December 9, 1987 is a crucial day in the history of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation. That date marks the start of the First Intifada; a sustained series of protests, riots and collective pushback against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip that lasted over five and a half years. The result was a cold and bloody reality that paved the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the secret Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, and the cyclical "peace process" that has failed thus far at bearing fruit. Let's fade back in time to 1987, zoom in to the land of Palestine to discover what the Intifada was, what it means, and why it became such a powerful piece of the history of the struggle for liberation.
What was the Intifada?
Let's start with the simple definition of the word. Intifada is the Arabic word for "shaking off," a phrase which truly encapsulates the events of 1987-1993. Palestinians had been living under Israeli military occupation for 20 years at the start of the intifada. This was 20 years of societal suffocation, complete with "beatings, shootings, killings, house demolitions, uprooting of trees, deportations, extended imprisonments, and detentions without trial," according to Palestinian American clinical psychologist Mubarak Awad. Palestinians were frustrated with their reality being dictated by a foreign power. So when an Israeli military truck collided with a car, killing four Palestinian men, the final strand holding back the simmering unrest finally snapped.
Palestinians began protesting immediately following this tragic accident as rumors quickly spread that it was an intentional act of violence. The funerals of the four men, attended by some 10,000 people quickly turned into to mass-demonstration during which a 17 year old Palestinian girl was shot and killed. She would later be named the first martyr of the intifada. Widespread participation in demonstrations was quickly underway. Palestinian labourers refused to show up to jobs in Israel, shopkeepers shut their doors, barricades were set up to counter Israeli military movement. Israel responded with force, provoking violence from the Palestinians, who soon began throwing stones and molotov cocktails at the occupation forces, blocking roads and burning tires. This clash of power continued for nearly six years, resulting in the death of approximately 1600 Palestinians and around 400 Israelis. Over 100,000 Palestinians were injured and a similar number were detained.
What did the Intifada mean?
Palestinians quickly rallied behind the intifada in unparalleled unity and the significance is simple. It showed the world that Palestinians are suffering under occupation, are incredibly frustrated with their reality and most importantly, are willing to fight for their rights. This wasn’t the first time Israel faced opposition to their racist policies towards Palestinians, though it was the biggest and loudest push back they had faced up to that point. This uprising was a message to the occupation: we do not and will not accept the reality you have forced upon us, we are people of this land and we will not leave. You will hear us, you will not forget us. You cannot ignore us any longer.
Why is the Intifada important today?
The importance of the first intifada is undeniable as a motivational story and a unifying event, but its cruciality did not end in 1993. Through the years of continued struggle for liberation, Palestinians continue to look at the events of the first intifada as fuel for their fire. The second intifada of 2000-05 is the most obvious example of this, though other mass demonstrations have since followed. The Great March of Return of 2018-19, the Unity Intifada of 2021 no doubt took inspiration from their predecessors in the organization and execution of their demonstrations. Though solidarity looks much different in the 2020s than it did in the 1990s, united Palestinian movements throughout history have similarly achieved popularity from the world as a whole. As long as the struggle continues, the first intifada will continue to influence and inspire the new generation.
To reflect upon the events that took place in 1987-1993 is to open yourself up to the heart of the Palestinian struggle. To understand the need for an uprising is to feel the frustration, desperation and anger that is felt when living a suffocated life dictated by a stranger. The first intifada embodied all of the fire in the souls of Palestine and erupted with the energy of a people who demand their humanity. In a multitude of ways both big and small, these events continue to live on in every Palestinian and ally, reminding us all of the importance of the struggle. This is why 34 years on we still draw from the flames of the first intifada in our efforts to spread the story of Palestine to the world.
“Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause." - Ghassan Kanafani