Twenty-five years ago, after months of secret negotiations, the Norwegian government announced that a historic agreement had been reached between the Israeli government and the exiled Palestine Liberation Organization. The Oslo Accords, sealed by an iconic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on September 13, 1993, in Washington, D.C., were celebrated as a victory for diplomacy and a monumental turning point in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
But the agreement came as a surprise to many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including a delegation of Palestinian representatives from the occupied territories who had also been engaged in peace talks with the Israelis, starting with the 1991 Madrid Conference. They, like everyone else, learned about Oslo — which would prove to be a colossal failure — from the news.
But there were no women at the talks in Oslo — a betrayal of those who had led the intifada as much as the terms of the accords were a betrayal of Palestinians’ aspirations to self-determination. The story of the First Intifada, its popular roots, and the way in which the movement’s hopes were crushed in Oslo is the subject of a recent film, “Naila and the Uprising,” told through the eyes of a woman, Naila Ayesh, whose life was marked by a chapter of Palestinian history that is often forgotten.
“Oslo was created as a way of empowering, again, the male Palestinian leadership that had been in exile,” Julia Bacha, the film’s director, told The Intercept. “The intifada had come from the grassroots and from local leaders who had been living in the West Bank and in Gaza and had created a model for resistance that was very appealing to the international community, because it was based on popular resistance. They had created the political circumstances at the time for a lot of pressure to be put on Israel.”
“American efforts to hold an international conference for peace between Palestinians and Israelis was a result,” Zahira Kamal, a leader of the First Intifada and one of two women representing Palestinians at the Madrid talks, says in the film. “If there had been no intifada, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The First Intifada is seldom invoked in discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often eclipsed by the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, which was much more violent. With striking parallels to recent uprisings in the region, the First Intifada erupted in Gaza in 1987, an outburst against the occupation with no immediate leadership. The PLO was initially taken by surprise — much of the leadership, including Arafat, had been in Tunisia for years and wouldn’t return to Palestine until after the Oslo Accords — and for the first time, Palestinians in the territories made decisions without waiting for guidance from their exiled leaders.
“It was purely a populist uprising,” Ayesh says in the film, describing the intifada’s early days. “It was spontaneous and quick.”
But the fact that it was spontaneous didn’t mean it wasn’t organized. 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, the intifada became a two-track insurgency: They stood up against the Israeli occupation while also seeking to liberate women from the barriers imposed by their own society.
“Women have been involved in the struggle for national liberation for a long time. But her presence was still limited,” Kamal says. “In Palestinian society, authority lies in the hands of men and elders. In villages, women didn’t participate because of the separation between genders.”
Under the guise of social work, women took their organizing efforts into villages and refugee camps. They called for a boycott of Israeli products and worked with farmers to reduce reliance on them, concurrently helping women to set up businesses and become financially independent of the men in their families. When the Israelis closed Palestinian schools, women set up clandestine classrooms under the trees. When the Israelis banned gatherings, women knocked on doors to distribute food and hid political bulletins in bags of bread.
“Publicly, the women’s committees were known for their social work. But in reality, and covertly, it was all political organizing,” activist Naima Al-Sheikh Ali says in the film. “Nurseries, sewing workshops, teaching women how to knit, cook, etc. That was all window dressing.”
“Every problem that came up at the governmental level, we’d set up local committees to address them,” Azza Qassem, another activist, says. “The women’s organizations and unions worked in lieu of a full government that organized people’s lives.”
As the intifada intensified despite Israel’s efforts to crush it, it was mostly women who raised the then-outlawed Palestinian flag and faced off with soldiers at the mass rallies that became the trademark of the uprising. And as men were killed, imprisoned, and exiled, it was increasingly women who organized the movement.
“Women were always the majority at these gatherings,” says Ayesh. “There were fewer men than women because some of them were in prison or had been martyred. Women became part of almost every political activity.”
“People would come to me from all over saying they needed this or that and asking for advice. We’d say to them, ‘Give us a couple of hours while we ask the brothers in the organization,’” says Rabeha Diab, who led Fatah, one of the largest Palestinian political parties, during a period of the intifada. “But there were no brothers.”
In the film, Ayesh’s story unfolds alongside that of the intifada — a reminder of the personal sacrifice that was at stake as the political movement rose. At the time, any political organizing was punished, and merely being a member of a student union was considered a crime. Ayesh was interrogated by Israel’s secret service for two weeks, tied to a chair with a bag over her head. She was left out in the cold all night and dragged across the floor when her feet were too frozen to move. In prison, she miscarried her first child. “I had already told them that I was newly pregnant,” she says in the film. “They told me it didn’t make a difference.”
After she was released, Ayesh got pregnant again and continued her political work — once, she says, she accidentally handed out a sonogram along with political fliers. Her husband, also an activist, was arrested four days before she went into labor, and then deported. With her husband exiled in Egypt, Ayesh carried her newborn son around Gaza in a baby sling as she visited women in refugee camps. She was arrested again in the middle of the night when her son was 6 months old and was forced to leave him behind alone.
When relatives were allowed to visit her in prison, “of course I asked to hold my baby,” she says. “The guard refused and said the law doesn’t allow it.” Ayesh’s family eventually succeeded in convincing the Israelis to reunite mother and son — but in prison. Baby Majd learned to walk behind bars, surrounded by female prisoners who saw in him the children they too had been forced to leave behind.
Today, Ayesh insists that there was nothing unique about her struggle: It was the story of countless Palestinian families. In 1991, she tearfully left Gaza for Egypt — resigned to a two-year exile so her husband could finally meet Majd, who had only ever seen his father in a video of his parents’ wedding. A foreign documentary crew had followed them for months as they lived apart and then reunited — the footage from that time adds a layer of home-movie intimacy to a film that powerfully stitches together archival news reels, illustrations, and interviews with the women who led the intifada.
Forced into peace talks as a result of the First Intifada’s appeal to the international community, the Israelis initially refused to negotiate directly with the PLO, which they considered a terrorist organization. The Palestinian delegation ended up being “a people’s delegation,” as spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi called it. At first, there were no women on the Israeli delegation to Madrid, but when they realized that the Palestinian delegation had two women, the Israelis also sent one. “We were proud that our delegation included women,” says Kamal, who was a representative along with Ashrawi, one of Palestine’s best-known female politicians. “This made us stand out.”
When the PLO leadership abroad started direct talks with the Israelis in Oslo, they did so without informing the Palestinians who had been at the forefront of the uprising and were now engaged in peace talks in Madrid.
“How could the PLO think it could set up negotiating teams without us present?” Al-Sheikh Ali asks. “Women were left out of all preparations for the formation of the Palestinian Authority. We represent 50 percent of society, sometimes more. If 50 percent of the population isn’t participating in decisions, that means society is half-paralyzed.”
“When you compare what we proposed to what came out of Oslo, you get truly sad. Because Oslo brought a lot less than what was on the negotiating table,” says Kamal. “The Palestinian leadership returned to the country and began to form the Palestinian Authority. People around the world assumed that negotiations would bring a solution. But the occupation was still in effect.”
“By the time the men returned, women had achieved a lot in their position, but the expectation was that men would slot straight back into their position,” she adds. “And women would have to step aside.”
As the Palestinian Authority took over, women were horrified to learn that they would now need a male guardian to get a passport. Some took to the streets again, this time against their own leadership — but their protest fell on deaf ears.
“They said: Your role is done,” says Qassem.
“What Oslo did was it replaced a truly representative diplomatic process with a very top-down and, I would argue, much more security negotiation, rather than peace negotiation,” Bacha, the film’s director, told The Intercept. “Oslo really became about Israel wanting to guarantee that the Palestinian Authority would serve their needs, in terms of preventing another uprising from taking place, completely ending the First Intifada, and then never allowing again for Palestinian civil society to rise as effectively as they had done.”
“And Arafat agreed to those terms.”
For years after Oslo, with some notable exceptions, Palestinian women who had been integral to the intifada were excluded from the Palestinian Authority and further attempts at peace. At a recent screening of “Naila and the Uprising,” a former Palestinian negotiator recalled participating in an all-male delegation to South Africa. The South Africans agreed to meet with the Palestinians out of solidarity for their cause, he said, but they stressed that they were making an exception to their rule not to receive delegations that were not truly representative of their societies.
Ayesh and her husband returned to Palestine after the Oslo Accords. She became the director of the Women’s Affairs Center, an NGO that advocated for gender equality in Palestine and encouraged women to participate in political life.
But she sometimes wondered how things might have turned out differently had women been at the table in Oslo. “Men were not as aware of the details on the ground,” she told The Intercept this summer, noting that women were often the ones who bore the brunt of water shortages after Israel annexed the West Bank’s aquifers, or kept up relations between towns and villages that were cut off from one another.
It is still women who pay the steeper price of failed peace in their everyday lives, she added. In Gaza, where the Israeli blockade means constant electricity cuts, “it is women who wake up in the middle of the night to wash things when the electricity comes back.”
To young Palestinians — the overwhelming majority in the West Bank and Gaza — the system set up by Oslo is the only reality they have ever known. Illegal Israeli settlements have increased by 140 percent since Oslo; the occupation continues. But many young people have little faith in their political leadership and are increasingly protesting the Palestinian Authority as they continue to resist, like earlier generations, the Israeli occupation.
“There is a new generation, a younger generation, that actually doesn’t identify with this political system at all,” said Bacha. “That’s where I see women’s leadership flourishing again.”
“I believe it will happen,” she added. “But it does require a reckoning with history, and a reckoning with the outcomes of Oslo.”