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What is an Intifada?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Intifada is an Arabic world which means “awakening” or “shaking off.” The term is used to describe a popular grassroots rebellion against a government or policy. Many Westerners associate intifada with violent uprisings in the Middle East, some of which have involved Western allies, but in the Arab world, an intifada is a legitimate form of rebellion, and one way to achieve independence or liberation from oppressors.

The term “intifada” has become so charged in Western society that it can spark great debate and argument. For people who link the concept of intifada specifically with terrorist activities, any intifada represents a potential threat which should be swiftly put down. For people who believe that violent revolution or rebellion is sometimes necessary or justified, the response to intifada tends to be more mixed, especially when people are residents of regions which have recently experienced their own revolutions.

The most well-known intifada is probably the rebellion of Palestinian Arabs in the Occupied territories over the course of two separate periods. The first intifada lasted from 1987-1993, and it was launched in response to concerns that the Arab world was neglecting the Palestinian cause, ultimately being brought to an end with peace accords and military actions on the part of the Israeli government. A second intifada began in 2000, allegedly sparked by leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque, a sacred Muslim site. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have died in the course of these intifadas, along with observers and bystanders from other regions.

Militant groups like Hamas have come to be closely linked with intifada, and their activities have often been topics of comment and criticism. Because militants are not part of military organizations, they are not subject to the same rules and oversight that members of a military are, and this can lead to an increase in deplorable acts. Many militants, for example, do not distinguish between civilians and soldiers, and some use violent acts against civilians as a political tool in an attempt to cow the governments or organizations they oppose.

Some other notable intifadas include the populist uprising against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the March Intifada in Bahrain, and the Zemla Intifada which attempted to drive the Spanish from the Sahara in the 1970s. As you can see from the above examples, intifadas are incredibly diverse and sometimes difficult to categorize, much like revolutions in the Western world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Sep 03, 2011

@MrMoody - Honestly, these labels have become rather subjective and don’t mean that much to me, regardless of the context.

I do think, in fairness, we should point out that these uprisings are not strictly the province of the Middle East. The Civil War was one of the biggest uprisings in modern history and happened squarely on American soil.

Would you classify it as a military operation or a popular revolt? Does it really matter? Thousands died, perhaps needlessly, but in retrospect I think many of us agree that it was worth it.

By MrMoody — On Sep 02, 2011

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; that’s what I’ve always heard and in some respects I believe it, but I do take exception on one point.

In my book, any group which deliberately targets civilians is a terrorist organization. I would thus put any Hamas intifada in this camp, at least from what I’ve seen in recent years.

I do make a distinction between civilians killed in the course of a military action and those who are deliberately targeted. Some people think the two are one and the same, but I don’t believe that.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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