Portrait of Ahed Tamimi: A Palestinian Child Star in Israeli Prison

Arrest and shoot my friends, my cousins, my brothers, my mother, my father … kill my aunt and uncle — I’ll tell you to get out thousands of times, I’ll scream, I’ll cry, I’ll hold my fist to you in rage, I’ll bite you and … I’ll slap you.

You won’t stop — and nor will I. Palestine will be free, hear my cry. From behind prison bars, from near and far. I will be free. I am … Ahed Tamimi.

— Written in honor of Ahed and children everywhere

Photo by Diaa Hadid used with permission of photographer.

On a mild December night, nestled among the rolling olive tree covered hills her ancestors planted between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, sixteen year old Ahed Tamimi lay down to rest after another long day of existence in occupied Palestine. It was a few short hours before 3 am, when she would be violently arrested by the Israeli military and taken without a guardian to a prison to be held for weeks without charge. Her family never provided an arrest warrant or information about where she was held, had to wait until the morning to know the fate of their daughter at the hands of a foreign military.

Over the past seven years Ahed Tamimi has become of one of Palestine’s youngest national stars. But Ahed doesn’t star in any Arabic children’s TV show, music video or movie. Ahed most often stars in videos shot by activists, journalists and her family members as they frantically document the most vivid aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — the daily invasion of the Israeli soldiers who provoke, humiliate and terrorize the villagers, with hopes that they will push them to give up their struggle for existence and leave their ancestral land.

Photographs and videos of Ahed have repeatedly gone viral in recent years. The first time, when she was no more than ten years old, a journalist captured her screaming hysterically as her mother was dragged away by the Israeli Army for visiting their family’s freshwater spring, a form of non-violent protest the family had organized in response to the spring being taken over by Israeli settlers. The first of many, weekly, and even daily protests.

The struggle between the Palestinian land owners and the thieving Israeli settlers had been a long process. In the early 1970s when Israeli settlers (protected by the Israeli army) started appearing on the villagers’ land the villagers went to the Israeli court. With their land deeds in hand, issued by Jordan, they asked the court to remove the Israeli settlers and allow them to access their land (or at the least compensate them for their losses). The Israeli court agreed with their claim — that the land belonged to them and should be returned — but the ruling was never enacted, and today a large suburban Israeli settlement complete with swimming pools, doctors clinics and a post office sits on one of the village hills in plain view, mocking the landowners as they steal their water and the bounty from their soil.

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Ahed lives in an intergenerational nightmare. Before she was born, at the hands of “the Middle East’s most democratic state,” an Israeli military court translator pushed her aunt down the stairs and killed her. In 2012, her uncle and cousin were killed by Israeli soldiers as she watched blood run down her village streets. In recent years, all of her family members and most of her friends have been imprisoned and injured repeatedly.

When Ahed Tamimi was 11 she was captured in a striking photograph angrily holding her fist in front of an Israeli soldier who had just arrested her 13 year old brother. With her lips pursed so tightly, she was transformed from a girl into a global internet sensation. This image of bravery, and the smiling smirking soldiers surrounding her, circled the globe garnering millions of views and an award of bravery from the Turkish government.

Screenshot from video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4FM9WGRWdQ

But this was only the beginning of the injustice that Ahed would have to face. In 2015 an Israeli soldier put her 12 year old brother, with a visibly broken arm, into headlock and pinned him on a massive rock in her backyard. She was photographed biting and hitting the masked, armed Israeli soldier. The and photograph and the video of the tiny girl in a Tweety t-shirt became an international sensation. She was quoted by NBC news at the time saying, in her usual quiet demeanor, “All I did was help my brother”.

When you ask Ahed Tamimi about what she wants to do when she grows up, she will tell you, in a soft voice, that she wants to be a lawyer. But, she notes, that if Israel was not occupying her home, “I would be a soccer player.” Her reality is fragmented — she lives with two identities: the one she has — because of the occupation — and the one she could have…if her human rights were respected.

Israel is the only country in the world that prosecutes children in military courts which lack basic fair trials. Since 2000, at least 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted in the Israeli military detention system which has become notorious for the systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children. In 2016 it was reported that 440 children are in Israeli military detention — the highest on record.

For years Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations have documented the Israeli military’s child rights violations. There have been dozens of reports, articles, books and documentaries about child rights issues in Palestine and Nabi Saleh. In 2016, Ahed Tamimi and her cousin, Jenna Jihad (one of the Arab World’s youngest journalists) were the subject of an award winning documentary, “Radiance of Resistance. The award-winning American journalist Ben Ehrenreich wrote both a cover story about the village for The New York Times Magazine and a uniquely sensitive, insightful portrait of the village in his nonfiction book, “The Way to the Spring,” in 2014.

I contributed to these efforts in 2011 by providing children in Nabi Saleh with cameras, photography and storytelling lessons so that they could capture the way the Israeli Army impacted their walk to school, their play and, their sleepless nights. The camera was a mode of expression and protection. During the course of the six months we worked together on Image and Identity, fourteen of the fifteen children in the class were illegally arrested, interrogated or injured by the Israeli Army. With the support of one of the world’s largest child rights organizations, in 2012, the photographs reached President Obama as he was preparing for his trip to the unholyland. The response. Null. For Obama, Palestinian children didn’t matter enough.

Most recently, after years of advocacy efforts, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.) introduced legislation, to promote human rights for Palestinian children by ending abusive Israeli military detention practices. Her legislation, the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, H.R. 4391, prevents the use of United States tax dollars for the Israeli military’s ongoing detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children. The bill is an indicator of increased awareness among politicians in the United States, but is unlikely to pass or result in any change that will impact Ahed’s lost childhood.

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People have accused Ahed and her family of manipulating the media, of creating Palestinian propaganda. In particular many myth making pro-israel activists have accused child rights and human rights activists of creating “Pallywood,” staging themselves in confrontations with the military for publicity and popularity. These claims have come from Israeli journalists, politicians and even the general public. The father of the soldier who was filmed holding Ahed’s brother in headlock was quoted in an Israeli Army Radio interview speculating on the possibility that a fight with the soldier was planned in advance. He added that he thought, “It was no coincidence that there were people and photographers around”. Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador, accused Ahed for dressing up in western clothing to appease the media.

Israeli politicians and journalists have also called for unfathomably harsh punishment for Ahed when she was defending her brother. Miri Regev, the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports, wrote a post on her facebook that day that soldiers should be allowed to open fire in situations like the one Ahed was involved with. Haaretz writer Tal Niv understood this to mean that there is support for permission to execute any person without trial, whether adult or child — including Ahed Tamimi.

Journalist Shenila Khoja-Moolji wrote in Aljazeera recently comparing Ahed Tamimi to Malala Yousafzai, the Afghani child rights activist who gained international attention after surviving a brutal attempt to murder her by the Taliban. Praise for Malala has included several international campaigns, birthday notes from Beyonce and Michelle Obama and a Nobel Prize. But this week, so far, Malala, Michelle, Beyonce and the other female child rights activist celebrities have been silent on Ahed. The problem now, the problem with Ahed Tamimi, is that she is a brave hero in the face of an evil ‘we’ can’t all agree on — no it isn’t the Taliban, it is Israel and the United States, funded by you and your tax dollars.

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So yes, on any given day Ahed can be seen confronting the soldiers who block the entrance to her village, who mock her with stun-grenades as she walks to school, who lurk in her backyard and surround her home with billows of teargas by day and invade her living room by night. When Ahed Tamimi wakes up, she can only be protected by cameras, rolling in an attempt to intimidate soldiers who are continually threatening her life.

She does not have the ability to speak the soldiers language, for he has never been taught the language of the indigenous population. He has been distanced from her and her people since he was a small child. Brought up to see her as an enemy, a terrorist, a monster, something (anything) less than a human like him. But still, there are some messages that are loud and clear no matter the language, and Ahed has found a way to communicate to him — and the entire world: This is my village, this is my home, Israel you do not belong here. Get out.

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The most recent of Ahed’s viral videos was captured a few hours after the Israeli army shot her brother in the leg and her cousin in the head (he had to be put into a medically induced coma). On that bright, cheery morning, Ahed Tamimi, awoke to find a set of soldiers in her front yard, the rest of the village had already been transformed by the army presence into a popup training zone. After shouting at the soldiers to leave for quite some time, the girl who “dreamed of being a soccer player, if there wasn’t an occupation,” pushed, kicked and then slapped a soldier until her cousins and mother joined her, linking arms and pushing them out of the front yard.

Someone call the referee. Penalty for Ahed.

The video of this slap was seen round the world and went viral (even in Israel). As news of the defiant tiny girl travelled in Israel, the public began to criticize the soldiers for their lack of response. So in what seems to be an effort to appease the Israeli public, at three in the morning, the Israeli military snatched Ahed from her home, took her to prison without a guardian, warrant for her arrest or snippet of information as to where she was going to be held. The next morning when her mother, Nariman Tamimi, went to the police station to inquire about her whereabouts, Israel arrested her too, without warrant or a clear case. Over the next few days several of her close relatives would also be arrested — her teenage cousin, Nour Tamimi (also in the video), and then her older cousin Manal Tamimi, who is also a well known activist and spokeswoman.

To date, Ahed, her mother and cousins have been locked up for more than a week. Each time Ahed is brought into court her detention has been extended while the kangaroo-court tries to come up with charges to satisfy their public relations and political needs. Amazingly, Israel does not see just how bad a public relations mess they are really getting themselves into as they try to appease an increasingly psychotic Israeli public and political leadership.

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Ahed is not a propagandist. She is turning herself into millions of pixels so she can be transported over an illegal apartheid wall, and reach you in the comfort of your home with her message. She does this so that she can get through another day in a reality full of nightmares. She knows that many Palestinian children encounter similar situations with the Israeli Army every day and that they have no one to film them. She knows that she is safer and freer to express herself precisely because the camera is there — potentially sharing her experiences with the whole world. But she does not beg us to save her. She is saving herself by showing up. She simply asks us to be her witness.

Sometimes I imagine that her fame crosses the minds of the soldiers who raid her home at night. The soldiers who shoot, imprisoned and kill her family members and friends. Most likely, it does not and they do not know that they are in the presence of a star.

I believe Ahed should have a life not tied to an unending military occupation. She should have been free to travel to school safely, to sleep at night soundly, to pick mint from her family’s historic spring and to swim with children in the sea. If I could, I would make her dreams that have died — the ones she could not imagine because her life was alive with nightmares — come to life. She is making both Israel and Palestine better, she is making the world better — she is fighting for the rights of us all.

I wish to be able to tell her, “The show is over! You can take your final bow.” But this is far from the reality and her truth. The Israeli Palestinian conflict and the occupation of the West Bank has no curtain call in sight. Ahed Tamimi is forced to be a part of this production whether she wants to be or not and indeed, she has a starring role.

If this camera is so lucky, it will catch her — this brilliant star, and have the chance to see a heroine’s history being made today. A heroine, that would fade into the depth of misery — as so many have over the past seventy years — if she did not step in front of that camera and raise her voice on this global stage.

Alison Carmel is a social change artist, writer and advocate living, learning and loving between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If you have a literary magazine interested in publishing similar work, or you would like to sponsor a similar piece, please be in touch!