said “1936 didn’t work because we weren’t strong enough, but this time the Arab armies will come in and finish the job”.
      In 1956 they said “we lost in 1948 because the Arabs were colonialist puppets, but this time we have Nasser, a true Arab patriot”.
      In 1967 they said “we lost in 1956 because Israel was backed by Britain and France, but this time Israel is alone and isolate”.
      In 1973 they said “We lost in 1967 because they struck first, this time we struck first”.
      In 1987, they said “we lost in 1973 because traitors like Sadat were not willing to pay the price to achieve victory, this time we (Palestinians) will stand alone and we have the backing of a mass uprising.
      In 2000 they said “the mass uprising didn’t do the job because the masses got tired, this time we will use suicide bombers who create mass casualties without needing large-scale participation of the population”.

      In 2012 they said “mass suicide bombings didn’t work because we were isolated and it is hard to recruit bombers and organizers, this time we have rockets which can be fired from across the border and in addition, we now have a Muslim Brotherhood gov’t in Egypt that supports us”.

      In spite of all these Arab onslaughts Israel has grown and prospered and moved further and further ahead of the Arab world ecnomically, socially, and militarily. What will be their excuse for failure in the future? Will they ever realize that peace is the way and not endless warfare?

      Reply to Comment
      • Elisabeth

        No references for your ‘quotes’, huh? (By the way, voices in your head are usually not such a good sign.)

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Why should anyone bother and produce quotes to someone who does not even exist – such as yourself.

          Reply to Comment
          • sh

            Tresp., I thought you didn’t do ad hominems.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Aaron Gross

      Misleading, dishonest propaganda. Garbage.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Mitchell Cohen

      Also conveniently left out is who the TRUE occupiers of Lebanon were MANY years before 1982. Maybe +972 bloggers should give an interview to Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian, who lived through the brutal occupation of Southern Lebanon (including in a bomb shelter for about seven years) until the Israeli army came to help out the Lebanese Christian minority, who were being targeted for genocide by Hezbollah, by pushing them further north to Beirut, so people like Gabrielle, the rest of the residents of her town, and other Christian towns like hers could live a life outside of a bomb shelter. Nice whitewash of Hezbollah and one-sided presentation though.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Weinstein Henry

      Sure Aaron Gross & Mitchell Cohen, this study is so one-sided that it is a case model of one-sided narrative. But that’s what Hasbara did and is still doing. The IMEU uses the same techniques with the same goal: to portray itself – here Palestinian side – as the innocent victim.
      The tagline could be: it looks like Hasbara, it tastes like Hasbara, but it is not Hasbara.
      There is an interesting recent analysis about Hasbara’s savoir-faire posted on Middle East Policy Council: Hasbara and the Control of Narrative as an Element of Strategy.
      Now the questions are: what’s worth posting on +972 as “Resource” an one-sided study without presentation, what’s worth an one-sided “Resource”?
      The conflict may be asymmetrical on the military ground, the use of force, but not on the media ground.

      Reply to Comment