You’d have had to have been sleeping for most of December 2017 to have missed Ahed Tamimi, the sixteen (some say eighteen) year old, wild-haired, blonde heroine of the Palestinian resistance, the face that launched a thousand posts (more like a million, really) on the howling internet.
I don’t know where he’s going
When he gets there, I’ll be glad
I’m following in father’s footsteps
I’m following the dear old dad
English Music Hall song by EW Rogers
…we hold them by the balls, and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them, and they are trapped by us
Avi Shalit, My Promised Land
Ahed is no doubt “choleira”, Hebrew slang for bad (or worse), to the Israeli right, nationalists and settlers. But she’s catnip to the pro-Palestinian and anti- Israel left, be they Israelis who would like to see an end to the occupation, mainstream socialists and social democrats, and the acolytes, partisans and naïfs of the BDS who to greater or lesser degrees seek to delegitimize Israel, demolish the Zionist project, and replace it with a Palestinian entity (democratic, of course, multiethnic and multi-faith).
You can’t doubt her courage and her resilience, and her sharp eye for the photo-op and the “hilltop” soundbite. To borrow from Monty Python, she is not the messiah, but she’s certainly a naughty girl. Canny, bright, articulate, photogenic, and media-savvy to many; a puppet and a dupe to her detractors. And poster-girl for a family business that has been in the resistance game for near on a decade since Nabi Saleh became the tiny village with the big voice, and her father, Bassem, its international face. Read all about it in Ben Ehrenreich’s long travelogue in the New York Times: Is this where the third intifada will start? (there is a much less laudatory article in pro-Israeli The Tower). And Nabi Saleh is Tamimi country. Most of its (est. 600) villagers are related by blood or marriage, and many bear the same name. They originated a long time ago from the Abu Tamim, one of the largest Saudi tribes. Bassem Tamimi cut his teeth as a youth activist during the first Intifada, and a Fatah operative in the second.
Nabi Saleh, 20 km northwest of Ramallah, is on the front line of resistance to the settlements, its campaign to reclaim from settlers a spring traditionally owned by the village, having transformed since 2009 into a weekly demonstration guaranteed to draw its young people, its shebab, into confrontation with the IDF, and hence a magnet for activists from Israel and overseas, and, of course, an international array of journalists and photographers – who always seem to be on hand when young Ahed, all blonde hair, blue jeans, sneakers and attitude goes mano a mano with heavily armed and befuddled soldiers.
Ahed’s looks, her clothes, her forthrightness, and her chutzpah, are not those of the average Palestinian Muslim girl, and to present her as such is to gives uninformed outsiders an erroneous impression. Nor are her prospects. The average Muslim girl of her age in the villages of Palestine is covered and modest, engaged at 16, married at 18, and has had her first child at 20. Most girls of Ahed’s age don’t leave school to go to university – they are groomed for their husband’s kitchen. But not Ahed. She is presented as the feisty jack-in-the-box, the free spirit, who wanted to be a soccer player and now wants to be a lawyer to help her people. She is being groomed for show-biz and for jihad, and perhaps, even, for jail. She’s the public face of a successful family business – and that business is protest and resistance, with a media and public relations operation that rarely misses an opportunity to promote itself and its cause. The Tamimiyin are to the resistance what the Kardashians are to vacuity – masters of self-promotion, agitprop and political theatre. And can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
International media have been drawn to Nabi Saleh and its unofficial “first family” since at least 2011 and eleven year old Ahed’s debut, shaking he tiny fist at a tall, bemused, confused infantryman. In August 2015, she hit the big time when she and her female relatives prevented a masked and armed soldier from arresting her little brother. That soldiers should arrest a wee lad with his arm in a caste might see, slightly incredulous to outsiders. But it was the scrum that ensued, a melee of flying fists, writhing bodies, shouts, screams and tears, as women and girls piled into the unfortunate soldier, recorded by convenient posse of professional photographers and handy smartphones, that sent images ricocheting around the world. And then, in December, there was the slap that reverberated across the globe. One thing for sure: this girl has really been trying hard to get herself arrested.
Of course you can’t make such a splash without all kinds of opportunists muscling in on the act. Hamas has praised the heroes and martyrs of Nabih Saleh, whilst Abbas has commended Ahad and her quasi fedayyin family. After her fist-waving defiance, she was invited to Turkey and feted by then prime minister Erdogan himself. Not everyone reacted so enthusiastically. One right-wing blogger dubbed Ahed “Shirley Temper.” The Israeli news site Ynet saw the images as evidence that “Palestinian protesters use children to needle IDF soldiers in the hope of provoking a violent response.”
A month after Ahed’s wrestle with the soldier, Bassem was invited on a five-week speaking tour of American colleges and universities by a group of anti-Israeli organizations, during which he spruiked on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). Read about it in The Times of Israel.
The villagers of Nabi Saleh – and the Tamimis – have taken hits over the years, of dead and injured. Hundreds have been arrested, so many are familiar with the inside of Israeli military prisons – and this includes many of its youth who have been caught up in Israel’s controversial juvenile justice system – and now, so has Ahed. Her father has been jailed many times, as have other relatives, including her auntie, Ahlam Tamimi, imprisoned for her role in the horrific Sbarro pizza restaurant bombing in Jerusalem in August 2001 which killed fifteen Israelis including seven children. Ahlam was released in the prisoner exchange that secured Hamas’ release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit in 2011 after five years of captivity, and deported to Jordan, and is to this day, unrepentant, and proud of her part in this massacre of the innocents. She now hosts a radio show in Jordan, calling for the killing of Jews.
Ahed therefore joins a long line of political prisoners. And that, of course, places the IDF and the Israeli authorities in a bind. the whole business of Nabi Saleh, and its latter-day Joan of Arc present a security and public relations nightmare. It draws an unwelcome spotlight on an occupation that most nations regard as illegal. It illuminates the inequities, iniquities and indignities of the occupation (see my post The View From a Balcony in Jerusalem, and also, the recent anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash – writers confront the Occupation). If that wasn’t bad enough, the Education Minister of the most democratic country in the Middle East declared that Ahed and her ilk should be locked up for life, and a popular newspaper columnist suggested euphemistically that she be assaulted in jail whilst no one was watching (he later implied that the goyim didn’t get his joke!).
Israelis on all sides are complaining that the lass made the soldiers of the vaunted IDF look like sissies. Others declare that the soldiers ought to be praised for their patience and forbearance at Ahed’s attempts to provoke a more violent reaction. Some say that a young person continually trying this stunt on an American, British, or Australian soldier or copper would not be let off so lightly. And yet others hope and pray that their soldier boys and girls show the same fortitude under pressure, and come home safe from their days in the badlands. And then there are those who declare that Ahed has been brainwashed, those who believe she needs counseling and psychological care, and those who believe that her unconscionable and manipulative parents have deprived her of a normal childhood.
But how can anyone view as normal the lives of children in the often volatile West Bank, particularly in a hot spot like Nabi Saleh, with the separation wall, checkpoints, and the kafkaesque permit system, with youngsters’ perennial contact and indeed dangerous confrontation with army patrols and military vehicles, with armed men barging through the living rooms before dawn, as Ahed herself has experienced, with parents and siblings, relatives and friends having endured fifty years of military rule, and with a school curriculum preaching martyrdom and hatred of Jews.
Meanwhile, commentators the world over are asking what does the region’s most powerful, and in its own words, “most moral” army have fear from a mere slip of a girl?
Under pressure from all sides, the IDF and the military justice system are caught between a rock and a hard place. Too harsh a judgement and world opinion is outraged; too soft, and the Israeli street is up in arms. Too harsh, and the easily incensed Arab street is again on the march; too mild, and the Palestinians and their Arab and other friends will be celebrating a rare victory. Sweets and happy shots all around as the mighty IDF is humbled by a brave girl – although how well this role model sits in a milieu of male machismo, who can say?
The honour and reputation of the army is at stake, and yet, it was but a slap, albeit a very provocative one. And so, Ahed, blonde locks awry in brown prison garb and flanked by stout police women, is shuttled from jail to jail, court to court, judge to judge as the baffled authorities wrestle with a dilemma that they made for themselves when she was arrested at her home in the wee small hours three days after her famous fisticuffs, along with her mother and sister – and, naturally, it was all captured on smart phone and shared everywhere. Now, who’d’ve thunk it?
Caught in the Middle are the Palestinians themselves, as full of conflicting ideas, opinions and positions as a warren is full of rabbits. And the Tamimi clan, treading a fine line so as not to incur the wrath, envy or enmity of the powers that be – the PA, its dominant and often unruly faction Fatah, its mukhabarat, and its blood enemy Hamas – and also to evade the strong arm of Israel’s Shabak state.
It is a tenuous and torturous tightrope. Bassem Tamimi has estimated that some two-thirds of the villagers depend on the Palestinian Authority for a living [as its largest employer, the PA probably controls the livelihoods of a quarter of the West Bank population. see my post on the Palestinian economy and property boom, Castles Made of Sand]. He himself was once PA employee with an apparently flexible arrangement for working from home with time to organize and strategize, and to meet and greet the foreign journalists and visiting activists who dropped in for the Friday follies.
Bassem Tamimi is no stranger to jail, and indeed, has good resistance cred as one of Amnesty International’s “prisoners of conscience”, But he is probably much more useful as Nabi Salih’s articulate and respected front-man and his famous daughter’s erstwhile agent and manager. His views are well-known. He is anti-normalization, and pro-BDS. He longs for the end of the occupation, and also, Inshallah, the end of Israel. He wants Nabi Saleh to be the epicentre of the third Intifada, but does not openly condone violence – and carefully avoids accusations of inciting it. For that way, danger lies. Whilst he might resent the endemic corruption of the co-opted and compromised PA, he does not come out against it. For that way too, danger lies too.
His wife is not so cautious. When the so-called “stabbing intifada” began in late 2015, Nariman Tamimi shared graphic instructions on how best to stab a Jew. Nor does Ahed appear to be as savvy as her father. The Times of Israel quotes a family Face Book post of December 15 in which she says: “Whether it is stabbings or suicide bombings or throwing stones, everyone must do his part and we must unite in order for our message to be heard that we want to liberate Palestine”. Are her parents being reckless with their daughter, potentially setting her up for a life of jail?
So, where to from here for Ahed Tamimi? as of today, January 1st, she has been formally charged with assault, but the case has yet to be heard. But early indications are that the prosecutors would like to make an example of her, bulking up her charge sheet with prior altercations for which she was never cautioned let alone arrested. Left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz‘s editorial today concluded: “They are using Tamimi to placate a vengeful public, and send a determined message to young Palestinian men and women so they don’t dare rise up against the occupation. Instead of putting an end to this wrong, Israel perpetuates it. The problem is not Tamimi but the occupation. Not only was there no justification for indicting Tamimi, she should be released immediately”.
Will she do jail time, joining a long line of Palestinian heroes, her travails at the hands of the occupier burnishing her resistance credentials. Will she be released on probation, free to continue her role as pop star provocatrice? If she is released on a good-behaviour bond, she could wind up behind bars again the next time she taunts soldiers or settlers. Will she complete her education and study law, perhaps overseas even, far from the Palestinian pressure cooker? Will she return home to be an advocate, a politician, a leader, a rebel or a shahida?
And what of her prospects in a future Palestinian state should that indeed come to pass? Will she and her father have a part to play? Will their energies be directed against the PA and Fatah old guard and it’s families’ vested interests, inviting retribution and persecution? How would she fare if that Palestinian state was an Islamic one guided by the Sharia and controlled by the patriarchy? Would the straighteners try to put this fiery rebel back in their box?
Ahed was detained for three months and in March 2018, she was sentenced to eight months jail after reaching a plea deal with the Israeli authorities. She was released at the end of July and returned home to a hero’s welcome. Praised by her supporters and anti-Israel partisans for her stoicism and endurance and her undiminished nationalist fervour, her critics were predictably unimpressed. Many commented tartly that she exited prison looking none the worse for wear, and were quick to point out that she had indeed put on a few extra kilos. She immediately embarked on a highly publicized and well- choreographed world tour – a veritable victory lap, but has otherwise maintained a low political profile.
Meanwhile, meet the next wave : Janna Jihad, Ahed’s young, blue eyed and very photogenic cousin. Florida-born Journalist, activist, and resistance icon. Dubbed “the prettiest girl in Nabi Saleh, here is her interview with e-zine Democracy Now.