According to Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian American clinical psychologist, the Intifada was a protest against Israeli repression including "beatings, shootings, killings, house demolitions, uprooting of trees, deportations, extended imprisonments, and detentions without trial". After Israel's capture of the West Bank, Jerusalem, Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Jordan and Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967, frustration grew among Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. Israel opened its labor market to Palestinians in the newly occupied territories. Palestinians were recruited mainly to do unskilled or semi-skilled labor jobs Israelis did not want. By the time of the Intifada, over 40 percent of the Palestinian work force worked in Israel daily. Additionally, Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land, high birth rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the limited allocation of land for new building and agriculture created conditions marked by growing population density and rising unemployment, even for those with university degrees. At the time of the Intifada, only one in eight college-educated Palestinians could find degree-related work. Couple this with an expansion of a Palestinian university system catering to people from refugee camps, villages, and small towns generating new Palestinian elite from a lower social strata that was more activist and confrontational with Israel.
The Israeli Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin, the then Defense Minister, added deportations in August 1985 to Israel's "Iron Fist" policy of cracking down on Palestinian nationalism. This, which led to 50 deportations in the following 4 years, was accompanied by economic integration and increasing Israeli settlements such that the Jewish settler population in the West Bank alone nearly doubled from 35,000 in 1984 to 64,000 in 1988, reaching 130,000 by the mid nineties. Referring to the developments, Israeli minister of Economics and Finance, Gad Ya'acobi, stated that "a creeping process of de facto annexation" contributed to a growing militancy in Palestinian society.
During the 1980s a number of mainstream Israeli politicians referred to policies of transferring the Palestinian population out of the territories leading to Palestinian fears that Israel planned to evict them. Public statements calling for transfer of the Palestinian population were made by Deputy Defense minister Michael Dekel, Cabinet Minister Mordechai Tzipori and government Minister Yosef Shapira among others. Describing the causes of the Intifada, Benny Morris refers to the "all-pervading element of humiliation", caused by the protracted occupation which he says was "always a brutal and mortifying experience for the occupied" and was "founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation"
While the immediate cause for the First Intifada is generally dated to a truck incident involving several Palestinian fatalities at the Erez Crossing in December 1987, Mazin Qumsiyeh argues, against Donald Neff, that it began with multiple youth demonstrations earlier in the preceding month. Some sources consider that the perceived IDF failure in late November 1987 to stop a Palestinian guerrilla operation, the Night of the Gliders, in which six Israeli soldiers were killed, helped catalyze local Palestinians to rebel.
Mass demonstrations had occurred a year earlier when, after two Gaza students at Birzeit University had been shot by Israeli soldiers on campus on 4 December 1986, the Israelis responded with harsh punitive measures, involving summary arrest, detention and systematic beatings of handcuffed Palestinian youths, ex-prisoners and activists, some 250 of whom were detained in four cells inside a converted army camp, known popularly as Ansar 11, outside Gaza city. A policy of deportation was introduced to intimidate activists in January 1987. Violence simmered as a schoolboy from Khan Yunis was shot dead by Israelis soldiers pursuing him in a Jeep. Over the summer the IDF's Lieutenant Ron Tal, who was responsible for guarding detainees at Ansar 11, was shot dead at point-blank range while stuck in a Gaza traffic jam. A curfew forbidding Gaza residents from leaving their homes was imposed for three days, during the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. In two incidents on 1 and 6 October 1987, respectively, the IDF ambushed and killed seven Gaza men, reportedly affiliated with Islamic Jihad, who had escaped from prison in May. Some days later, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Intisar al-'Attar, was shot in the back while in her schoolyard in Deir al-Balah by a settler in the Gaza Strip. The Arab summit in Amman in November 1987 focused on the Iran–Iraq War, and the Palestinian issue was shunted to the sidelines for the first time in years.