Part 2 of 3.

The previous instalment of this article traced the impact of the First Intifada—a mass nonviolent Palestinian civil revolt that erupted in December 1987—at the United Nations. This section examines the impact of the Intifada on a second component of the international consensus which today prevails on Palestine: international human rights organisations.


The First Intifada forced the attention of international human rights organisations upon Israel’s occupation.

The most important of these was Amnesty International, which dramatically increased its coverage of the conflict during the uprising. Also significant was the establishment by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 1989 of its Middle East committee, which over the next five years issued fully 12 publications on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), including four full-length reports.[1] The extent and brutality of Israel’s repression, its explicit acknowledgement and justification by Israel’s political leadership[2] and the political cover provided by newly established Israeli human rights organisations[3] meant that this expanded coverage also reached unprecedentedly decisive and damning verdicts on Israel’s conduct.

The use of torture and ill-treatment by Israeli security forces is a case in point.[4]  “From 1967,” Amnesty International reported in 2003, “the Israeli security services have routinely tortured Palestinian political suspects in the Occupied Territories.”[5] Reports of widespread torture also surfaced early on in the occupation.[6] But prior to the Intifada, they had been levelled primarily by organisations on the political margins—courageous and principled but still far-left Israeli lawyers and activists, radical international NGOs and Palestinian human rights groups—that could be safely dismissed or ignored.[7] On the other side, these allegations, on those rare occasions when they were publicly acknowledged, were routinely dismissed, denied or deflected by Israel and its influential supporters.

Amnesty International had mainstream cachet, but its coverage of the occupation in this period was largely restricted to individual cases of alleged ill-treatment and Israel’s “lack of effective safeguards” to prevent them.[8] Amnesty’s global surveys of torture in the 1970s and 1980s were strikingly timid on Israel. The landmark publication Torture in the Eighties noted that Amnesty had received “reports of ill-treatment” of Palestinians in the OPT whose “frequency and consistency” indicated that “some” detainees had been maltreated.[9] But it recoiled from the locution “torture” in relation to alleged Israeli misconduct even as it described the same practices—for instance, beating and forced standing—as “[m]ethods of torture” and “torture techniques” when conducted by other states.[10]

In October 1987, an official Israeli commission of inquiry found that Israel’s General Security Service (Shin Bet) had systematically perjured over the course of nearly two decades to conceal its use of physical coercion to extract confessions from Palestinian detainees.[11] The report of the inquiry, which was adopted by Israel’s cabinet a month before the Intifada erupted, endorsed the use of “a moderate measure of physical pressure” in security interrogations. This was widely interpreted as legalising torture.[12] Still, Amnesty confined itself to conveying “allegations” and “reports” of torture by Israel[13] and, prior to 1989, never once categorically affirmed that even a single instance of even the lesser crime of “ill-treatment” had occurred.[14]

The Intifada made Israel’s policy of torture impossible to ignore.

In 1991, the most prominent Israeli and international human rights organisations each published substantial reports alleging widespread torture and ill-treatment by Israel. In March, a B’Tselem study found that the Shin Bet had practiced “widespread and routine” torture.[15] This generated significant media attention, both in Israel and abroad.[16] A HRW report on Israeli prison conditions published the following month began by quoting the findings of B’Tselem and added that Israel’s government had “in effect sanctioned the use of physical force against detainees under interrogation.”[17] In July, a full-length Amnesty investigation concluded that Israel’s “military justice system effectively endorses torture or ill-treatment,” which had as a result been “virtually institutionalised.”[18] The same month saw the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) take the rare step of publicly voicing its concerns about Israel’s treatment of detainees and urging Israeli authorities to “give special attention” to the matter.[19]

The damning human rights coverage continued throughout the years of the uprising. Amnesty’s 1992 annual report made for a horrifying read:

Palestinian detainees were systematically tortured or ill-treated during interrogation. Methods including beatings all over the body, often concentrated on sensitive areas such as the genitals; hooding with dirty sacks; sleep deprivation; shackling in painful positions; and confinement in small, dark cells called “closets” or, when kept cold, “refrigerators.”[20]

A follow-up by B’Tselem to its 1991 study, published in 1992, reported “little real change in the pattern of interrogation of Palestinian suspects”—“[the] methods we described in our original report continue to be used in a widespread and routine way . . . These methods certainly constitute ill-treatment and correspond to most accepted definitions of torture.”[21] Later that year, the ICRC issued a second, and much sharper statement, accusing Israeli forces of employing “means of physical and psychological pressure . . . that constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention” and calling on the Israeli government to “put an immediate end to the ill-treatment inflicted on detainees.”[22] A book-length HRW study published in 1994 found that Israel’s “two main interrogation agencies in the occupied territories engage in a systematic pattern of ill-treatment and torture.” The scale of the abuse was “enormous”: between 4,000 and 6,000 Palestinians were subjected to interrogation each year, and of these, “nearly all” were “tortured or severely ill-treated.”[23]

Prior to the First Intifada, Israel’s regime in the OPT had enjoyed an international reputation as a “benign occupation.” The reports of mainstream human rights organisations, and the media coverage they generated, introduced ever broader European and American audiences to the grim realities of Israeli military rule. By 1990, the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, which had done much of the heavy lifting to amass evidence of and legally analyse Israel’s abuses during the 1980s, could decide that it no longer “need[ed] to document human rights violations in order to prove to our audience that they do in face take place, as was the case prior to December 1987.”[26] This was perhaps premature, but once B’Tselem, Amnesty and HRW began publishing regular and for the most part unflinching reports on Israel’s repression of the uprising, apologists for Israel’s “benign occupation” were placed decidedly on the defensive in the court of international public opinion, where they have since remained.


Addendum: The New York Times and Israel’s “benign occupation”

Between 1967 and 1980, the New York Times depicted Israel’s occupation as “benign and gentle” (23.6.67), “benign” (16.6.68), involving “a minimum of military repression” (5.10.70), “benign” (27.8.72), “singularly quiet” and “liberal” (6.5.73), “in many respects, the most liberal military occupation in contemporary history” (24.11.74), “enlightened and liberal” (25.3.76), “generally benign” (1.11.77) and “quite liberal” (15.6.78).[24] 

As Israel’s repression increased during the 1980s, under the “Iron Fist” policies of prime ministers Menachem Begin (1982) and Yitzhak Rabin (1985), such characterisations largely disappeared while occasional contrary notes could be heard: “[t]he Israeli Government’s ouster of three elected Palestinian mayors from their West Bank posts confirms the end of what Israelis once proudly called a ‘liberal’ occupation policy” (4.4.82); “The Israeli occupation [is] . . . benign . . . by the standards of today’s world . . . But there is intimidation: There has to be” (7.5.84).

However, it took Israel’s publicised repression of a mass nonviolent uprising—the First Intifada—to definitively discredit the occupation’s enlightened image: “There is simply no genteel democratic way to keep a restive population of more than one million in check. This is the lesson Israel is learning, to its sorrow, in Gaza, Judea and Samaria” (24.12.87); “To call the occupation ‘benign’ was always wishful. The uprising against it makes manifest the real feelings of the occupied” (17.1.88); “Over the nearly 27 years Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, some American supporters of Israel have often described the occupation as ‘benign’. It was a wishful notion, a reassuring illusion. Now the illusion is over” (1.4.94).

A 1976 New York Times editorial characterised Israeli rule in the OPT as “among the most benign military occupations of modern times.” An editorial published by the same paper in January 1988, less than two months into the Intifada, illustrated the transformation in liberal opinion the uprising had wrought:

[Israel is] resorting to brazen brutality . . . the state that once promised deliverance to the oppressed has truly lost its way . . . Thus does a truly humane country with a democratic government that is determined to deny parallels with South Africa invite parallels with South Africa . . . When a democratic government turns to thuggery as policy, it risks losing far more than control.

Part 1 of this article traces the impact of the First Intifada—a mass nonviolent Palestinian civil revolt that erupted in December 1987—at the United Nations. Part 3 considers the potential for mass nonviolent resistance in the Gaza Strip today.


[1] HRW, The Israeli Army and the Intifada: Policies that contribute to the killings (August 1990); HRW, Prison Conditions in Israel and Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip (April 1991); HRW, A License to Kill: Israeli undercover operations against “wanted” and masked Palestinians (August 1993); HRW, Torture and Ill-treatment: Israel’s interrogation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (June 1994). The number of publications reached 14 if one includes reports on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Kuwait.

[2] “[The] exposure given world-wide to Israel’s reaction to the uprising,” the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq noted in 1990, “has forced the [Israeli] authorities to go on record defending particular policies which even the most casual observer could understand as blatantly illegal.” The international republication of Al-Haq’s 1988 report on the Intifada, from which this quote is taken, was facilitated by HRW. See Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man, Punishing a Nation: Israeli human rights violations during the Palestinian uprising, December 1987-December 1988 (Boston: 1990 [1988], pp. xiii-xiv; Lori Allen, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford: 2013), p. 44.

[3] B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), both established in 1989.

[4] See Norman G. Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquest Into its Martyrdom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018), pp. 111-12.

[5] Amnesty International (2003), quoted in Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History updated edition (Berkeley, CA: 2008, first edition 2005), p. 155. For further documentation, see Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquest, p. 111. The level of torture and ill-treatment appears to have declined in the period 1978-83, steadily increased through the mid-1980s and reached epidemic levels during the uprising. See B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians During the Intifada: Ill-treatment, “Moderate Physical Pressure” or Torture? (March 1991), p. 27; US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights, 1978-1995.

[6] For a summary and discussion of several of these early reports, see Amnesty International, Report and recommendations of an Amnesty International mission to the Government of the State of Israel, 3-7 June 1979 (Nottingham: 1980); Amnesty International, Report on Torture second edition (London: 1975; first edition 1973), pp. 78-79; B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians, pp. 27-29.

[7] Significant exceptions included the Sunday Times’ explosive investigation of Israeli torture in 1977 and Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor coverage of torture allegations leveled by US consulate official Alexandra Johnson in 1979. For others, see HRW, “Israeli interrogation methods under fire after death of detained Palestinian” (March 1992), footnote 17.

[8] Amnesty International, Annual Report 1979 (1979), p. 161. However, a 1970 investigation found that Syrian prisoners of war detained by Israel had been subject to “abuses,” including “beating, kicking and threats” and “burning with cigarettes,” and described such practices as “methods of torture.” (It reached similar findings in respect of Israeli prisoners of war detained by Syria.) See Amnesty International, Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic to Investigate Allegations of Ill-Treatment and Torture (10-24 October 1974), pp. 31-32; Amnesty, Report on Torture, p. 232.

[9] Amnesty International, Report on Torture, pp. 231-34; Torture in the Eighties (1984), pp. 233-34.

[10] As well as by Israel in the context of its treatment of Syrian prisoners of war. See Amnesty International, Torture in the Eighties, pp. 163, 237; Note 8 above.

[11] State of Israel, Commission of Inquiry into the Methods of Investigation of the General Security Service Regarding Hostile Terrorist Activity: Report, Part One (“Landau Commission”) (October 1987), §2.30, p. 25 (“False testimony in court . . . became an unchallenged norm which was to be the rule for 16 years”).

[12] State of Israel, Landau Commission, §4.7, p. 80; cf. §2.21, p. 19; B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians, p. 26 (“. . . the Commission gave the Shin Bet what it wanted: the stamp of kashrut.  In the words of the leading legal critic of the report, Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer (now Dean of the Hebrew University Law School), the ‘intent to injure with a wrongful objective’ is now ‘institutionalised, systematic, wholesale and trained; it is legalised at the highest level. . .” ).

[13] Amnesty International, Annual Report 1988 (1988), pp. 240-42.

[14] Amnesty International, “Construction Worker Tortured” (ACT 73/08/89, July 1989).

[15] B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians, p. 6.

[16] See HRW, “Israeli interrogation methods under fire”; B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians During the Intifada: Follow up to March 1991 B’Tselem report (March 1992), pp. 8-12.

[17] HRW, Prison Conditions, pp. 10-11. It still refrained, however, from using the word “torture” to describe Israel’s conduct.

[18] Amnesty International, The Military Justice System in the Occupied Territories: Detention, interrogation and trial procedures (July 1991), pp. 6, 42. The relevant phraseology in Amnesty’s annual reports progressed from “allegations of ill-treatment and torture” and “inadequacy of safeguards to prevent” it (1981-1987) to “a marked increase in reports of torture and ill-treatment” (1988) to “reports of torture and systematic ill-treatment of political detainees” (1990) to “[t]he systematic use of ill-treatment during interrogation was widespread” (1991)” to “Palestinian detainees were systematically tortured or ill-treated during interrogation” (1992-1996) to “Torture and ill-treatment of Palestinians during interrogation continued to be systematic and officially sanctioned” (1997-1999). The Israeli Cabinet’s November 1987 endorsement of the Landau Commission report, which found that Israel’s security services used “harsh” interrogation methods on Palestinian detainees and endorsed the use of “moderate physical pressure,” helped Amnesty to connect individual cases of abuse to a policy—see Amnesty International, Annual Report 1992 (1992), p. 152. Cf. Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 155.

[19] ICRC, cited in Amnesty International, Torture and Ill-Treatment of Political Detainees (April 1994), p. 1.

[20] Amnesty International, Annual Report 1992 (1992), p. 152.

[21] B’Tselem, Follow up, p. 51.

[22] ICRC, cited in Amnesty International, Torture and Ill-Treatment, p. 1 and US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992 (February 1993), p. 1022.

[23] HRW, Torture and Ill-Treatment. A 1994 Amnesty report opens by stating that Palestinians in Israeli detention are often subjected to “torture or ill-treatment,” before proceeding to observe that a number of “Israeli and Palestinian rights activists and organisations” have in “recent years . . . produced a large body of evidence of torture and ill-treatment.” Further on, Amnesty itself alleges “the persisting use of torture and ill-treatment.” The “torture and ill-treatment” wording would not materialise in Amnesty’s Annual Report until 1997. See Amnesty International, Torture and Ill-Treatment, pp. 1-2; Note 18 above.

[24] To be sure, such presentations were often qualified—for instance, by warnings that the “benign” character of the occupation could not be sustained indefinitely without doing something to satisfy Palestinian political aspirations.

[25] Rare contrary notes were also struck during the 1980s as Israeli repression—under the “Iron Fist” policies of Menachem Begin (1982) and Yitzhak Rabin (1985)—increased. A 1982 op-ed, for example, held that “[t]he Israeli Government’s ouster of three elected Palestinian mayors from their West Bank posts confirms the end of what Israelis once proudly called a ‘liberal’ occupation policy.” (4.4.82)

[26] Al-Haq, Punishing a Nation, p. xiv; cf. Mouin Rabbani, “Palestinian human rights activism under Israeli occupation: The case of Al-Haq,” Arab Studies Quarterly 16.2 (Spring 1994).

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