NAILA AND THE UPRISING – Palestinian women’s Intifada

It was not only the revolution of the stones. The First Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993) that broke out in the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and West Bank was also a war of women, and for women. An unstoppable overflowing river, an uprising that is still little-known and unfairly unacknowledged, that transformed non-violent resistance and disobedience into a powerful weapon against the Israeli military occupation. NAILA AND THE UPRISING of the film director Julia Bacha, mixing graphic animation, interviews and film footage, brings to the screen the story of Naila Ayshel, one of the leaders of the Palestinian women’s Intifada.

In 1969 Naila was about eight years old, when, in her school’s playground she heard  that the Israelis had demolished Ibrahim Ayesh’s house. He was her father. Her home had been turned into rubble, her father’s dead eyes staring into space. She would live with these memories for the rest of her life, planting the seeds of a hostility towards the Israeli occupation and an unrelenting call to join in front-line political activism.

«At that time Palestinians were not allowed to sell farm goods nor travel without an Israeli permit. They were second class citizens in their own land. Many of them were arrested, Israel ruled over every aspect of our lives, even the school text books. In high school, it became clear to me that the only solution was the end of the occupation. However, it was also clear that education was the strongest weapon for women. I got a scholarship and went to study in Bulgaria. It was an opportunity for me to learn more freely and I got to know Palestinians from everywhere – Syria, Jordan, Lebanon.» (Naila Ayshel)

She was particularly struck by one of these Palestinians, Jamal Zakout, an activist from Gaza. It was love at first sight. Back in Ramallah, they got  married. But even stronger than their love was their devotion to the struggle for the liberation of the territories that had been occupied since 1967, from when, with the 6-Day War, the Israeli army had expelled  the Egypt-Syria-Jordan coalition redefining  the map of the Middle East.

«We chose the same destiny to resist the occupation.»

Naila joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the most radical wing of the PLO, where she fostered women’s participation in the civil resistance movement that was emerging, in the struggle against the military occupation, and in women’s emancipation in their communities. Her activism was widespread and fully committed. Naila got into refugee camps, distributed communiques hidden in bread – a clear call for passive resistance, but more than enough to put her behind Israeli bars.

«They handcuffed me and pushed me into a car. They took me to Maskubiya prison in Jerusalem. I was interrogated for two weeks, I was tied to a chair for days. I was pregnant and I had told them.» (Naila Ayshel)

«I looked into the story, I called the police, but they denied everything”, Oren Cohjen, an Israeli journalist who had followed the story, “The Israeli secret service was part of a well- oiled machine whose goal was to break the spirit of the resistance.»

Naila was left outside in the freezing cold and they denied any medical care up to the moment she confessed she was a member of the Democratic Front. In the meantime, she had lost her baby.

By 1988 Intifada had broken out all over the occupied territories. The Israeli reaction was immediate and ruthless. 200 Palestinians were killed, 28 deported. Deportation hit all classes of people – doctors, journalists, lawyers, and not only activists. Jamal was dragged off before Naila’s and their new born Majed’s eyes. There were many “white widows” in Gaza, women whose men had been killed, had disappeared or been deported, just as Jamal. These women would be the backbone of the bravest pacifist and feminist struggle that the Middle East has ever remembered. They  would be the ones to force the world to take notice of Palestine.

«We made a group of families with deportees, detainees, the disappeared. We were the women’s union. In Palestinian society authority is normally  in the hands of men. People didn’t want women to participate in political life.» (Naila Ayshel)

The arrest of a number of men opened the doors to women allowing them to take on leading positions even within al-Fatàh, Yasser Arafat‘s party.

«Our view was that the struggle had to take place in different arenas»Zahira Kamal, leading figure of the women’s human rights movement within the Palestinian Democratic Union Party (the democratic-socialist wing within the LPO), «we wanted to create a call among Israeli and Palestinian women, from women to women, a call for all women. [..]. The Intifada did not last five years because young Palestinians had been launching stones against Israeli tanks. It was us, the Palestinian women who made it possible.»

The Intifada spilled over into the occupied territories rapidly, boycotting Israeli products was the silver bullet of the passive resistance. 90% of the territories supplies came from Israel.

«We were supposed to close every day when we received a piece pf paper telling us to do so. It was an economic movement we didn’t fight with weapons.» (A Palestinian shop-keeper)

The Israeli army imposed curfews on about 200,000 Palestinians to punish those who had joined a commercial strike and ordered all West Bank Arab schools to prohibit students from participating in the Palestinian uprising, cutting off water and electricity. The women of the Intifada took action and before long they took the lead in the social and political organization, setting up farming coops, hospitals, clandestine schools. A grassroots government with its own institutions, a shadow government that worked in lieu of the full Palestinian state and managed to prevent the Palestinian economy, strangled by Israeli retaliation, from breaking down. Intifada had become the most powerful word in the Palestinian vocabulary.

In 1988 Naila was jailed again, taken away in the middle of the night.

«They told me to leave my son, they took me to Telmond, the prison for female political prisoners. I was held there without charges for six months. I could have visits only every two weeks […]. When I came out of prison Majd was one year old. For his father the child was an unknown person.»

Naila had tried to travel several times but the Israelis would send her back. «We reached out to all the human rights organizations, we also appealed to an anti-occupation group in Israel. Within this group there were many sympathizers with the Intifada. Hundreds of Israeli women took to the streets to demonstrate in support of us.» (Jamal Sakout)

A concession at a high price painful like any departure when you know there is no return.

«I could not travel, the only way I would be allowed to travel was if I accepted to stay away for two years, I had to accept two years of exile. I knew that Israel wanted to empty our land of its people. I accepted, I had no other choice. In Cairo we became a family for the first time.»  (Naila Ayshel)

«For the first time we weren’t waiting for instructions from the leaders abroad.  The commitment of the civil society was total, from universities to families and unions. The Israeli establishment was shocked by the Intifada. They had simply not  seen it coming. Intifada was a purely populist uprising. It was as if it had been pre-arranged but it wasn’t. It was spontaneous and placed the Palestinian issue on the international agenda.» (Zahira Kamal).

In October 1991, Israelis were forced to sit at the negotiation table in Madrid called by the United States and the USSR. The economic consequences of the long-lasting boycott were crucial, but mostly George H. Bush threatened to cut off 10 billion dollars in loans guaranteed to Tel Aviv. A delegation from Jordan, including three women from Palestine, negotiated on behalf of the Palestinians (the PLO was classified as a terroristic organization and, consequently, left out of the negotiations).

«The Madrid Conference would not have been possible without Intifada. Our position was clear, We would not negotiate until the construction of the settlements stopped.» (Zahira Kamal)

During the three days in Madrid, every one ignored the fact that, in a house in the Oslo suburbs, peace was secretly being “plotted”. For Yitzhak Rabin, it was time to deal with Arafat face-to-face. The Intifada had resulted in a stalemate and the international isolation of the PLO worked in favor of Israel. For Arafat the stakes involved international recognition, essential to curb the expansion of Hamas established during the PLO exile.

«We were surprised because we heard it just like everyone else, via the media. The PLO had launched the Oslo negotiations, without consulting anyone, without consulting the Palestinians who had led the first Intifada and who had been conducting the Madrid negotiations with Israel and the United States. Women, the backbone of the resistance, were absent from the negotiating teams in Oslo.» (Zahira Kamal)

An enormous double disappointment for the Intifada women.

«At the Madrid Conference, for the first time, we could have negotiating power because civil society was behind us thanks to the Intifada. Oslo was a fatal blow for the Palestinians.»

Yasser Arafat returned from exile as the only legitimate representative of the emerging Palestinian Authority, Israel accepted to pull out from Gaza and from parts of the West Bank, but it did not, however, stop the construction of the settlements.

«When we compare what we were fighting for in Madrid and what came out of the Oslo Agreement, we become truly sad. Oslo resulted in a lot less that what we were negotiating for. People around the world assumed that negotiations would bring peace but the occupation was still there to remind us that it was not so. None of us believed that Israel was going to withdraw from the territories or there would be a Palestinian State. The Oslo Agreements were a complete disaster and a victory for Israel. The peace process has only brought more suffering for the Palestinians. We shouldn’t have ended the Intifada until our objectives had been achieved.» (Zahira Kamal)

As established in the Oslo Agreements, Israel allowed the first wave of deportees to return, and Jamal was one of them.

«The return was not anything special. Women were left out of the preparations for the formation of the Palestinian Authority. We represent 50% and even more of the population. If 50% of the population isn’t participating in decisions that means that half of the society is paralyzed. We were deeply disappointed.» (Naila Ayshel)

Naila Ayshel lives in Gaza with her husband Jamal, where she manages the Women’s Affairs Center of Gaza. Zaira Kamal is the General Secretary of FIDA, the Palestinian Democratic Union. Naila is still the only woman in a major Palestinian political party.

“We cannot be free as women unless we are in a free country, and even if we are free of the occupation, we cannot know freedom as long as we are subjugated in our own society.” (Naila Ayshel)

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