The accident that sparked an Intifada

This Week in History: Traffic accident near Jabalya refugee camp became the catalyst for the First Initifada.

Intifada_311 (photo credit: Abbas Moumani/Reuters)
(photo credit: Abbas Moumani/Reuters)
On December 8, 1987, what may have been the most consequential traffic accident in both Israeli and Palestinian history took place near the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. The accident became the catalyst for the First Initifada, which over six years altered the world’s perception of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and eventually led to the Oslo Accords, kicking off the past 18 years of peacemaking.
Coming at a time of increased tensions and resentment, many Palestinians believed the deadly collision was no accident, instead assuming it came as retaliation for the stabbing of an Israeli man in Gaza two days earlier. Twenty years after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip, quick and constantly sprouting settlements in the territories, economic disparity and dependence, daily friction with the IDF and its military administration, and lingering hostility and resentment toward the establishment of the Jewish state all came together as a cacophony of justifications used by the Palestinians for their first post-1948 wide-spread uprising.
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Almost immediately after the first riots broke out in the Jabalya refugee camp on December 8, angry popular protests spread through the coastal strip and to the West Bank, fueled in part by Israel’s iron-fisted response. Internationally broadcast images of IDF soldiers using live fire against Palestinian stone-throwers and over 15 resultant deaths in those first weeks also quickly led to world condemnation, and soon thereafter, a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
Images played an important role in building international perceptions of asymmetry in the early weeks and months of the Intifada, most commonly portrayed as unarmed Palestinians facing off against Israeli soldiers. One particularly damaging video, shot by a CBS camera crew in early 1988, showed the brutal beating of two Palestinian teenagers at the hands of IDF soldiers. Only three months into the Intifada, Arabic for “uprising” or “shaking off,” Israel’s international image as an underdog – the result of unlikely victories in the 1948 and 1967 wars – had been reversed, with the Palestinians slowly assuming the role.
One year after the tragic accident outside Jabalya, over 300 Palestinians had been killed, between 3,000 and 20,000 wounded (IDF and UNWRA figures, respectively), and some 5,500 detained by Israel, according to a Jerusalem Post report at the time. But the uprising was also becoming more organized and violence on the Palestinian side more intense, although never reaching the scale witnessed ten years later in the Al-Aksa Intifada. That first year, eight Israelis were killed, including six civilians.
Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, headquartered in exile in Tunisia at the time, began attempting to take responsibility and a more central role in the unrest, which began spontaneously and without any clear leadership.
The more organized elements included boycotts of Israeli consumer products, mass refusals to pay taxes, general strikes and other forms of civil disobedience. Nonetheless, it was the violence on both sides that ultimately defined the six-year Intifada, both in headlines of the day and the lasting historical narrative.
But there was yet another, more significant consequence of the First Intifada: the birth of the peace process.
In July 1988, as the Intifada was in full swing, King Hussein of Jordan cut all administrative and economic ties with the West Bank, which he had claimed sovereignty over since the 1948 War of Independence. Hussein’s primary motivation was to reduce the demographic majority of Palestinian citizens of the Hashemite Kingdom. But more consequential was that the cancelation of Palestinians’ citizenship laid the groundwork for a true independence movement. Having been stripped of their Jordanian citizenship, Palestinians began demanding a state of their own.
Three years later, eager to build on gains made during the Persian Gulf War and frustrated by the ongoing violence in Israel and the territories, the United States convened the Madrid Conference. Although the conference concluded without many results, Washington did recognized Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people for the first time. The move put pressure on Israel to begin negotiating with the PLO, which it had previously refused to do.
The most significant event in the later years of the Intifada, however, took place in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party won elections, giving him a mandate to begin political engagement with the PLO. Secret negotiations with PLO representatives and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 would ultimately bring an end to the First Intifada as both Israelis and Palestinians felt hope for the first time in years.
Nonetheless, it was in the final years of the uprising that – despite initial moves toward peace – the most intense violence took place. In April 1993, mere months before the Oslo Accords were signed in Washington, Palestinian terrorists first began carrying out suicide bombings in Israel. In all, over 100 Israelis were killed by Palestinians during the First Intifada. On the Palestinian side, over 1,000 were killed by Israel and hundreds more in intra-Palestinian violence.