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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