Israel’s hard-charging prosecution of a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who slapped and kicked two Israeli soldiers has trained a spotlight on her activist family and its role in what Palestinians call “popular resistance”, the near-weekly protests against Israeli occupation staged in several West Bank villages.
The case of Ahed Tamimi has come to embody rival, grievance-filled Palestinian and Israeli narratives at a time of overwhelming mutual distrust about the other side’s intentions and skepticism about chances of ending the long-running conflict.
Many Palestinians have embraced the teen as a symbol of a new generation standing up to Israeli rule.
In Israel, she is seen either as a naive youth manipulated by her elders, a serial trouble-maker or a threat to Israel’s image and military deterrence.
The December incident that catapulted her into the headlines came 10 days after President Donald Trump’s recognition of contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a decision seen as siding with Israel on the most sensitive issue in the conflict.
Trump’s move triggered Palestinian protests, including in Nabi Saleh, a village of about 600 members of the Tamimi clan. Since 2009, villagers have protested the seizure of some of their land and a spring for a nearby Israeli settlement, with demonstrations often ending in clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas, rubber bullets or live rounds.
Caught on Facebook
On December 15, the army said villagers were throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and a nearby road used by Israelis.
Ahed’s mother, Nariman, captured events live on Facebook, including soldiers firing stun grenades.
At one point, Ahed and her 20-year-old cousin, Nour Tamimi, approached an Israeli captain and a first sergeant at the edge of the family’s walled front yard. Ahed yelled at them to leave, then started pushing and kicking the soldiers, who casually fended off the blows. Then she hit both in the face, according to the charges.
The video caused uproar in Israel, amid complaints the soldiers had been humiliated. Ahed was arrested Decemeber 19, followed by her mother and cousin.
Three weeks later, Nour is free on bail, while Ahed and her mother remain in detention. Ahed faces lengthy prison time — potentially up to 14 years — after being charged with 12 counts of attacking and threatening soldiers in five incidents going back to April 2016.
In the line of fire
Ahed’s cousin, 15-year-old Mohammed, was shot in the head on December 15 by a rubber-coated steel pellet of the type used by Israel’s military, and is now back home after surgery. Ahed’s family said word of his grave injury helped set her off against the soldiers that day.
Part of Mohammed’s left skull had to be removed by surgeons, with the bone to be replaced in coming months. Late last week, the teen — who as a 14-year-old spent three months in Israeli detention, accused of stone-throwing — spoke slowly and clearly, but appeared tired, resting his maimed head on the arm rest of a sofa in his family’s living room.
In the neighboring village of Deir Nidham, the Tamimi clan mourned 17-year-old Musab Tamimi, who was killed by Israeli army fire in clashes with stone-throwers last week. The military said the teen carried a weapon, but provided no evidence. His family denies he was armed. In clashes after Musab’s funeral, 17-year-old Mohammed Barghouti was critically wounded by a shot to the forehead, according to hospital officials.
The Israeli military declined further comment on the incidents.
Soldiers only resort to rubber bullets or live fire when warranted, typically when facing lethal threats, said an officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations. In addition to firebombs, he included rock-throwing in its definition of such threats.
‘Price of resisting occupation’
The fathers of Ahed, Nour and Mohammed said arrest and injury were the price of resisting occupation.
“We raise our heads high,” said Mohammed’s father, Fadel Tamimi, who like the others has spent several years in Israeli jails.
Ahed’s father, Bassem Tamimi, said he believes his daughter’s actions have resonated because she’s not seen as a victim. “When you look at her, you feel proud, not sad,” he said.
Bassem Tamimi was an activist in the first Palestinian uprising, which was largely driven by stone-throwing protests and helped produce interim Israeli-Palestinian deals in the mid-1990s.
But a promise of Palestinian statehood never materialized. And after more failed negotiations, a new Palestinian uprising of bombings and shootings erupted in 2000, lasting several years amid a harsh Israeli crackdown. Israel also kept expanding settlements — some 600,000 Israelis now live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, war-won lands sought by the Palestinians for their state.
In recent years, a new strategy of weekly protests has emerged in some Palestinian villages that lost land to settlements or Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.
Bassem Tamimi argues that such protests are the most effective means of shaking off Israeli rule because Palestinians can claim the moral high ground. He believes settlements have made it impossible to establish a Palestinian state and now supports a single bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state with equal rights for all.
The role of violence has loomed large in internal discourse, including in the Tamimi clan.
Ahlam Tamimi, one of Bassem Tamimi’s cousins, was an accomplice in a 2001 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem pizzeria that killed 15, including seven children. A nephew, Nizar Tamimi, was involved in killing an Israeli in 1993.
Both were released in a 2011 prisoner swap and married in Jordan.
Bassem Tamimi said he once supported violence, but now opposes all attacks as counterproductive. Still, he said “every Palestinian is free to struggle the way he or she wants.”
His wife has praised Palestinian attackers in social media posts.
Tamimi portrayed such statements as expressions of sympathy for those killed by Israel, including her brother Rushdie who was shot to death by Israeli forces in 2012. Asked about an anti-Semitic cartoon and comment posted by another relative, he said he often disagrees with relatives and calls them out on mistakes.
In the December 15 video, Ahed calls for large demonstrations as “the only way to reach results,” but says Trump must bear responsibility for any Palestinian reaction, including stabbings and suicide attacks, and that “everyone needs to do something and to unite.”
Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki said “popular resistance” remains marginal because it fails to draw large crowds.
In response to the Trump declaration, seen by Palestinians as a major blow to their interests, 45 percent said the most appropriate Palestinian response is to halt ties with the United States, go after Israel at the International Criminal Court and resort to an armed uprising, according to Shikaki’s most recent poll, which had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Twenty-seven percent said negotiations with Israel are most effective, down from 33 percent three months ago, while 23 percent back non-violent resistance.
In Israel, reactions to the Nabi Saleh incident have ranged from praising the soldiers’ restraint to criticizing them for appearing weak to calling for Ahed and her family to be punished as deterrence.
Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said ongoing friction with Palestinian civilians is Israel’s weak spot in the battle for international opinion and that there are no good choices in dealing with incidents like Ahed’s scuffle with the soldiers.
“We like to see ourselves as David and the other side as Goliath,” he said. The Palestinians “are trying to create themselves as a small David who can harm Goliath.”