IT HAS BEEN 30 YEARS SINCE THE OUTBREAK OF THE FIRST INTIFADA

A look at the causes, handling, repercussions and lessons: What we did right – and wrong.

PALESTINIANS BURN tires in a demonstration during the First Intifada in Ramallah in 1988 (photo credit: GPO)
PALESTINIANS BURN tires in a demonstration during the First Intifada in Ramallah in 1988
(photo credit: GPO)
Thirty years ago, on Wednesday, December 9, 1987, at 6 a.m., the First Intifada broke out in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. At the time, no one in Israel’s defense establishment had any idea how these events would play out. This was not the kind of war we were accustomed to – it consisted of violence that was carried out in an effort to achieve national goals. The intifada lasted nearly six years and ended only when the Oslo Accords were signed on September 13, 1993, granting a victory to the Palestinians similar to the evacuation of Gush Katif at the end of the Second Intifada.
The First Intifada can be divided into two stages. In the first stage, tens of thousands of Palestinians participated in violent demonstrations, such as throwing stones at security forces. As a result, their actions were described as “returning to the Stone Age.” The second stage was characterized by a brutal campaign of terrorism led by Hamas, the establishment of which in the Gaza Strip had been encouraged by Israel.
Before the signing of the Oslo Accords, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had consulted with outgoing IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron. He asked Shomron: “Would you sign the agreement with Yasser Arafat?” to which he replied, “Yitzhak, the IDF has no answer.”
The First Intifada is still considered one of the most momentous events in the history of the State of Israel and the region. It is thought to have been the impetus for the Oslo Accords and is considered the writing on the wall for the Arab Spring, which led to a wave of unprecedented uprisings, demonstrations, protests and violence throughout the Arab world. In addition, it also brought about a polarization of Israeli society. It also caused a rift in the IDF between leading tactical specialists on one hand, and operative and strategic leaders on the other. In short, the First Intifada damaged the prestige of senior commanders after their shortcomings were exposed.
Despite the importance of the First In- tifada, discussion of it was pushed to the margins of Israeli discourse. This special investigation will present details of internal battles that have never been unveiled until now, which will help us analyze the historical importance of events that took place 30 years ago and since.
THE INDIVIDUAL who is most closely identified with the first intifada is former Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai.
When the uprising broke out in the Gaza Strip, Mordechai was IDF Chief of Southern Command. After the intifada had been going on for 18 months, he turned over his position to Maj.-Gen. Matan Vilnai, and Mordechai took over IDF Central Command in place of Amram Mitzna.
Mordechai had been appointed OC Southern Command in 1986.
“I was very familiar with Gaza from my previous positions,” recalls Mordechai. “But when I took charge of the Southern Command, I was shocked by the number of mosques that had been recently constructed in Gaza. As it turned out, Israel’s strategists had been supportive of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s charitable organization.
Six days after the outbreak of the intifada, Yassin transformed his charity into Hamas. This was an extremely important development.
“At the same time, a new generation of Gazans born after the Six Day War had grown up. Many older Gazans had an academic education and had worked in Israel doing menial jobs under disgraceful conditions or were unemployed. In previous years, the markets in Gaza were full of Israelis who would come on Saturdays to buy cheap products. Young Gazans would interact with Israelis and felt they had nothing to fear from them, and that there was no reason they should be controlled by another nation.”
What, then, led to the outbreak of the intifada? “There were several events that led to its outbreak,” Mordechai says. “First of all, there was the Jibril deal in 1985 in which Israel released 1,150 security prisoners in exchange for three IDF prisoners-of-war taken captive during the First Lebanon War. In early 1987, Islamic Jihad operatives who had escaped from prison shot and killed Israel Military Police Maj.-Gen. Ron Tal while he was driving alone in his car. This was the first incident of this type. A search for the culprits was carried out by the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] and the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit under the command of [Moshe] “Bogie” Ya’alon. The three perpetrators were soon found and killed. A little while later, the Shin Bet killed another three Islamic Jihad operatives.
The killing of the six jihadists is what sparked incitement in the Gaza Strip.
“Then, in November 1987, another incident known as the Night of the Gliders took place on the Lebanese border, in which a terrorist succeeded in entering an IDF military base on a glider and killed six IDF combat soldiers. Following this incident, Palestinians began gesturing with their fingers to IDF soldiers: six against one. Morale among Palestinians rose significantly, as did their readiness to stand up to army soldiers. Then, on December 6, plastics salesman Shlomo Sakal was stabbed to death in the Gaza market and three others were wounded.
“The next day, a car crash happened at the entrance to Gaza between an Israeli truck and a Palestinian car that was transporting eight Palestinian workers, four of whom died in the accident. Three of the deceased were from the Jabalya refugee camp, where a rumor quickly began circulating that the crash was an act of revenge for the stabbing of Sakal. At dawn the next day, a large demonstration was organized. A unit of 50 reservists was called in to maintain order in the camp.
In a desperate attempt to keep order, the army shot and killed a young Palestinian who had been throwing stones. This was the last straw. It was at that point that all hell broke loose.”
What Mordechai and heads of the defense establishment didn’t know was that the first Oslo Accords were already being cooked up by extreme left-wing activist David Ish-Shalom (who has now moved to the far Right). Ish-Shalom’s story was documented by journalist Shalom Yerushalmi: “In 1987 I published my book Terror and Hope in which I outlined ways to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
During my research, I carried out many discussions with Palestinian leaders, such as Faisal Husseini and Sari Nusseibeh. They were doubtful that the Israeli Left was capable of bringing about peace.
“On the other hand, they did think the Likud had a chance of succeeding. I convinced a close associate of [prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir, Dr. Moshe Amirav, who was a candidate for director of the Government Press Office, to join in the talks. He brought a few other Likud politicians with him who were known as Shamir’s protégés, including Dan Meridor and Ehud Olmert,” Yerushalmi says.
“Only some of the discussions were reported to Shamir, but since the Shin Bet knew everything that was going on, and we knew the prime minister was constantly being updated about our talks by Shin Bet operatives, we assumed Shamir had given his consent to our actions. We composed a memorandum of understanding between the Likud and the PLO, which outlined the establishment of a confederation between Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. Because Shamir was allowing us to hold these meetings, we thought he would rejoice from the signing of such an agreement.
“In August 1987, on the very day that Amirav was scheduled to sign the memorandum, Nusseibeh was attacked by masked men and suffered a serious head injury, and then the Israel Air Force bombed Ein el Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Our plan collapsed and Amirav was thrown out of the Likud for betraying his party’s ideological beliefs. After a prolonged trial lasting three years, I was charged with holding meetings with the PLO and I served a four-month jail sentence. I assume that the disappointment and frustration from the unsigned agreement was one of the factors that led to the outbreak of the intifada.”
Senior officers were not alone in their mistaken interpretation of the significance of these events. Even seasoned journalists failed to predict the events that would occur soon after. Two years after the outbreak of the intifada, the late military correspondent Zeev Schiff of Haaretz and Channel 1 Arab Affairs commentator Ehud Yaari jointly published a book titled Intifada.
It opened with a scathing criticism of Yitzhak Rabin over his failure to postpone his flight to the US to sign the F-16 deal. Moreover, Rabin didn’t even return to Israel straight after the signing, but instead visited combat helicopter bases. In the book, Schiff and Yaari wrote, “This was a crucial stage in which the uprising had reached a crossroads after it had begun gathering momentum.
It’s possible that at this stage, it would still have been possible to calm the flames.”
While the intifada was taking root, Israelis failed to understand the underlying dynamics, and even today we still haven’t managed to wrap our heads around it. Without achieving this understanding, we cannot know whether history would have been altered had Rabin canceled his flight.
With regard to the details of that fateful flight, the two journalists were way off the mark and misled the Israeli public about how the intifada progressed, and about Rabin’s career, too. Following the book’s publication, Rabin’s prestige and standing dropped precipitously.
While researching this issue, I interviewed his colleague, Dr. Haim Assa, who later served as Rabin’s strategic adviser.
“In 1987, I was working as a system analyst for the Arrow missile defense project. The US, under the leadership of president Ronald Reagan, was in the midst of the Star Wars initiative and so was willing to invest generously in the development of the Arrow,” Assa says.
“A long time before the outbreak of the intifada, it was decided in secret that Rabin would fly to the US to sign the Arrow Development Agreement. Due to the project’s highly confidential status, an alternative reason was publicized as to the purpose of the trip.
When the intifada broke out, Rabin considered delaying his trip, but feared that if he didn’t sign the agreement, the project would not materialize. Israel was able to develop the Arrow and other technologies, such as the Iron Dome, as a result of American funding.”
THE INTIFADA spread rapidly to the West Bank. Dr.
Yehuda Meir was in command of the Samaria region.
“The top commanders were not sent out to the territories,” recalls Meir. “The IDF did not send any troops into the territories, and relied solely on the Border Police, Shin Bet, Civil Administration, the police and the Israel Prisons Service to deal with problems there.
Moreover, the IDF did not coordinate with these forces and as a result there was utter mayhem. There were no means with which to disperse demonstrators and soldiers ended up shooting at them, many of whom died.
International TV stations were having a heyday, and we lost the media battle from the get-go.
“Rabin visited a number of locations in the territories and asked us what we’d been doing. When we didn’t reply, he told us, ‘Break their bones.’ Unfortunately, I took his words at face value and we began beating demonstrators in order to disperse the crowds.
When I was put on trial, neither Rabin nor Shomron backed me up. The military advocate Amnon Strashnov handed me over on a platter to the Left. My rank was lowered from colonel to private. I was thrown out of the army and on top of all that I also lost my pension.
It was the first trial from the intifada, and the IDF and the State of Israel paid a high price. After that, we had no chance of putting an end to the uprising.”
The decision that military reinforcements should be sent in was made only after Rabin returned from his trip to the US.
“The IDF was sent into Gaza,” Mordechai recalls.
“We were 70 companies, the most dominant one being the Border Police. Every week the defense minister held a meeting with representatives from all the different security organizations. We formulated a policy for dispersing demonstrations. Not one Israeli soldier was killed in Gaza until 1989. Two were captured in Israel and murdered.”
Colonel. (ret.) Yitzhak (Eini) Abadi served as governor of Gaza during the years of the suppression of terrorism in the region – 1971 and 1972. He studied Islam at a religious college in Gaza and was a close friend of Sheikh Yassin. According to Abadi, Rabin, Shomron, Mordechai and Vilnai were clueless about what was really happening there.
“In the second year of the intifada,” recalls Abadi, “Middle East specialist Moshe Gabay suggested that I closely follow events going on in the mosques, and listen to the fiery sermons given there every Friday.
Apparently, the imams were warning worshipers not to use guns or knives – just stones.
“In March 1988,” Abadi continues, “posters were hung in mosques in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, inciting the masses to throw stones at Jews. They liked the image of stones, as the weapon of the masses, and that it was a sign from God if they could stop tanks and guns with them. I went to mosques and listened to what they were preaching, and I told the most senior Shin Bet officer in Gaza to send forces into the mosques so they could put an end to this incitement.
He replied that they didn’t have enough manpower for that.
“The result was that during the first year of the intifada, Hamas captured not only Gaza, but all of Judea and Samaria. At this time, only 14% of people supported Arafat. In fact, Arafat’s influence was waning when Shimon Peres plucked him out of the throwaway pile to sign the Oslo Accords. My conclusion is that the Jewish public in Israel was incredibly stupid and that our leadership didn’t understand anything. This is true when it came to confronting Hamas, as well as Hezbollah.”
Brig.-Gen. Amatzia Chen was in command of the Shaked commando unit when hostilities began in the early 1970s. “In 1987,” he says, “the IDF ignored the lessons from the intifada of 1971 and 1972, such as the fact that efficiency is derived from the concentration of force and the use of surprise. The Shaked commando unit, for example, caught more than 90% of the individuals it targeted, and it didn’t have to demolish even one house, or injure by accident even one civilian during that period.
“In 1987, only a few hundred soldiers were stationed in Gaza and the West Bank. With such scant numbers of forces, local Arabs took advantage of this weakness to engage in violence. The Palestinians gained confidence and they felt like they had the upper hand. The IDF ended up shooting at civilians on a daily basis just to survive.”
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dov Tamari says: “In 1987, the heads of state and the IDF thought we were capable of dealing with this type of violence, but they didn’t understand that these incidents went back to historical events that had taken place many years before. One people cannot rule over another. The problem is that this type of interaction has repercussions and people begin to think that it constitutes the normal state of affairs. That’s why incidents like the Elor Azaria shooting occur.”
Dr. Haim Assa recently published a book, Strangers to Themselves: The History of Humanity as a Revolution of the Consciousness, in which he discusses, among other issues, the intifada and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He writes: “Israel must deal with the Islamic Jihad organizations on a military level, but with the Palestinian population on a different level. The Israeli political system suffers from frivolity and superficiality.
It fails to look deeply into its surroundings and within itself and is not currently navigating toward a safe place.”
The main lesson to be learned from this investigative report on the first intifada is that the Israelis must develop high-level security cooperation. Our government and military leaders must receive appropriate strategic training so that they won’t be surprised again by security incidents, so that our security forces will be prepared to function properly in the future.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.