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What you need to know about the 1987 Intifada

March 22, 2019

By ‘Women, War & Peace’ impact partner Peace is Loud.

‘Naila and the Uprising’ tells the story of a woman in Gaza who must choose between love, family, and freedom when a nation-wide uprising breaks out in 1987. She embraces all three and joins a clandestine network of women during the most vibrant nonviolent mobilization in Palestinian history.

What was the first intifada?

The intifadas – meaning “uprisings” in Arabic – were two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, the first in the late 1980s and the second in the early 2000s.

Both intifadas had a significant impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. The second intifada is widely seen as marking the end of the 1990s era negotiating process and catalyzing a darker era of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The First Intifada was a largely spontaneous series of Palestinian demonstrations, nonviolent actions like mass boycotts, civil disobedience, Palestinians refusing to work jobs in Israel, and attacks (using rocks, Molotov cocktails, and occasionally firearms) on Israelis.

The Israeli military response – which included a government policy of breaking the bones of protestors – led to high fatalities. According to the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, BTselem, Israeli forces killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and injured more than 130,000 in the First intifada. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned and many were routinely tortured. The United Nations criticized Israel’s use of lethal force and the United States government under President Reagan condemned Israel for “harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition.” Fifty Israeli civilians were killed.

The peace process started in Madrid in 1991 after pressure by the US government on Israeli Prime Minister Shamir. Grassroots activists and women took up important leadership roles on the Palestinian delegation. But simultaneous back-channel negotiations in Oslo replaced efforts in Madrid, leaving the grassroots activists and women out of the process. By 1993, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, agreed to a five-year peace process – encapsulated in the Oslo Accords – which involved mutual recognition and a phased plan to deal with final status issues.

The intifada was led largely by women.

While the First Intifada is largely reduced to images of Palestinian boys throwing stones at Israeli tanks, women were at the helm of resistance. Women launched mass demonstrations, labor strikes, and a boycott of Israeli goods that for the first time put real economic and international pressure on Israel to negotiate. At the same time, they created parallel institutions that lowered the costs of the uprising on Palestinians: “Women organized economic cooperatives, mobile health clinics, underground schools, and more, sustaining and strengthening the insurrection,” Naila and the Uprising executive producer Suhad Babaa wrote in The Forward. “Most surprising — and most ignored — is the fact that women made up the backbone of the uprising.”

“It was shocking to me that this story had never been told,” ‘Naila and the Uprising’ director Julia Bacha told Middle East Eye. “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.”

While spontaneous, the intifada was actually quite organized.

For years before the First Intifada erupted, women were active and organizing in women’s groups, student unions and collectives. This organizing effectively laid the groundwork for the unified struggle that emerged with the uprising. “The collective nature of the struggle is part of how it sustained itself,” Bacha described in an interview in 2018. “There was such a powerful sense of unity and purpose among Palestinians during that time.”

Palestinian civil society quickly sprang into action, led by women’s collectives that multiplied across the occupied territories: The Women’s Action Committees, the Working Women’s Committees, the Union of Women’s Committees, and the Women’s Committee for Social Work were connected to Palestinian political parties that were crystallizing at the time — but their goals and methods were a radical departure from politics up to that point.

For Palestinian women, explains Alice Speri, the intifada became more than just standing up against the Israeli Occupation. Women were also combating barriers imposed by their own society.

“Women’s involvement in the First Intifada, we came to realize, was a key component of the successes achieved during the uprising,” Bacha wrote in her Director’s Note. “Had women not been largely excluded from the Oslo process and beyond, Palestinians and Israelis would be living in a very different reality today.”

*For more resources on the First Intifada, go to