The Palestinian Uprising: A Primer

By the Middle East Research and Information Project

At the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Arab world, including the territory that is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. With the Allied victory in World War I, the area came under the control of the British who made contradictory promises to Arab and Zionist leaders about how – and by whom – the Mandate of Palestine was to be governed. At the time, 90 percent of the population was Arab; the Jewish community included long-time residents and new immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia and, later, other parts of Europe. A three-year uprising in the late 1930s against British rule and increased Jewish immigration resulted in a British proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 reaffirmed partition in 1947.

The war that followed led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Beyond the UN resolution, the creation of Israel also reflected newly widespread support for an independent Jewish state among European and American Jews as well as powerful Western governments, in response to the Nazi Holocaust.

Gaza came under the control of Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem under Jordanian control. Less than 20 years later, in the June 1967 war, Israel gained control of the rest of the former mandate of Palestine (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980), the Egyptian Sinai (since returned to Egypt), and the Syrian Golan Heights. UN Security Council Resolution 242 (November 22, 1967), still not implemented, affirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called upon Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

The 1970s and 1980s saw Arab-Israeli wars in 1973 and 1982, the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987, and Yasser Arafat’s condemnation of terrorism and recognition of the state of Israel in December 1988.

The Madrid peace conference followed the Gulf war in October 1991. A year later, secret Israeli-Palestinian talks began in Oslo, Norway, culminating in the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (DoP) on interim Palestinian self-government, signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The DoP set out a process for transforming the nature of the Israeli occupation but left numerous issues unresolved, including the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the disposition of Israeli settlements (whose expansion continues until today) and final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Under the DoP, Israel relinquished day-to-day authority over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Arafat who returned to Gaza in 1994. However, ultimate power remained with Israel, which exercised its control by frequently sealing off the Palestinian-governed areas from the rest of the Occupied Territories and from Israel. Subsequent agreements in 1995 (Oslo II), 1998 (Wye River) and 1999 (Wye River II) failed to resolve these issues. With Palestinian-Israeli negotiations stalled, US President Bill Clinton called a summit at Camp David in July 2000. After two weeks of intensive negotiation, the talks ended without a deal.


Israel has met the [current Palestinian] uprising with much greater force than it generally employed during the first intifada from 1987-1993. Numerous respected human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights, conducted studies that showed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers employing excessive force in their suppression of Palestinian demonstrators. Their reports cited (among other violations): the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, attacks on medical personnel and installations, and the use of snipers with high-powered rifles and attacks on children. Palestinians accused the IDF of implementing a “shoot to kill” policy against the demonstrators, an accusation Israel emphatically denied. But figures compiled by the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute of Ramallah showed that (as of December 2000) 75 percent of intifada-related wounds treated at West Bank health facilities were upper-body wounds (35.1 percent wounds to the head and neck). In Gaza, 60 percent of wounds treated were in the head, chest, or abdomen (22.4 percent in the head and neck). International reports confirmed the preponderance of upper-body wounds.

Israel has periodically closed its borders to over 125,000 Palestinian workers – especially Gazans – who rely on jobs inside Israel for their modest income. The UN estimated that Palestinian workers lost $243,400,000 in income from October 2000 through January 2001 due to closures. According to UN figures, the poverty rate in the Occupied Territories climbed from 21 percent to nearly 32 percent over the same period. The poverty rate will reach 43 percent by the end of 2001 if closures continue, says the UN. Israeli forces have imposed blockades around Palestinian towns in the West Bank, sometimes causing severe shortages of necessities like flour, sugar, and gasoline.


The Jewish settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip sit on Palestinian land occupied by Israel during the June 1967 war. Since 1967, successive Israeli administrations have expanded the settlements in the name of both ideology and “security.” In ideological terms, historically endorsed by the Likud Party, settlements secure Jewish sovereignty over the entire biblical “Land of Israel,” demonstrating the power of Jewish nationalism. In security terms, historically endorsed by the Labor Party, settlements ensure Israel’s permanent military control west of the Jordan River. Regardless of rationale, settlements have been used to alter the demography of the Palestinian territories and preclude Palestinian self-determination.

The first wave of state-sponsored settlement began in 1967 under the Labor administration. Settlement growth was limited during this period, but the groundwork was laid for more. Labor used “security” arguments to justify settlement but allowed messianic groups like Gush Emunim to establish claims in the Palestinian territories. Intensive development began in 1977 under Likud, which used the ideological rationale to justify heavy investment in the settlement infrastructure. Construction increased again in the early 1990s, during which time the settler population rose by some 10 percent annually. Since the Oslo “peace process” began in 1993, the settler population has nearly doubled. Under the Labor administration of Yitzhak Rabin, settlements grew at a rate unprecedented in Israel’s occupation. Ariel Sharon’s government vows to support the “natural growth” of settlements – a term that belies both the magnitude and political context of the planned expansion that is occurring. Currently, some 400,000 Israeli Jews live in the Occupied Territories: approximately 200,000 in the West Bank, 200,000 in East Jerusalem and 6,000 in the Gaza Strip.

All settlements in the Occupied Territories violate international law and continuously infringe on Palestinian human rights. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying state from transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. International humanitarian law prohibits permanent changes within an occupied territory that are not intended to benefit the local population.

The above is excerpted from an essay by Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) editorial committee members. A complete text of the essay is available at, Reprinted with permission.

Winter 2001 / 2002