On December 6 at the White House, flanked by Mike Pence and surrounded by Christmas decor, Donald Trump announced the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. The move triggered outrage across the Muslim and Arab world, as well as from many others who feared the decision would finally destroy the already tattered “peace process.” In the streets of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian protesters took to the streets, confronting Israeli troops who answered with tear gas and rubber bullets.
It remains to be seen if this explosion of rage will lead to more sustained resistance. As regional political leaders decry Trump’s move, local activists struggle to form a coherent response amid so much political disillusionment. In many ways, the events of this week echo another moment of reckoning in the occupied territories, 30 years ago this month.
On December 8, 1987, an Israeli military truck collided with cars carrying Palestinian laborers in the Jabalya refugee district of Gaza. Four Palestinians were left dead, and another 10 were wounded. Within hours, Palestinians poured into the Gaza streets in a spontaneous show of exasperation after two decades of occupation. The following day, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian protester, inadvertently sparking the first intifada, a massive, overwhelmingly nonviolent uprising that soon spread throughout the occupied territories.
It was a moment of remarkable revolutionary unity, engaging hundreds of thousands of ordinary Palestinians who took their cues from local leaders far more than from the exiled leaders of the PLO. Among the first, and most fearless, of these resisters was Naila Ayash, a young Gaza resident and political organizer who would go on to lead thousands of fellow women in the liberation struggle. Thirty years later, Naila’s story is told in Julia Bacha’s new film, Naila and the Uprising, a full-length documentary examining the lesser-told stories of the intifada’s fierce female activists, and the now-faded power of the Palestinian grassroots.
As in her previous, award-winning films (Budrus, My Neighborhood), Bacha is disciplined and intimate in her storytelling, inviting audiences into the particular experiences of a few individuals as a way of telling a larger story. The film opens with Naila sitting side-by-side with her son, Majd, flipping through a family photo album. The two linger over a picture of Majd at his first birthday, on February 22, 1989. “A lifetime ago,” reflects Naila, admiring the snapshot of her smiling toddler while saying nothing about the graver realities of that year: her detention in Israeli jail, the intifada’s rising death toll, her husband’s forced exile in Egypt. These details come later, as the parallel narratives of the Ayash family and the intifada demonstrate the interpenetration of the political and personal that defines Palestinian life under occupation.
Naila makes an ideal protagonist. Archival images show her seated at the table alongside some of the intifada’s first organizers, where she and her husband, Jamal, were key players in forming the network of grassroots leadership in the early days of 1988. With the PLO in exile, these months marked a rare moment of community-led action that has arguably never been matched since. “For the first time, we were not waiting for instructions from the leadership outside [Palestine],” observes Zahira Kamal, another longtime activist who was involved in this early coalition. Thirty years later, her eyes still light up at the memory.
Images of other activists from the time reveal a similar revolutionary spirit; in those heady days, the organizers felt that their call for self-determination, after a seemingly interminable 20-year occupation, was destined to succeed. Weeks became months, and the resistance remained unbroken—to the horror and bewilderment of the Israeli regime, which at the time administered the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza. Overwhelmed, Israeli troops resorted to lethal force and mass arrests. International media broadcast footage of unarmed protesters facing off against military forces, scandalizing viewers with shots of civilians brutalized by Israeli soldiers. By the end of the intifada, roughly 1,200 Palestinians would be killed, including over 200 children, and another 120,000 wounded. Over half a million would be jailed. Yet even this suffering fed the fervor of organizers like Naila, who felt the world would surely grasp the justice of the Palestinian cause. In the words of one of Naila’s colleagues, “we were on the road to freedom.”
For women, the struggle had two fronts. While they were early and active participants in the uprising, women still faced formidable obstacles from their male compatriots. “Women have been involved in the liberation struggle for a long time,” says Kamal, “but their role was limited. People didn’t want women to participate in mixed-gender groups.” Resisted by their brothers, Palestinian women formed separate committees. Many of these groups gathered under pretense of sewing circles or nurseries, but, recalls activist Naima al-Sheikh Ali, “it was all window dressing. In reality, it was all political organizing.”
These groups would take on an increasingly influential role as the Israeli crackdown left hundreds of male leaders in prison or exile. Archival footage shows women-led cooperatives, which produced Palestinian alternatives to boycotted Israeli products. Others convened “classrooms” of students in homes and grassy fields, defying the Israeli-imposed closure Palestinian schools. Others led health clinics and occupational-skills workshops. “The women’s committees and unions organized in lieu of a usual government,” recalls one female activist. “We were taking care of everything.”
The Israeli state, recognizing the power of these committees to circumvent Israeli authority, criminalized all participation in such organizations, threatening prison sentences of up to 10 years for attending a meeting. Women were not spared in these crackdowns, and, shortly after giving birth to her first son, Naila was arrested, leaving her infant son in the care of her relatives (her husband, Jamal, had been deported for his own political activities before the boy’s birth). Naila’s comrades launched an aggressive protest on behalf of the boy, and the Israeli authorities eventually permitted her a choice: to be united with her son in prison, or forgo seeing him altogether. She chose the former, and the 6-month-old baby would spend roughly half a year with his mother as the only child in the women’s detention facility, becoming an inadvertent source of solace to other female detainees missing their own children. In one of the film’s quieter moments, former inmates recall the pain of separation from their children, a reminder that behind the chaotic streets and revolutionary passion pulsed thousands of individual, human lives. “We all imagined he was our own child,” reflects one woman. “We would all compete to hold him.”
Meanwhile, the resistance continued, and came to include several moments of notable collaboration between female solidarity activists in Israel and female Palestinians. “We wanted to raise a call to women,” recalls Israeli journalist Roni Ben Efrat. “From one woman to another, how can you stand idly by when something like this is happening?” Naila echoed this sentiment in her writing at the time, calling on Israeli women to “double their efforts” so that her sons and theirs could one day “live side by side.”
Naila was released shortly after Majd’s first birthday and took up the private struggle of obtaining permission from the Israeli government to travel abroad to reunite with Jamal. Even after the two were finally able to join Jamal in Cairo, the family’s reunion was overshadowed by the grim reality of their exile. “It was an incomplete joy; we wanted to be happy in our home, in our country.”
Shadows were gathering over the resistance back home, too. As the intifada entered its fourth year, the struggle grew increasingly complicated by the interference of world powers, most notably the United States, which promised to redouble its efforts in solving the Israel-Palestine question in exchange for Arab support in the first Gulf War. Positing his government as a “neutral broker,” President George H.W. Bush co-sponsored the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, inviting Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese delegations, as well as a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, to meet in Spain.
To Naila and her colleagues, these talks, staged far from the center of the resistance, usurped the role of the Palestinian grassroots. As the attention of the world shifted to international negotiations, local Palestinian leaders made a valiant effort to insert their voices—including those of some women, notably Dr. Hanan Ashrawi—into the conversation. Yet the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the fruit of secret talks that again excluded the Palestinian grassroots, confirmed a new, definitive reality: the resurgence of the PLO, eager to obtain political legitimacy even at the cost of a truly democratic process. “How could the PLO set up negotiations without our presence?” wonders activist Ali, while the onscreen footage cuts to the famous Camp David handshake that year.
The film’s poignancy pivots on such moments—ones in which the younger, more hopeful protagonists are confronted with the political developments that will eventually undo their best intentions and further entrench the occupation. Kamal, from the distance of 25 years, speaks with disillusionment: “When you compare what we proposed to what came out of Oslo, you get truly sad…Oslo brought us much less than what was on the negotiation table.” (It would, in fact, bring a veneer of peace that definitively ended the intifada while enabling an ongoing occupation and the expansion of settlements.)
Once again, women would face pushback on two fronts. Post-Oslo, many exiled male leaders returned to the territories to set up the Palestinian Authority—and in doing so, reversed much of the social progress won by women during the intifada. “Women had obtained a lot, but the assumption was men would just come back and resume their positions and women would have to step aside,” recalls Kamal. “They basically told us [women], your role is done,” recounts another female activist. “Many of us chose to step aside because we saw…that what was happening [with the PA] did not belong to us.”
Naila and her comrades attempted to organize and resist this usurpation, to little avail. In the film’s final moments, a sense of lost opportunity pervades. “The negotiations were a victory for Israel,” reflects one of Naila’s comrades. “We shouldn’t have ended the intifada until our demands were met.” Others speak with strained optimism. “We will not be silent,” says Ali. “We are a people who will pass the banner of the struggle from one generation to the next until we get our rights.” In the closing sequence, Naila appears in an archival shot from the early days of the resistance, standing at a podium in her signature pixie cut and calling once again for a Palestine free from both occupation and gender discrimination.
Today, Palestinians, their grievances three decades deeper, continue to wait for the realization of these ideals. Trump’s latest, nakedly partisan actions have brought a definitive end to the pretense of America as an “honest broker.” Meanwhile, years of inertia, corruption, and complicity from the PA have extinguished many Palestinians’ faith in their own government. Stories like Naila’s remind us of a third way: one of nonviolent resistance led by self-reliant, democratic, gender-equal communities. It may be the only path forward.