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What was the first "intifada" all about?

In the twenty years after Israel first took over the West Bank and Gaza, a new generation, half the population, grew up knowing nothing but military occupation. Unlike their parents, many of whom still dreamed of returning to their homes inside Israel (a dream that would be reclaimed by the third generation of refugees and exiles), these teenagers and young adults built their future hopes around creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Repression, despair, and for some, passivity all grew. Then an incident occurred. On December 8, 1987, near the densely crowded checkpoint at the entrance to the Gaza Strip. It involved an Israeli truck that swerved, and struck and killed four Palestinians: a doctor, an engineer, and two laborers. Some said it was deliberate, though no one knew for sure. What was different was the outcome. Palestinian outrage sparked an uprising that swept across the Gaza Strip, spread to the West Bank, and set into motion a blaze of nationalist resistance to occupation.

The uprising soon came to be called the "intifada," a word whose Arabic roots refer to rising up, or shaking off. It began as spontaneous actions, stone-throwing children and young people challenging the troops and tanks of Israel's occupying army. But soon it became more organized, as existing grassroots organizations, most of them linked to various factions of the PLO, mobilized to respond to new conditions, and to answer needs of the population in the context of Israel's increasingly repressive response.

Women's, workers, medical, students, agricultural, and community organizations took on new tasks—growing food in home and community gardens to replace the Israeli goods now being boycotted; guarding village streets at night with whistles to warn of soldiers on their way; mobile clinics to provide emergency medical help to villages or towns under curfew; tax protests; enforcement of a soon-declared daily commercial strike that shut down Palestinian businesses at noon. Leadership emerged clandestinely, with leaflets distributed overnight providing information about coming strike days, special commemorations of the intifada, or particular constituencies to be mobilized at particular times.

But throughout, there was a unified view that only the PLO, with its leadership in exile in Tunis, could speak for the Palestinians. Every international envoy who showed up in East Jerusalem or Ramallah or Gaza City was told the same thing: our address is in Tunis. If you want to engage us diplomatically, talk to the PLO.

And while there were some diplomatic gains, by far the major advance of the intifada was visible internally, within Palestinian society itself. The opening up of new ideas, new empowerment of women and young people, new levels of community support and participation, all would last beyond the intifada itself.

It was only with the exaggerated enthusiasm that greeted the signing of Oslo's Declaration of Principles, in September 1993, that the first intifada began to wind down. For the next seven years, Oslo, rather than intifada, would be the code word on everyone's tongue.