Palestinian Women Were Heart & Soul of the First Intifada

1 October, 2018

Outtake from Julia Bacha's film  Naila and the Uprising  (courtesy Just Vision)

Jordan Elgrably

In Sep­tem­ber of 2018, Human Rights Watch pre­sent­ed the Los Ange­les pre­miere of a new Just Vision doc­u­men­tary by direct­ing stal­wart Julia Bacha (BudrusEncounter PointCon­trol Room). Using a cre­ative com­bi­na­tion of ani­ma­tion, live action and archival footage, Naila and the Upris­ing recounts the sto­ry of Pales­tin­ian women dur­ing the First Intifa­da (1987–1993). The nar­ra­tive cir­cles around Naila Ayesh and oth­ers who were swept into the mael­strom of con­fronta­tion with Israel’s then 20-year Occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and Gaza. (2017 marked 50 years of this cru­el and ludi­crous stalemate.)

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Illus­tra­tion from the film ani­ma­tion, by Dominique Dok­tor and Shar­ron Mirsky

Naila, along with sev­er­al chil­dren, is away at school in Gaza on the day in 1987 when her fam­i­ly home is destroyed by the Israeli army. Thus, like Ahed Tami­mi, she becomes a cru­cible of lost inno­cence, ini­ti­at­ed into the strug­gle against mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion and sub­mis­sion before puber­ty. “Israel ruled every aspect of our lives,” she says in the film. She soon learns that even being a stu­dent orga­niz­er in those heady days of resis­tance is clas­si­fied as a crime by the Israeli mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment. While 1987 was the first year women broke away from PLO lead­er­ship and began their own grass­roots orga­niz­ing, wom­en’s groups had pre­vi­ous­ly exist­ed in Pales­tine going back to 1929. Lat­er came the Union of Pales­tin­ian Women Com­mit­tees, in 1980 and in 1981, the Pales­tin­ian Work­ing Woman Soci­ety for Devel­op­ment

Naila and the Upris­ing
 intro­duces us to oth­er women activists and as the film unfolds, we rec­og­nize that Pales­tin­ian women were the nexus of the first intifa­da, step­ping into lead­er­ship roles as more and more men and boys were tak­en away by the Shin-Bet, or shot and killed by the IDF. But women were also betrayed ulti­mate­ly by the PLO, which froze them out of the nego­ti­a­tions that took place at first in Madrid and then Oslo. Lead­ers fea­tured in Bacha’s doc­u­men­tary decry the back­room deals signed by PLO rep­re­sen­ta­tives which gave away the farm in terms of nor­mal­iz­ing the Occu­pa­tion and min­i­miz­ing Pales­tin­ian wom­en’s accom­plish­ments and demands for greater par­tic­i­pa­tion in their own society. 

Director Julia Bacha, producer Rula Salameh (Photo: Jordan Elgrably)

After the film screened a dia­logue ensued between direc­tor Bacha and Pales­tin­ian pro­duc­er Rula Salameh, who was her­self a stu­dent activist at Bir Zeit Uni­ver­si­ty dur­ing the First Intifa­da. As Bacha explained, “The upris­ing last­ed as long as it did because women had cre­at­ed an infra­struc­ture of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence along with par­al­lel insti­tu­tions of pow­er that real­ly chal­lenged  the Israeli occu­pa­tion over the Pales­tin­ian population.”

Bacha said she want­ed to make the film “as a means to doc­u­ment Pales­tin­ian and Israeli non­vi­o­lent resis­tance and to show that in fact non­vi­o­lent Pales­tin­ian resis­tance began long ago, it was­n’t new in 1987, but women were in fact at the cen­ter of it.” As Samah Wai­da, anoth­er woman leader fea­tured in the doc­u­men­tary insist­ed, “We need to be free in our own soci­ety.” The pan­elists dis­cussed the ways in which women almost always get erased in the his­to­ry of social move­ments, with few exceptions.

“This film will empow­er young women today,” said Rula Salameh. “For us the most impor­tant result is to be able to screen it in Pales­tine.” The film’s pro­duc­ers recent­ly con­firmed that Naila will indeed tour­ing Pales­tin­ian schools and uni­ver­si­ties in Gaza and the West Bank.

Naila reminds view­ers that there is a non­vi­o­lent Pales­tin­ian resis­tance move­ment and that women are at its heart.

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.

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