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.