MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN DECEMBER; the Intifada Erupts, Forcing Israel to Recognize Palestinians

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1997 | Go to article overview
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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN DECEMBER; the Intifada Erupts, Forcing Israel to Recognize Palestinians


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN DECEMBER; The Intifada Erupts, Forcing Israel to Recognize Palestinians

It was 10 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1987, that the Palestinian intifada, the uprising, erupted in the territories occupied by Israel. The violence was the worst since the fighting of 1948. But in this case the Palestinians had no arms and no help from the neighboring Arab countries.(1) The uprising would continue until late 1993, with great suffering by the Palestinians and considerable damage to Israel's international image. In the end, the Palestinians gained the recognition of the world community they had so long sought, but failed to get Israel to live up to its commitments.

The immediate cause of the uprising came on Dec. 8, when an Israeli army truck ran into a group of Palestinians near the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing four and injuring seven. A Jewish salesman had been stabbed to death in Gaza two days earlier and there were suspicions among the Arabs that the traffic collision had not been an accident.(2) The day after the traffic deaths, Palestinians throughout the territories exploded with pent-up rage.

Observers speculated that Palestinian rioters were motivated in part by a dramatic event of the previous month: the daring attack on a northern Israel army base by a solo Palestinian hang-glider, who killed six Israeli soldiers and wounded seven others.(3) Another factor fanning Palestinian passions had been a recent increase in pressure by Jewish militants to take over Islam's third holiest site, the Haram al Sharif, the revered Temple Mount to Jews, in Arab East Jerusalem.(4)

Daily, the riots escalated throughout the territories, and were particularly severe in the Gaza Strip, a 5-by-28-mile area packed with about 550,000 people, mostly refugees. By Dec. 16, Gaza director Bernard Mills of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said: "We're in a situation of either total lawlessness or a popular uprising."(5)

There soon could be no doubt that what was happening was a national uprising against a colonial power that had been subjugating Palestinians by military occupation since 1967.

Palestinian outrage was inflamed on Dec. 18 when Israeli troops killed two and wounded 20 Muslims leaving Friday religious services, then invaded the Shifa Hospital in Gaza and beat doctors and nurses and dragged off wounded Palestinians.(6) Casualties quickly mounted as Israeli troops responded to stone-throwing Palestinians with live ammunition. By Dec. 21, Israel was reporting a total of 15 killed and 70 wounded, while U.N. officials counted 17 killed and Palestinian sources reported 20 killed and 200 wounded.(7)

The televised beatings and killings of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli troops heavily equipped with U.S. weapons brought protests worldwide. The American Friends Service Committee on Dec. 21 deplored Israel's continued occupation and brutal suppression of the uprising. The Quaker statement also criticized Washington's "continued support of a policy that has acquiesced in occupation and failed to engage in a serious peace process."(8)

The next day the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0-1 to "strongly deplore [Israel's] policies and practices which violate the human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories." The United States was the lone abstainer.(9) It was the 58th time the Security Council had passed a resolution critical of Israel since 1948.

The U.N. action brought immediate criticism from Israel's U.S. supporters. Republican Representative Jack E Kemp of New York, a presidential candidate, said the U.N. was "picking on Israel."(10) Jewish-American leaders denounced the vote, calling it, in the words of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an action that "will be seen by the Palestinians as a license for further violence."(11)

Nonetheless, the emotional impact of Israel's violent suppression of the Palestinians caused the Reagan administration, on the same day that it abstained in the Security Council, to scold Israel for its "harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition.

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN DECEMBER; the Intifada Erupts, Forcing Israel to Recognize Palestinians
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