Prior to the First Intifada, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (OPT) seemed, in the eyes of foreign observers, “too intimidated, divided, and politically suppressed to ever develop a coherent alternative leadership”[1] while the international resonance of the Palestinian cause was at a historic low. The “focus of attention in the Middle East is shifting,” reported the New York Times in October 1987, “from the Arab-Israeli theatre to the Persian Gulf. The Palestinian-Jewish conflict seems to be slowly receding to its original nucleus and size, confined to the two communities inside Israel and the occupied territories, while the eastern Arab world is now fully engaged with the threat from radical Shiite Iran.”[2] The paper had previously reported:

[For] most Arab governments, the Palestinian issue has been supplanted by more immediate problems, indeed concern for their very survival, in the face of a number of factors including the possibility of Iranian success in the long-running Gulf war with Iraq, mounting Islamic fundamentalism, an economic crisis with severe social fall-out because of the crash in oil prices and the frustrations of a vast, newly educated generation, more than half the population of the Arab world.[3]

The November 1987 summit of the Arab League, the first to be held in Jordan, saw the Palestinian issue “dropped . . . to second-class status”: “For the first time since the Arab League was founded in 1944, the primary focus of such a meeting is not Palestine and Zionism, but rather Iran and Islamic revolution.”[4] Egypt, previously shunned for having concluded a separate peace with Israel, was welcomed back into the fold as the Arab states “placed Iran ahead of Israel as a threat to Arab order.”[5] This reordering of priorities did not go unnoticed. Days before the Intifada erupted, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, gloated before the General Assembly that “things are changing”: “Three weeks ago at the Arab summit in Amman, the Arab leaders appeared to have discovered a new ‘core’ to the Middle East conflict. In an unusual display of rhetorical unity, they put the old ‘core,’ the Palestinian one, on the back burner.”[6]

The Intifada catapulted Palestinians and Palestine to the top of the international agenda, generating sufficient international concern and outrage to unite virtually the entire international community behind a framework and process for resolving the conflict and force Israel and the US on the defensive. It also put paid once and for all to attempts at ending the conflict by circumventing Palestinian agency. At the Arab summit a month before the uprising, the host, Jordan’s King Hussein, his star riding high in the Arab world, had gone out of his way to humiliate PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, not bothering to receive him at Amman airport despite personally welcoming every other Arab leader who attended the summit.[7] Less than a year into the Intifada, Hussein formally disengaged from the West Bank.

Ultimately, as the Palestinian struggle on the ground waned and in the context of the Gulf War, the US was able to assert control over the diplomatic process and the brief period of General Assembly assertiveness and unity passed. Some of the Intifada’s gains proved transient; they vanished along with the moment of political possibility that popular struggle had created. Notably, as the US-led peace process took hold General Assembly voting regressed to pre-Intifada patterns, as European states in particular became wary of interfering in the negotiations:

Year Resolution Vote
1983 38/58 C 124-4-15
1984 39/49 D 121-3-23
1985 40/96 D 107-3-41
1986 41/43 D 123-3-19
1987 42/66 D 129-2-24
1988 43/176 138-2-2
1989 43/233 129-2-1
1989 44/42 151-3-1
1990 45/68 144-2-0
1991 46/75 104-2-43
1992 47/64 D 93-4-60

Other gains proved lasting, notably Jordan’s disengagement from the West Bank and the undisputed international recognition of the necessity of PLO involvement in the peace process. Most importantly, the Intifada established the two-state solution as the basis for resolving the conflict.


Many Palestinians today consider the First Intifada a failure. There are understandable reasons for this judgement. The pressure the uprising ultimately brought to bear on Israel was sufficient to force Israel to rationalise its occupation, but not to bring it to an end. This rationalisation came at a heavy price for the Palestinians, on top of the immense sacrifice and struggle of the Intifada itself. Even so, the achievements of the Intifada were astonishing. Indeed, the Intifada did much to set the international political coordinates which today shape the possibilities for resistance in Palestine.

In certain respects, the conditions which now prevail in Palestine and the wider region are particularly inhospitable to mass mobilisation. The fratricidal bloodletting which has engulfed the Middle East has raised the bar for international outrage and threatens constantly to direct international attention—the crucial prerequisite for nonviolent resistance—away from Palestine. Internally, the Palestinian political system is divided and the Palestinian people fragmented in ways that, prior to the 1987 uprising, “would have been difficult to imagine.”

On the other hand, the international environment—reflecting, among other things, the enduring legacy of the First Intifada—is today more promising than it was back then.

Israel’s 2008-9 and 2014 massacres in Gaza, together with Israeli forces’ lethal assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010, provoked widespread international outrage and alienated even traditionally “pro-Israel” constituencies.[8] Most strikingly, the decade since Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) has seen growing numbers of American Jews—young Jews in particular—distance themselves from Israel and even participate in active solidarity with the Palestinians. What drove this shift in public opinion was not a worsening of Israel’s human rights record, which, on the contrary, has improved over time.[9] Rather, Israel’s human rights abuses have, since the First Intifada, been increasingly reported by international human rights NGOs and Western media, and this accumulating record had by the late 2000s finally begun to filter through to the political mainstream.[10]

The political upshot is, Palestinians now have a sympathetic audience.

Israeli officials are well aware of the potency of Palestine’s international resonance. “The sight of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians marching toward the border fence,” veteran Israeli journalist Ben Caspit reported in 2015, “is the cause of many a nightmare for the Israeli leadership.” “Attempts to break through the fence,” another senior Israeli analyst observed, “are [the] nightmare scenario for the defence establishment”:

What will happen if thousands of Palestinians march on the fence, knock it down and continue their march into Israel? Will Israel respond with gunfire that will lead to a massacre?

Israel’s “nightmare scenario” may soon be realised.

The people of Gaza have again embarked on a campaign of mass nonviolent resistance—this time not merely to demand their rights, but to pre-empt their collective expiration.[11]

Protest organisers have thus far focused on a demand—the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel—which, even as it conforms to international law, lacks popular resonance.

Even so, images of unarmed Palestinians being picked off by Israeli snipers have ignited growing popular indignation that is already beginning to register at the political level.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatah Bensouda, has issued a statement noting that “any new alleged crime committed in the context of the situation in Palestine may be subjected to my Office’s scrutiny” and warning that “[v]iolence against civilians—in a situation such as the one prevailing in Gaza—could constitute crimes under the Rome Statute.”

In the UK, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has condemned Israel’s firing of “live ammunition into crowds of unarmed civilians” as “illegal and inhumane,” called for “an independent international inquiry” and urged a “review” of arms sales to Israel.

In the US, Senator Bernie Sanders has lamented the “killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces” and called for the US to “play a more positive role in ending” the “inhumane blockade of Gaza.” Sanders condemned violence by Hamas, but added that such violence “cannot excuse shooting at unarmed protesters, and it cannot excuse trapping almost two million people inside Gaza.” Sanders has reportedly initiated a Congressional letter urging the Trump administration to improve conditions in Gaza. This follows multiple statements by leading progressive Democrats, including future presidential contender Senator Elizabeth Warren, expressing concern over the deaths in Gaza and urging Israel to adhere to international law.

A recent New York Times editorial called for an “independent” international investigation into the killings in Gaza, suggested that Israeli forces have deliberately targeted journalists and concluded with unusual force: “ordinary Palestinians have few defenders, and much of the world has been shockingly mute about what’s happening in Gaza. Journalists have a right to work, and people have a right to demonstrate peacefully—and to assume that responsible authorities will ensure that they can do so without being shot.”

Meanwhile, young American Jews are rising to the occasion in admirable fashion. Already, dozens of Jewish activists have been arrested in the course of protests against Israel’s repression.

Every mainstream international human rights organisation has condemned Israel’s blockade of Gaza as “collective punishment” (International Committee of the Red Cross) imposed “in flagrant violation of international law” (Amnesty International). An official inquiry adopted by the UN Human Rights Council and authored by an American judge called for the siege to be lifted “immediately and unconditionally.”[12]

The lesson of the First Intifada is this.

If Palestinians in Gaza continue to mobilise en masse, maintaining strict nonviolence in the face of lethal repression by Israel and demanding an end to the “illegal” (Amnesty) and “inhumane” (Bernie Sanders) siege—they can win.

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 2 examines the transformative impact of the First Intifada on the human rights coverage of Israel’s occupation.


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “The three sides of the Palestinian side,” New York Times (9 March 1986), p. E3.

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, “A long fuse burns slowly on Israel’s borders,” New York Times (18 October 1987), p. 218.

[3] John Kifner, “Arab lands shrug at Israel’s change of guard,” New York Times (22 October 1986), p. A8. Palestine displaced from the Arab agenda by rivalry with Iran, Islamic fundamentalism and youth-led discontent—hard to imagine now. . .

[4] Thomas L. Friedman, “Arab talks: topic is Iran,” New York Times (10 November 1987), p. A8.

[5] Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Moderates at Arab talks seize the day,” New York Times (15 November 1987), p. E4.

[6] A/42/PV.89 (2 December 1987), p. 22. This is a theme to which Netanyahu, as Prime Minister, has more recently returned.

[7] Aryeh Shalev, The Intifada: Causes and Effects (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), p. 131.

[8] See Norman G. Finkelstein, “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, second edition (London and New York, NY: OR Books, 2011; first edition 2010).

[9] For example: whereas Israel killed some 1,400 Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) and more than 2,100 in Operation Protective Edge (2014), during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon (Operation Peace for the Galilee) as many as 18,000 people were killed. For the Gaza figures, see UN Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (25 September 2009), para. 30; UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict (24 June 2015), para. 574. For Lebanon, see Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War third edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001; first edition 1990, second edition 1992), p. 418.

[10] Such is the argument of Norman G. Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (London and New York, NY: OR Books, 2012), Part I.

[11] The UN has for years warned that Gaza may be rendered “unliveable” by 2020. In February 2016, the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence concurred with this assessment, while a July 2017 UN update found it to be overly optimistic. See UNCTAD, Report on UNCTAD Assistance to the Palestinian People: Developments in the Economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (6 July 2015), para. 60; “IDF intel chief warns despair in Gaza could explode toward Israel,” Times of Israel (24 February 2016); UN Country Team in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Gaza Ten Years Later (July 2017), p. 3.

[12] UN Human Rights Council, 2014 Gaza Conflict, para. 681(d).


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