What: Imprisonment of Ahed Tamimi
When: 19 December 2017
Where: Nabi Saleh village, occupied West Bank
When most people think of Palestinian protesters, a young, blue-eyed and blonde-haired girl doesn’t come to mind.
But two years ago, fair-haired Ahed Tamimi changed that. At just 16, after a video of her confronting an Israeli soldier and her subsequent arrest went viral, she caught the world’s attention after making international headlines and became a symbol of resistance overnight.
Here’s how Tamimi’s voice, demeanour, and demonstrations challenging the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, propelled her to worldwide prominence.
Tamimi, who was arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers in her home in the occupied West Bank, was sentenced to eight months in Israeli custody as part of a plea deal where she admitted to aggravated assault of the soldier and incitement.
The initial incident which led to Ahed’s arrest was being involved in a protest, organised to denounce the shooting of her cousin, 14-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, who was hit in the face with a rubber bullet fired by Israeli soldiers. He was gravely injured but survived.
The altercation occurred soon after US President Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Over the years Tamimi’s village, Nabi Saleh, has been a focus of anti-occupation protests, which Israeli soldiers respond to with teargas, arrests and, at times, live ammunition.
The video of the Palestinian teen defending her brother by slapping and kicking a heavily armed soldier at the entrance to her family home was captured on film during the protest. It was clear she posed no actual threat to them, which made her a symbol of Palestinian opposition to Israeli military rule.
That sympathy and awe enraged right-wing Israelis.
For many right-wing Israelis, she is a terrorist and a publicity-seeking agitator, but for Palestinian supporters, she became the face — and the voice — of the Palestinian cause and resistance.
Amnesty International condemned the arrest, saying it violated international law and underlined that the detention of minors should only be used as a last resort.
Her activism gained some media attention in 2012 after images of her threatening to punch an Israeli soldier who was trying to detain her brother went viral, and a video from 2015, which showed Ahed, then 15, biting the hand of a masked, armed Israeli soldier who was again trying to detain her brother Mohammed, 12, and had him in a chokehold. But few outside the Middle East knew of her.
But it was the video of her confronting the Israeli soldier in full military gear that transformed Ahed Tamimi into a global icon of the Palestinian resistance movement.
According to Ahed’s father Bassem Tamimi, a long-time activist termed a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, the soldiers violently trooped into the house and arrested the minor Ahed without providing any reasons.
At least 30 soldiers and intelligence officers, who also confiscated electronic devices, including laptops, cameras, and mobile phones, were involved in the raid and Ahed’s arrest.
In March 2018, Ahed, who turned 17 in prison, accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to charges including assault and incitement after being put on trial in a closed military court.
She was sentenced to eight months, minus time served in detention, and received a fine of 5,000 shekels ($1,436) and a three-year suspended sentence.
During her arrest, Tamimi was sexually harassed by an Israeli interrogator during her detention, her lawyer Gaby Lasky, has alleged.
In the footage released to the public, Ahed was shown in an interrogator’s office, a week after she was detained. Two Israeli interrogators are seen questioning her about her involvement in recent protests. The men also made comments about her white skin and threatened to detain her family members if she failed to cooperate with them.
During her videotaped questioning, Tamimi repeatedly refused to respond to interrogators’ questions or comments about her physical appearance.
She was questioned by a group of men, with no women or interrogators specialising in dealing with minors present, which is a violation of Israeli law.
An extended version of the video also showed an interrogator making flirtatious remarks toward Tamimi as he commented, “You have eyes like an angel” in Arabic, which amounts to sexual harassment.
He then tried to explain how she is like his sister who “spends all his money on clothes,” according to the report by The Daily Beast.
Sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, is routinely used by Israeli authorities to humiliate and torture both female and male Palestinian prisoners.
Ahed’s story drew rare attention to the plight of Palestinian children held in Israeli military prisons.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited her to Istanbul and gave her an award for her courage.
In addition, this years’ edition of The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims pronounced Tamimi “a hero on the field,” praising her efforts to defend the Palestinian cause.
Despite the punishments endured during her arrest, she came out no less determined to convey the pain and struggle of her people to the world, and vowed to continue her struggle against the Israeli occupation.
The teenage activist said she used her eight months in prison as an opportunity to study international law and hopes to one day lead cases against Israel in international courts.
She was released in July last year and paid tribute to all the Palestinian women currently incarcerated by Israel.
Upon her release, she stated: “My happiness is not complete without my sisters [Palestinian female prisoners], who are not with me. I hope that they will also be free.”
The Palestinian icon also said: “The resistance will continue until the end of the occupation.”
“The messages I am leaving with the prisoners are that the popular struggle against the occupation will continue, and that the prisoners call for Palestinian national unity, as well as a call for support for the residents of Khan Al-Ahmar and the residents of Gaza and support for the continuation of the March of Return.”
“Al-Quds was and will remain the capital of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people are the foundation for the struggle for freedom.”
Hundreds of journalists, international activists and family members gathered near Tamimi’s home on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh to celebrate her release.
What happened next?
Ahed’s story gained considerable attention from international media outlets which have otherwise often ignored the courage and suffering of numerous Palestinian girls and women living under Israeli military occupation and siege for many years.
Addressing this fact, Ahed’s mother, Nariman Tamimi suggested it was her daughter’s looks that attracted the attention: “Frankly it is probably Ahed’s looks that prompted this worldwide solidarity, and that’s racist, by the way, because many Palestinian children are in Ahed’s position but weren’t treated in this way.”
She explained: “One journalist wrote in Haaretz once on why they sympathised with Ahed when they were trying to arrest me once; they arrested me and she was crying. It’s because they felt that she looked like them, she said. So perhaps the world showed more solidarity because she looks like their children, but all Palestinian children are Ahed Tamimi.”
It’s too much of a truth to be denied. Ahed’s golden hair has often been made the centre of attention because after all, what did she do that a number of other Palestinian women have never done before her?
Long blonde hair has many times been political due to the stereotypical attributes associated with whiteness, light skin, and hair colours, becoming a symbol of racial superiority.
The debate in Israel has often centred on Ahed’s appearance. It has taken on sexist and racial overtones. Some Israelis even went far as openly questioning whether she was really Palestinian at all. An article in the Times of Israel wondered if she was “an actor, or a former Jew”.
The Haaretz piece titled “And if Ahed Tamimi Were Your Daughter?” notes, “we see the golden curls; once again, we see the Botticelli figure in the brown Shin Bet security service uniform and the handcuffs, looking more like a girl from Ramat Hasharon than a girl from Nabi Saleh.”
The writer, who is male, described Ahed’s appearance as “non-Arab” and often referred to her as “the blonde from Nabi Saleh”. At the end of the piece he concludes, “Israelis are no longer capable of identifying with a brave girl, even when she looks like their daughters, just because she’s Palestinian.”
There is an obsession with looks, particularly when it comes to women, as it’s often what a woman’s value is based on, and Tamimi became a symbol of that toxic debate.
Ahed’s mother added: “There are thousands of stories that the media needs to pay attention to and highlight all of the occupation’s crimes, because the occupation needs to be seen as the war crime it is and legal measures need to be taken to that effect.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.