IX. The First Intifada And The Beginning Of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

IX. The First Intifada And The Beginning Of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

Children Demonstration Throught the Streets of al-Mazra‘a al-Sharqiyya

February 1988
The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Joss Dray Photographs
Joss Dray

The period 1987–93 witnessed the outbreak of the first intifada, which caused a major shift in both Israeli and Palestinian thinking about the conflict and its peaceful resolution. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that led to an American-led war against Iraq in early 1991 also dramatically shifted the regional balance of power, as did the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One result of all of this was the beginning of the first face-to-face Arab-Israeli talks since the Camp David Accords of 1979.

The first intifada broke out on 9 December 1987, when an Israeli truck struck and killed several Palestinians in Gaza. Wide-scale protests broke out, and Israeli occupation forces soon faced a massive civil insurrection that quickly spread to the West Bank. Israeli forces responded to rock-throwing crowds of young men with beatings, curfews, mass detentions, and deadly force, but they failed to halt the protests. Local committees sprang up in towns and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza, both to maintain popular support for the intifada and to provide social services. Civil disobedience, including strikes, boycotts of Israeli products, and refusal to pay Israeli taxes, spread and became an additional dimension of the mass resistance to Israeli occupation.

The intifada and the scale of popular support for it came as a surprise and were initially spontaneous. In retrospect,  they represented the climax of a build-up in civil society activism, strikes, demonstrations, and mounting mobilization against Israeli practices in the occupied territories, especially during the preceding twelve months. As the intifada stretched into 1988 and then 1989, it became clear to Israel that its traditional methods for controlling the Palestinians in the occupied territories no longer worked. The Israeli public became increasingly aware of the financial and strategic costs of ruling a rebellious population. For the PLO, the spontaneity of the intifada revealed two things: first, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, suffering under direct Israeli military occupation, could no longer be counted on to wait patiently for the PLO to come to their rescue from outside the homeland. Second, a new generation of relatively independent leaders had arisen in the territories, ideologically tied to the PLO and coordinating with it rather than subject to its direct orders.

The year 1988 was pivotal for the intifada and the PLO. On 8 January, a coordinating committee for the intifada called the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising  (UNLU) issued its first communiqué. The initial committee consisted of members of Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Several days later, a representative from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) joined, followed; in March by the Palestine Communist Party. This secretive four-person body sought to direct the intifada through its periodic statements. The UNLU coordinated policies with PLO leaders in Tunisia, particularly high-level Fatah leader Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad). Israel believed him to be responsible for guiding the intifada and dispatched commandos who assassinated him in Sidi Bu Sa‛id, Tunisia, on 16 April 1988.

The start of the intifada witnessed also a shift in the Gaza Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of its armed wing directed against Israel. On 14 December 1987 a communiqué announced the establishment of an “Islamic Resistance Movement” (to be known later on under the acronym Hamas).  The group formally declared its affiliation with the Brotherhood in February 1988 and issued its charter, which called for the total liberation of all Palestine and rejecting negotiations, in August. Hamas operated outside of the PLO and represented a challenge to the PLO. In October 1988, Hamas agreed to work with the UNLU, although it did not formally join it. Hamas issued its own communiqués calling for strike days different from those called for by the UNLU.

Diplomatically, the intifada prompted major changes regionally and internationally. It revealed the depth of pro-PLO sympathy in the West Bank. Accordingly, Jordan’s King Hussein formally cut all administrative ties with the West Bank on 31 July 1988, essentially giving up on having the territory return to Jordanian control and conceding responsibility for it to the PLO. On 15 November 1988, the Palestine National Council, meeting in Algiers, declared the independence of a Palestinian state, on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 181. At the same time, it issued another document stating its acceptance of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. On 14 December, after Arafat reaffirming his rejection of terrorism, the U.S. government announced for the first time that it would begin a dialogue with the PLO. However, it cut off this dialogue on 20 June 1990 following a failed raid on Israel by a guerrilla group from the Iraqi-backed Palestine Liberation Front.

With the intifada still underway, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The PLO supported the initiative presented by the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on 12 August, linking the solution of the Gulf crisis with that of Arab-Israeli conflict. Various PLO figures offered different opinions about the occupation and, later, about the American-led attack on Iraq that began in January 1991. On the whole, however, the world perceived the PLO as supportive of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states cut precipitously their financial support. The “revenge” expulsion of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents of Kuwait after the country’s liberation worsened the situation further. Arafat suffered another blow during the Gulf Crisis when Palestinian leader Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) was assassinated in Tunis by a Palestinian, on 14 January 1991.

In the wake of the Gulf War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. President George H. W. Bush decided to reward the Arab coalition against Iraq and to use the United States’ newfound influence in the region to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict diplomatically. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a number of trips to the Middle East to lay the basis for a peace conference that would involve Israel, the Arab states, and non-PLO Palestinians. In the spring and summer of 1991, a weakened  PLO authorized a group of Palestinian figures in the West Bank and Gaza to meet with Baker. The latter devised a formula, acceptable by Israel, whereby Palestinian negotiators, though implicitly appointed by the PLO, would be part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to negotiate a five-year self-government arrangement for the West Bank and Gaza. On 30 October 1991, the Madrid Conference opened under the sponsorship of the United States and the Soviet Union (then only two months away from dissolving).  

The Madrid Conference and the successive rounds of negotiations that were held in Washington during the following months led to improving the Palestinian image in the world and strengthening Palestinian identity. Thus, in January 1992, the Palestinian delegates practically split away from the Jordanian delegation and began separate bilateral talks with the Israelis. Their ties and identification with the PLO leadership became more and more visible. However, in terms of negotiation issues, the gap continued to be wide between their demands and Israel’s positions, even after Labor’s electoral victory with Yitzhak Rabin in June 1992. The deportation of more than 400 Islamic militants to South Lebanon in December was a reminder that much more than the Madrid terms of reference was needed to open the road toward a serious solution of the Palestine question. In January 1993 a secret negotiation channel was opened that led in Summer 1993 to an accord, but not necessarily one that would set the stage for a satisfactory solution.        

Selected Bibliography: 

Ashrawi, Hanan. This Side of Peace: A Personal Account. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Hallaj, Muhammad. “Taking Sides: Palestinians and the Gulf Crisis.Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.3 (Spring 1991): 41–47.

Lockman, Zachary, and Joel Beinin, eds. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising against Israeli Occupation. Washington, DC: Middle East Research and Information Project, 1989.

Mansour, Camille. The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations: An Overview and Assessment: October 1991–January 1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1993.

Peretz, Don. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

Schiff, Ze’ev and Ehud Ya’ari. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising—Israel’s Third Front. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Tamari, Salim. “The Palestinian Movement in Transition: Historical Reversals and the Uprising.Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.2 (Winter 1991): 57–70