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'My story is one of many': The Palestinian women behind the First Intifada

Naila and the Uprising tells the hidden story of the women who resisted the Israeli occupation
Naila Ayesh taking part in a demonstration during the First Intifada (Photo courtesy of Luisa Morgantini/Just Vision)

LONDON - Sitting in a hotel lobby in central London, dressed in a coral sweater and beaming with an ear-to-ear smile, Naila Ayesh seems far removed from the horrors she suffered as a young Palestinian activist in the years leading up to the First Intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993.

Naila and the Uprising, by Brazilian film director Julia Bacha, documents these intimate struggles, simultaneously bringing to light the work of the virtually unknown Palestinian women who formed the backbone of the resistance movement.

The story of Naila Ayesh is featured in the documentary Naila and the Uprising by Julia Bacha (MEE/Zahra Hankir)
Ayesh insists that the 76-minute documentary, which is named after her, isn’t really about her. For Ayesh, it’s about every Palestinian woman who has ever fought for freedom from the Israeli occupation.

Women often are the backbone of movements, and then are either written out of history or never written into history in the first place

- Julia Bacha, director of Naila and the Uprising

“This film isn't my story. We fought the occupation collectively, as women. My story is one of many," she tells Middle East Eye.

Ayesh’s life history does indeed serve as the documentary’s keyhole into the intersectional women’s movement that fought for freedom from military occupation and gender equality at the same time.

Naila and the Uprising was directed by Julia Bacha, seen here speaking at a TED summit in 2016 (Photo courtesy of Just Vision)
For Bacha, the documentary disrupts the flawed narrative surrounding the First Intifada - at least to the international community - one which she says reduces the uprising to the image of stone-throwing Palestinian boys facing off Israeli tanks.

The uprising didn't last five years because of young men throwing stones at tanks

- Julia Bacha, director of Naila and the Uprising

“The uprising didn't last five years because of young men throwing stones at tanks,” Bacha tells MEE. “It lasted five years because there was an organising structure of civil disobedience and the creation of parallel institutions of power that really removed the control of the Israeli occupation over the Palestinian population effectively, without yet the existence of a Palestinian government. The reason why they were able to do that was because women were at the helm.”

Bacha never set out to make a film about the women’s movement; she stumbled upon the story when conducting research on the First Intifada.

“It was shocking to me that this story had never been told,” she says. “I learned that the lack of visibility of women in protest movements is pervasive. Women often are the backbone of movements, and then are either written out of history or never written into history in the first place.

"If we knew our history, women would be able to incorporate these learnings into their activism and their decisions today, so that we can move forward towards a pluralistic future.”

Naila and the Uprising weaves animation and exclusive archival footage into a series of interviews with various women activists and journalists (Photo courtesy of Just Vision)
Naila and the Uprising weaves animation and exclusive archival footage into a series of fascinating interviews with various women activists and politicians, including Zahira Kamal, Sama Aweidah and the late Rabiha Diab, as well as Ayesh’s son and husband.

Committed to the cause

As an eight-year-old child in 1969, Ayesh witnessed the aftermath of the demolition of her family home in Palestine by Israeli forces. 

That particular event would ignite what she refers to as her “hostility” towards the military occupation, which she later channelled into her activism. As a result, Ayesh’s personal choices were irreversibly fused with her political aspirations.

“The political and the personal are one and the same to me,” Ayesh says. “In fact, daily life in Palestine is political for all Palestinians," she says.

Ayesh was hooded and beaten, left out in the freezing cold and rain overnight, tied to a chair and dragged along the ground during her detention

“To be here and to talk about this story is not something that’s easy for me,” Ayesh told an audience at the Barbican during the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, which opened with Naila and the Uprising on International Women’s Day last week.

“It really takes me back to the pain I felt at that time, and after all that pain, until now, here we are, still under the occupation.”

The pain Ayesh speaks of is indeed bleak.

With a firm belief that she needed to arm herself with education, in the early 80s Ayesh secured a scholarship to complete her studies at the Academy of Science in Bulgaria. 

While she was there, she met student activists from all over the Arab world who were committed to the Palestinian cause, among them, her husband-to-be, Jamal Zakout.

Galvanised by tragedy

After returning to Ramallah, under Israel’s watchful eye, Ayesh focused her attention on women’s issues and joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Although Israel had criminalised political organising by Palestinians, Ayesh persisted. By 1987, Israel had started closely monitoring the movements of both Ayesh and Zakout.

Ayesh concealed the pamphlets in loaves of bread and delivered them to families in Gaza’s refugee camps

One evening that year, while eating supper at home with her husband in Gaza, Ayesh, who had recently learned she was pregnant, was arrested by Israeli forces. Ayesh was taken to the Maskubia Prison in Jerusalem, where she was interrogated about her political activities for two weeks.

According to the documentary, Ayesh was hooded and beaten, left out in the freezing cold and rain overnight, tied to a chair and dragged along the ground during her detention. Her pleas to the prison guards for medical assistance fell on deaf ears and the torture culminated in a tragic miscarriage.

Rather than breaking Ayesh’s spirits, that harrowing sequence of events galvanised her. 

Collective action

In 1988, Zakout was deported from Gaza to Cairo for his political activities, mere days before Ayesh gave birth to their first child Majd. She joined forces with women in Gaza whose spouses had also been sent into exile. 

Together, they built parallel institutions to upend Israel’s military control of daily life. Israel responded harshly to the refusal of Palestinians to pay taxes, their boycotting of Israeli products and their political mobilisation by imposing curfews, conducting mass arrests, closing Palestinian schools and attacking demonstrators with force.

Naila Ayesh and many other women held protests during the First Intifada (Photo courtesy of Mahfouz Abu Turk/Just Vision)
The fierce women responded by organising mass political strikes, teaching in underground classrooms when Israel shut down educational institutions, helping run makeshift clinics, and growing local produce to counter Israel’s agricultural control. 

Months after her husband was deported, the Israeli authorities held Ayesh in administrative detention for six months over her “political activities". Upon her release, Ayesh resumed her activism and secretly distributed bulletins with calls to action including demonstrations, general strikes, and the boycott of Israeli goods.

After all that pain, until now, here we are, still under the occupation

- Naila Ayesh

Ayesh concealed the pamphlets in loaves of bread and delivered them to families in Gaza’s refugee camps, whilst carrying her newborn in a sling over her back. 

The major political factions each had their own women’s committees, which regularly took to the streets to air their grievances. The results of that pressure were tangible, putting a strain on the Israeli economy and ultimately forcing the international community to the negotiating table at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

Disrupting the narrative

It is, perhaps, fitting that Naila and the Uprising looks back rather woefully upon the Oslo Accords, the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) which was meant to result in a “two-state solution” within five years. 

According to Bacha, the Oslo Accords marred the successes of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which was the first time Israel and its Arab neighbours sat down at the negotiating table together.

“The Palestinians actually had quite a bit of power [in Madrid] because they had this wind of grassroots behind them,” she says. “Oslo was a coup against that. And it really was a removal of power from the grassroots.” 

Women were excluded from the Oslo negotiations and from the subsequent formation of the Palestinian National Authority, despite being part of the Palestinian delegation in Madrid and having played such a critical role in the struggle for liberation.

Naila Ayesh and Julia Bacha speaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on International Women's Day, 8 March (Photo courtesy of Laura Palmer/ HRWFF)
Research has shown that political movements which include women, particularly at leadership levels, are more likely to adopt non-violent measures and achieve their goals. 

The Palestinian women’s involvement in the First Intifada, according to Bacha, and the intensification of the occupation in their absence from the Palestinian political process after the Oslo Accords, is consistent with those findings.

Ayesh understandably looks back on the First Intifada with a palpable sense of nostalgia.

“The situation is different today. There are so many differences among the main political parties that have blocked the youth from mobilising in the same way that we did during the Intifada,” she says, noting the irony that technological advances including social media haven’t helped the younger generation move past these challenges.

“I say this with some bitterness. Look at all those who have suffered, who have lost their lives and their homes and who have endured so many hardships under the occupation. Despite all of that pain, we haven’t been able to come together and to rise up.”

Education as a weapon

The dire state of the Arab world combined with the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, the election of US President Donald Trump, and his decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem begs the question: is there any room for hope?

“These are all signals to the Palestinians that we need to focus on being united,” Ayesh says. “I won’t tell you I’m very hopeful. But I will tell you that we should never give up hope.”

Education for a woman is like a weapon in her hands

- Naila Ayesh

When MEE asks Ayesh what she would tell a young girl facing war, terrorism, misogyny or tyranny anywhere in the Arab world or beyond today, whether in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, or Iraq, she says one word repeatedly: “education”.

“Education for a woman is like a weapon in her hands,” she says, referring back to her time in Bulgaria. “After earning an education, a woman can choose to take whichever path she wishes to take. But education is crucial to empowerment.”

Ayesh, who is now based in Ramallah, remains committed to social work, the empowerment of women and the advancement of women’s leadership in political and public life.

She recently visited the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh to show her support to Ahed Tamimi in her hometown. Tamimi is the 17-year-old Palestinian activist who’s facing up to a decade in an Israeli military prison after being detained for an altercation with Israeli soldiers.  

“There’s an important message in the film for this generation, conveyed through my son,” Ayesh says. “The older generation has played its part. Now it’s time for the youth to play an active role in the future."

“I want to continue focusing on women, and the role we can play in bringing people back together. I want to see younger women playing an even bigger role in society,” she says. "Our struggle isn’t over, and we’re not going anywhere."

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