How 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi became a Palestinian national symbol

When Ahed Tamimi left an Israeli prison on Sunday after eight months, she returned home to jubilation from friends and family in her West Bank hometown, Nabi Saleh. The 17-year-old Palestinian activist was celebrated as a hero around the world for what some see as her bravery in confronting Israeli soldiers.

Many people in Israel, meanwhile, view her as a pawn in a Palestinian scheme to stage provocations with soldiers to make Israel look bad in the media. And many think she is succeeding.

But Tamimi isn’t just any Palestinian teen. She comes from a prominent Palestinian activist family and has a long history of scuffling with Israeli soldiers.

Who is Ahed Tamimi?

Tamimi comes from Nabi Saleh, a politically active village that is the site of weekly protests by residents — often labeled as militants by Israeli security — against what they see as Israel’s confiscation of their land to build a nearby settlement, Halamish. Tamimi’s father, Bassem, is one of the protest leaders.

Tamimi’s cousin, Ahlam Tamimi, helped carry out a 2001 terror attack known as the Sbarro massacre. In that attack, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a pizza parlor in Jerusalem, killing 15 people and injuring 130.

Tamimi first rose to fame in 2012, when she was filmed screaming at Israeli soldiers and raising her fist to them after her brother was arrested. The images in the video are striking — a blonde 11-year-old wearing a tank top with a peace sign and the word “love” written on it confronting gun-carrying Israeli soldiers.

The video made the rounds on the internet, earning the attention of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met with Tamimi and her mother. An Istanbul municipality gave Tamimi an award for her actions.

In 2015, Tamimi again confronted a soldier in a video that went viral. It shows a soldier attempting to arrest Tamimi’s then 12-year-old brother for throwing rocks. As the soldier restrains the boy, Tamimi, then 14, and several adult women start pulling at the soldier. At one point Tamimi, who wears a bright pink “Tweetybird” cartoon shirt, bites the soldier’s hand. Eventually the soldier relents and leaves the crowd. Many people watched the video, and Palestinian activists praised Tamimi’s actions.

Why is she in the news again?

Early on Sunday, Tamimi was released from Israeli prison. She had been arrested in December after appearing in yet another viral video — shot by her mother, who also was arrested — in which she and two other girls slap and harass Israeli soldiers. Afterward, she calls on Palestinians to stab and throw rocks at Israelis, and to offer themselves as suicide bombers in order to “liberate Palestine.”

Her family claims the video was filmed after her brother allegedly was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by Israeli soldiers.

In March, Tamimi accepted a plea deal to spend eight months in prison; she pleaded guilty to four counts of assault, including slapping the soldier in the viral video. Tamimi completed her sentence — she had already spent four months in prison before accepting the plea deal — and exited the prison even a bigger icon than she had been when she went in.

After her release, Tamimi visited the grave of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who praised her as “a model of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, independence, and statehood.”

Tamimi’s arrest and imprisonment attracted widespread attention. A group of prominent Americans — including actors Danny Glover, Rosario Dawson, and Jesse Williams; writers Cornel West and Alice Walker; and activist Angela Davis — signed a letter calling for her to be freed. The letter drew parallels between Tamimi and the highly publicized deaths of Trayvon Martin and Kalief Browder. Martin was a black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida, while Browder, a black man from the Bronx, spent three years in prison although he had not been convicted of a crime and committed suicide after his release.

On Monday, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, said that Tamimi would receive an award in South Africa “for her bravery, resistance, and being a symbol of hope for millions.”

What do her critics say?

Pro-Israel activists say her actions are staged provocations instigated by her parents. Critics have coined the term “Pallywood” to refer to alleged Palestinian media manipulation, often involving suffering children, in order to make Israel look bad.

They also met with relatives convicted of terrorism — including Tamimi’s cousin, who helped plan the deadly Sbarro terror attack — as proof of their fanaticism and refutes those who say they represent a new wave of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Australian businessman Arnold Roth, whose daughter Malki was killed in the Sbarro attack, writes that journalists have fallen into the Tamimis’ trap.

“They also deny what Ahed symbolizes — identification with the vicious murderers in her own clan, with explosive rage, with a horrifying zealotry that brings people to push their society’s innocent children onto the front lines,” Roth wrote. “The Palestinian Arabs have many needs but what this girl stands for — more anger, more bitterness, and more failure — delivers nothing of value to them.”

How did she become a Palestinian national symbol?

For Palestinian activists, she is the perfect face to represent their struggle: an unarmed 17-year-old girl who confronts Israeli soldiers but poses no real immediate threat to them. Many have said her blonde, untamed curls and photogenic features don’t exactly hurt either.

“If she was veiled and dark-skinned, would she have got the same attention?” her father, Bassem, asked the French news agency AFP last year.

Michael Oren, who grew up in New Jersey, was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and now represents the Kulanu party in the Knesset, tweeted in December: “The Tamimi family — which may not be a real family — dresses up kids in American clothes and pays them to provoke IDF troops on camera. This cynical and cruel use of children constitutes abuse.”

Her father acknowledges that making such videos is an effective way to sway public opinion on the Palestinian struggle.

“When we are able to get a video like this, we can use it to great effect,” he said after the 2015 video went viral. “When enough people here see these videos and hear our stories, it can start a kind of intifada [popular Palestinian uprising] against Israel in the United States.”

Did Israel shoot itself in the foot by arresting Tamimi?

Nachman Shai, the former spokesman for the IDF and the Knesset’s current deputy speaker, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Israel was “caught in the trap” the Tamimis set.

“She could have been put under house arrest,” Shai’s article said. “Other sanctions could have been placed on her and the family. We could have ignored the incident and waited for a calmer time, separate from the incident with the soldier. Any other solution would have been preferable to the situation created today and the unnecessary Palestinian celebration.”

Journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer said that though the government wanted to make an example of Tamimi to deter others from similar actions, it ended up doing quite the opposite.

“By the time Tamimi was released Sunday, after completing her eight-month sentence for four counts of assault, she had graduated from viral web star into an icon,” Kaplan Sommer wrote. “Capped by the fanfare around her release, her detention ultimately did more damage to Israel’s international image than the initial video of her slapping a soldier ever could.”

JTA Wire Service

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