I’ve only ever seen Ahed Tamimi from afar. In her village Nabi Saleh. I always knew who she was, but she didn’t know me. I learned who she was years ago, through a video in which she raised her hand at Israeli soldiers and yelled out in an anger that seemed to transcend her little body, right after the soldiers arrested her brother. Five years later, she gained international fame again, through another video in which she slapped a fully armed soldier that was part of an IDF unit trying to trespass her home and her family’s private property. Two days after the video was issued, the Israeli army came to arrest her at 4 in the morning.
At the moment of the writing of this article, she had been held in interrogation for three weeks and has appeared in three hearings at the military court of Ofer. The prosecution keeps asking to extend the arrest (unlike settlers, Palestinians in the West Bank are prosecuted under military law, under which it is allowed to detain people for 90 days without charge or trial), because Ahed is refusing to talk or cooperate.
Ahed is from the village of Nabi Saleh, a one-street village close to Ramallah. The home of the Tamimi clan, which has had hundreds of dunums of land taken from them by the settlement of Halamish. This illegal colony was established on their private property in the late 70’s. When the settlers appropriated the village’s natural spring in 2011, the people from the village started organizing weekly marches towards the spring. In a Ghandi-like strategy, the idea behind the marches was to stay non-violent and use cameras to document the excessive force the Israeli army uses to retaliate, this way showing the world the true face of the occupation.
The term “excessive force” does not really do justice to what has been done to the Tamimi family since they decided to resist the appropriation of their lands. Since 2011, the Israeli military has killed Ahed’s uncle, Rushdi Tamimi, and her mother’s cousin, Mustafa Tamimi. The Israelis have incarcerated her father, Bassem Tamimi, 7 times. Her brother, now 20, served two prison sentences, he was arrested the first time when he was 14. Just one week before the video of Ahed slapping the soldier was published, her cousin was shot with a rubber coated steel bullet in the head and went into a coma. This is just a small selection of the injustices that the Tamimis have had to carry on their shoulders while continuing to resist, welcoming everybody that supports their cause, Jews and Westerners alike, into their homes.
All the attention and controversy surrounding Nabi Saleh and the Tamimi family seems to have collided in the last week and centered around one person: Ahed. Her arrest has received an exceptional amount of media attention. From the New York Times to Teen Vogue and CBS News, not to mention the countless articles written about her in Israeli and Arab media. Journalists – depending on where their sympathy lies- are using varying terms to brand her; “activist”, “troublemaker”, “icon”, “Palestinian Joan of Arc”, “Shirley Temper” among others. Her acts in the video have been described in different media sources as “defending her own home”, but more frequently “provoking the soldiers”. In fact, it appears that her persona, as well as her appearance – blue eyes and blonde hair – have become a battleground on which people deem it appropriate to fight out their differences regarding occupation and colonization.
Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States has tweeted that the Tamimis “may not be a real family” and that they “dress up their kids in American clothes to provoke IDF soldiers on camera”. He accused Ahed’s loving parents of child abuse and cynically demanded that human rights organizations investigate. In a Facebook post, too disturbing to quote directly here, Danish journalist Søren K. Villemoes wrote that the Tamimis use Ahed’s budding sexuality as a propaganda tool to gather support for their cause. The main themes in the Zionist offensive against Ahed seem to be that either she simply does not exist, or that she is being abused by her environment. In these descriptions, she is denied agency and even denied acknowledgement of her existence, reduced to something less than human – a tool or an object. Expectedly but nevertheless painful, the story is told completely void of the context of oppression, loss and land theft she grew up in.
Ahed’s extensive media attention has also drawn praise and cynicism within Palestinian and wider Arab societies. Songs have been written about her, marriage proposals made, but people also wonder about other incarcerated Palestinian children, “who do not have blue eyes and blonde hair”, and do not receive half the media attention.
One of the things that personally struck me in the last weeks of media coverage, is how frequently Ahed’s blonde hair is described in the news coverage of her arrest. I am yet to find one article in which her appearance is not mentioned. It should not be shocking anymore, but it does still surprise me how important the appearance of girls and women is in the battle for anything – including the battle of the bigger victimhood. Ahed’s blond hair has been used against her by anyone who thinks she did not deserve the attention. Meanwhile people forget Ahed never asked for the attention to begin with. That she would much rather be a normal child, than having to defend her home against occupiers that take her land, and kill and incarcerate her relatives if they try to resist.
Ahed herself is probably not aware of the media storm that is raging outside. Imprisoned children – especially under interrogation – are not granted access to internet or social media. The Israeli military detention system is isolating her as much as possible as part of the quest to try to make her feel alone and break her, pushing her to confess as a fast way out. She can catch glimpses of her family during the hearings, but soldiers usually form a human wall between her and her family, so they cannot communicate. There is little hope of her being released soon, as the conviction rates for Palestinian children in the Israeli military courts are high, and reports by human rights organizations have shown that Israelis rely on unfair tricks to obtain confessions. The judge sentencing her will be a military official him-/herself. This means there is a very real chance she or he built his/ her career endangering Palestinian lives in the West Bank, and could now be sentencing Ahed to prison for endangering the lives of the soldiers.
None of this is fair. Palestine is a place where all sense of fairness has been lost for decades. But another facet to the seemingly unending injustice in Palestine, is how this sixteen-year-old girl who already has to suffer through the horrors of military detention, is now also used as a tool, a battlefield of narratives of those who claim to know the truth about justice. It is abusive, and distracts from the reality that Ahed is just a girl, born from an oppressed people, who would much rather not have to be courageous, but be free instead.
This article was written by Annelies Verbeek. She is an Arabist and aspiring journalist, that lived in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. Verbeek is trying to return to the Middle East as fast as possible.