The Two Intifadas: Differing Shades of Resistance



Shortly following the tragic death of eight Palestinian workers after they were hit by an Israeli truck driver, a popular uprising erupted in the Occupied Territories on 9 December 1987 that lasted for seven years.  A similar Palestinian revolt began on 29 September 2000 after Israeli forces killed seven Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif.  Although there are parallels between these two uprisings, there are also contrasts in their methodology, available resources, and political context.


During the first intifada, mass popular protests, including various methods of nonviolence, demonstrated the overriding ideology.  Protests took the form of strikes, boycotts, and other civil disobedience techniques.  High among the ideological and practical approaches was the boycott of Israeli products that had a national alternative.  General business and school strikes were also a common way to show public discontent.  Additionally, Palestinians refused to follow the timetable Israel used for daylight saving time, thereby demonstrating independence in a small way which was nevertheless very challenging to Israelis.  Palestinians made appointments, opened schools, and followed business hours according to “Palestinian time.”  Soldiers often broke the watches of Palestinians which were not set on “Israeli time.” 

Violent actions were part of the protests during the first intifada, but were rather limited.  Palestinians used stones-the “weapon” most available to them-to attack soldiers and settlers.  Settlers, who had no alternative but to use roads that went through or near Palestinian communities, became constant targets of Palestinian stone throwing.  On the other hand, Israel was in control of all the areas, so Israeli soldiers could launch attacks from all sides. 

The second intifada has utilized violent methods more extensively than the first.  The Palestinians’ use of firearms, especially against settlers and settlements near populated Palestinian communities, is perhaps one of the key differences between the two uprisings.  Coupled with this development is Israel’s unprecedented use of tanks, missiles, and attack helicopters to suppress Palestinian protesters.  Not since the 1967 war has Israel used such heavy weapons against Palestinians.

Israel’s redeployment of troops and the establishment of Palestinian autonomy in some areas of the Occupied Territories has also changed the character of the protests.  The second intifada’s leaders and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have worked to provide a sense of normalcy.  Rather than call for general strikes as in the earlier uprising, they stress that life should go on as usual in the cities to show that soldiers at the perimeters cause the instability.  Full Palestinian security control in Area A zones has largely restricted confrontations to the outer parts of the city limits.  These autonomous zones also have served as a place to which Palestinians can retreat.  


During the first uprising, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was illegal, and membership in it landed those accused in Israeli prisons.  Yet Palestinians created a PLO umbrella organization called the Unified National Command of the Uprising.  It issued directives using leaflets, which supporters quickly distributed throughout the Palestinian territories.  The Unified Command was a loose alliance of four PLO factions (Fateh, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Communist-later People’s-Party).

The second intifada has a different leadership structure.  The PLO is no longer an illegal organization, nor is it in exile, but more recently established movements (such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad) are still outlawed.  Islamists and nationalists formed a broad coalition to provide guidance to the intifada.  This coalition, called the Nationalist Islamic Front, releases collective statements to demonstrate national unity.  Moreover, although the PA is comprised of Fateh representatives, a new faction within Fateh emerged:  The tanzim (organization), referring to the local cadres of Fateh, has played a crucial leadership role.

Communication and Media Coverage:  

During the first intifada, activists used fax transmissions to link those under occupation with the PLO leadership in exile.  Palestinians used offices in East Jerusalem to connect with contacts in Cyprus, Rome, Athens, and Paris (and from there to the PLO in Tunis).  Internally, leaflets, graffiti, and mosque loud speakers informed the public of the underground leadership’s directives.

In the public relations arena, Palestinians faced many obstacles during the first uprising.  The bulk of the international media were based in Tel Aviv, and their relations with the Israeli establishment were deep rooted.  Publications often reprinted Israeli government statements verbatim, and the press believed the Israeli army’s version of events.  The majority of the foreign press was Israeli or Jewish, few of whom even traveled to the Occupied Territories.

During the second intifada, the situation has been dramatically different.  Palestinians have their own publications (uncensored by Israel), as well as governmental and private electronic media.  The local Palestinian electronic media have taken the place of the leaflets.  Local radio and television stations broadcast communiqus, interview politicians and local commanders, and provide up to date information to the public.  Local television covers the shelling of Palestinian communities.  Local TV stations have literally aimed their television cameras outside, pointed them at the area of shelling, and provided local viewers with an instant picture of the action on the ground.

The existence of Arab satellite stations is perhaps the most important media development.  The second intifada is to these stations what the Gulf War was to CNN.  With correspondents on the ground and satellite hookups from Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza, these stations are able to show the uprising live in 24-hour, nonstop transmission.

The result of this satellite blitz is twofold.  It provides local Palestinians with up to date news information and opinions, while simultaneously offering the Arab world and Arabs in the diaspora a full diet of the daily events. For the first time, many Arabs are able to find alternatives to their own government controlled, heavily censored media.  Meanwhile, Palestinian journalists have gained access to all of the foreign press and media.  Palestinian camera operators are the only ones working for the major wires in the Occupied Territories.  As a result, Palestinians on the ground have had a greater impact on media coverage. 

Lasting Images:  

Each intifada included images which symbolized the differing political climates.  In the first uprising, a statement attributed to then Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin encouraged soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters.  An Israeli camera operator for CBS filmed a 45-minute ordeal in which Israeli soldiers used rocks to break the bones of bound Palestinian youths.

In the second intifada, the scene was shorter, more intense, and fatal.  Talal Abu Rahma, working for the French TV station France 2, filmed the death of 12-year-old Muhammed al-Dura, while the boy’s father vainly tried to protect him from heavy Israeli gunfire.
While both events created enduring images for television viewers around the world, the second received support from a new element that did not exist in the same way during the first intifada-music.  Major Arab musicians sang about the martyr Mohammed al-Dura.

Continuing Protest:  

Many argued that the 1993 interim agreement, which Israel and the Palestinians reached as a result of the first intifada, was the best possible considering the political context.  The participants in the second intifada, however, are no longer willing to accept interim solutions.  The only solution they are liable to accept is an independent state in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, and a just solution for the refugee problem. Until that is accomplished, the second uprising will likely continue in one form or another.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

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