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Palestinian Uprising, December 1987-

During the first twenty years of Israeli occupation, security in the territories fluctuated between periods of calm and periods of unrest. Discontent was chronic, however, especially among the younger Palestinians in refugee camps. Nearly half the Arab population of the occupied territories lived in twenty camps in the West Bank and eight camps in the Gaza Strip, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The camps had existed since the flight of Arabs displaced after the partition of Palestine in 1948. Communal conflict was liable to break out at any time between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Friction also arose from security measures taken by Israeli authorities to counter perceived threats to order.

An upsurge of instability and violence in 1987 resulted partly from deliberate provocations by PLO factions and PLO dissident groups, but much of it generated spontaneously. Violence by Israeli settlers increased, including the initiation of unauthorized armed patrols and physical harassment of Palestinians. Although some settlers were arrested, the Palestinians asserted that the authorities were lenient with Israelis who violated security regulations.

The escalating level of Palestinian unrest precipitated a series of protests and violent demonstrations that began on December 9, 1987, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and later spread to Arab communities in Jerusalem and Israel itself. Thousands of mostly teen-aged Palestinians banded together, setting up barricades in refugee camps, confronting soldiers and Border Police, and attacking road traffic with rocks. Unlike previous demonstrations, the violence did not appear to be directed or coordinated by the PLO and continued almost unabated for many months. By October 1988, more than 250 Palestinians had been killed and 5 Israeli deaths had occurred. Although mass violence had diminished, many individual incidents of rock-throwing and the tossing of gasoline bombs by small roving bands continued to occur. The army's retaliation was tougher and more rapid, with aggressive use of clubs and plastic bullets, demolition of houses, orchards, wells, and gardens, and economic sanctions against recalcitrant villages.

The young IDF conscripts called upon to impose order at first responded erratically, in some cases with restraint and in other cases with brutality. Lacking proper equipment and training in riot control, the soldiers often fired indiscriminately at Arab protesters, causing many casualties. Later, after troops were ordered to use batons and rifle butts, demonstrators were often badly beaten both before and after arrest, suffering fractured bones. There were reports of soldiers entering Arab houses to administer collective punishment and beating and harassing doctors and nurses in hospitals where wounded Arabs were being treated. Under mounting international criticism for the harsh and undisciplined behavior of the IDF, the military authorities acquired additional riot control equipment, including rubber and plastic bullets, tear gas, and specially-equipped command cars. New tactics were introduced, notably the deployment of large forces to snuff out riots as soon as they began. The IDF instituted a code of conduct and a special one-week training program in internal security.

The uprising forced the IDF to cancel normal troop training and exercises. About 15,000 soldiers--several times the normal number-- were assigned to maintain security in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The military authorities later replaced most of the conscripts with reservists who had demonstrated greater restraint when confronted by rock-throwing demonstrators. Nonetheless, several hundred reservists, disagreeing with Israeli policy, refused to serve in the occupied territories.

As of mid-1988, fifteen soldiers had been court-martialed for some of the most serious offenses, including a widely publicized case in which four Arab demonstrators had been severely beaten and then buried under a load of sand. Other soldiers had faced lower-level disciplinary proceedings. There was growing evidence that the morale of the IDF was eroding as a result of the stress of daily confrontations with hostile demonstrators. Senior officers contended that the riot control mission had induced a crisis of confidence that would affect the army's performance in orthodox conflict. The IDF's reputation as a humane, superbly trained, and motivated force had clearly been tarnished.

IDF commanders said that they had reduced the number of soldiers assigned to riot control duty by nearly one-third since the mass demonstrations had tapered off but feared that the cost of controlling the uprising (estimated at US$300 million) would necessitate curtailing IDF equipment purchases. Although they foresaw that the violence might continue indefinitely, they did not regard it as a serious threat in strategic terms.

Data as of December 1988

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