For scheduling reasons, as usual, I missed my chance a few weeks ago to see Julia Bacha’s documentary film, “Naila and the Uprising” at the UN, where Bacha, the director, was in attendance to discuss the film at a pre-showing event. In case you were wondering, Julia Bacha is a filmmaker with Just Vision, an independent film company dedicated to “rendering Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.” And “Naila” is the story of a young Gazan woman’s participation in the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, of 1987-1993. Unless you’re a connoisseur of things Palestinian, you’d probably never have heard of director, film, or company. And if ordinary experience is any guide, American connoisseurs of things Palestinian are in pretty short supply.
Luckily, having missed “Naila” at the UN, I managed to see it the other night on PBS. Let me put it this way: no one is obliged to have a worked-out view on the Israel-Palestine dispute, but if you feel the need to have one, even a sketchy one, you owe it to yourself to watch this film. The hour you’ll spend watching it will put a human face on the human beings, aka Palestinians, that most Israelis and most Americans are content whether directly or indirectly to bomb, shoot, blockade, and expropriate into oblivion.
Though the Palestinian intifada more or less coincided with the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, as well as with the most dramatic moments of the struggle against communism in Eastern Europe, in the United States at least, the intifada failed to elicit anything like the sympathy elicited by the other two movements.* And, it came to a worse end, to put it mildly. South Africa has its problems, but apartheid is gone. Eastern Europe has its problems, but communism is gone. In Israel and Palestine, by contrast, the first intifada led to the farce of the Oslo Peace Process, to the intensification of Israeli control over all of its occupied territories, to the surreal carnage of the second intifada (2000-2003), to a pair of wars in Gaza (2009, 2014), and to a situation where Israel gets to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants–with the eager acquiescence of the United States.
“Naila” brings viewers back to the lost days of hope in the late 1980s, and though it focuses on the intimate familial details of Naila’s story, it also gives a plausible (and to my mind, correct) sketch of an explanation of why things went as wrongly as they have. Contrary to anything you may have heard about it in the American press, the first Palestinian intifada was a popular uprising with a strongly secular and feminist component. Though the secular side of the intifada was avowedly Marxist (and mostly still is), it was also paradoxically devoted to a kind of anarcho-feminist capitalism not typically associated in the West with Palestinian politics: non-state-guided market and civic enterprises owned and/or run by women. And though not literally “non-violent,” it was decidedly not terrorist, either, employing defensive violence, mostly consisting of rocks and Molotov cocktails, against the vastly more powerful and grotesquely misnamed “Israel Defense Forces.”
What “Naila” shows us, almost incidentally, is the tri-cornered betrayal of the highest ideals of the intifada through the much-acclaimed Oslo peace process: to neutralize the intifada, including its secular, feminist, and “anarcho-capitalist” elements, Israel and the United States made a separate peace with the most patriarchal elements of the PLO, then based in Tunis. Together, these three sets of one-eyed men pulled the rug out from under the people who made the intifada–and especially from under the women who ran it–and handed the Israelis the basis for the unlimited expropriation and unchecked control they enjoy today.
At a deeper level, what the film shows us is the moral meaning of that first intifada–not the crazy Islamist nihilism commonly associated with the Palestinian resistance in “the West,” but a heroic movement for justice morally on par with Solidarity in Poland or the ANC in South Africa. When Americans think of Palestinians, they think reflexively of raving anti-Semitic lunatics in bomb belts, or pitiful, cowering victims of Israeli bombs or bullets. The idea of non-violent resistance committees marching out to confront the Israeli military–of men and women armed with nothing more than a body to put on the line and the demand to be recognized as a rights-bearing moral agent–apparently seems too much to believe when viewed from “the West.” But to paraphrase Galileo, a man who knew something about the motions of distant bodies: and yet, it happened.
And still does. The Popular Resistance committees born of the first intifada still exist, and are still active today–not that you’d have heard of them if you read, watch, or listen to the mainstream American press. I went to Palestine four times to see them, up close and with my own eyes, in obscure West Bank villages with names like al Ma’asara, Susiya, Beit Umar, Tequ’, Beit Jala, Beit Sahur, al Jaba, Surif, al Eizariya, and Abu Dis. The resistance activity you see in the film has been carried on, with stubborn persistence, thirty years after the events the film depicts, by the children and grandchildren of the people depicted in it. It’s always the same: resistance volunteers march, in tragic emulation of bygone events in Selma, Birmingham, and Soweto, down dusty roads blocked by soldiers with American accents and American weapons. They get stopped. There’s a confrontation. On bad days it ends with tear gas, stun grenades, and gun fire. On good days, not. But either way, it continues, whether anyone is watching or not. And so it will.
“What is Abu Dis?” an Israeli border control officer asked me at an interrogation, feigning puzzlement while inviting indiscretion. “I’ve never heard of it.” Maybe not, but her bosses had: ringed by walls, checkpoints, military bases, and settlements, and surveilled from the air by drones and helicopters, it seemed easy enough to find. She didn’t need to ask me. She could just have driven over and taken a look. She could also, on any Friday of the week, have watched her colleagues confront the Popular Resistance on its streets, armed to the teeth and ready for action. To state the obvious: It’s the Palestinians who are caged, not their captors. It’s Palestinians who are locked in place on the map, not the people who locked them there. But that, too, is something you might not know, if you’re held captive to what the mainstream American media has to say on the subject.
You’ve probably never heard of, much less interacted with, the Popular Resistance. You can’t know what you’re missing, but thanks to the wonders of technology, the broad-mindedness of PBS, and the generosity of its benefactors, you, too, can make the trip and make their acquaintance. Give it a shot, so to speak. It’s not quite like getting tear gas in your eyes, or having a stun grenade whiz by your head, but it’s as close as you’ll otherwise get. All at the touch of a few buttons on your remote, and at a bargain basement price. Highly recommended.
* The closest it came, I think, was a cameo appearance in the video for Guns ‘n Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”
I’m obliged by my institution to issue this disclaimer: My institutional affiliation, mentioned elsewhere on this website, is intended exclusively for purposes of identification. I don’t speak (and have never claimed to speak) for Felician University or any other institution or entity. I find it hard to imagine that any honest person could have thought otherwise, but the dishonest and conveniently anonymous people who troll my writings and complain about them to my employer might profit by my putting the point this way.