Ahed Tamimi – Heroic symbol of resistance to some, villainous propaganda to others

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To get the measure of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, you need look no further than an interview in which she explains the pendants on her necklace to a journalist.

‘These are the bullets which the soldiers shoot at us, we collect them after the soldiers leave the village. These came from my uncle who was martyred. We make beautiful things out of them, like jewellery. We create life from death. They come to kill us with it, but we convert it into things which we enjoy and benefit from.’

This statement perfectly sums up the unflinching spirit of resistance that is consistent throughout Palestine, and especially in the town of Nabi Saleh in the disputed West Bank territory where Ahed Tamimi lived almost 600 members of her extended family.

Demonstrators and tear gas in Nabi Saleh

She is currently serving 8 months in an Israeli prison for after pleading guilty to 4 charges including assault, incitement, and two counts of obstructing soldiers.

The Six-Day-War of 1967 left Israel in control of The West Bank and The Gaza Strip, formerly part of Palestine under British rule. Both Israel and Palestine believe they have a claim to the land, previously part of the Ottoman Empire. The West Bank is home to 2.6 million Palestinians and as of 2013 is recognised as illegally occupied Palestinian land by the majority of the United Nations countries, despite the heavy presence of Israeli military control.  

A video of 17-year old Tamimi ‘assaulting’ an Israeli soldier who was stationed outside her house resonated far beyond Israel’s borders, depicting her as a hero of resistance, a villain and a paid provocateur.

What the video doesn’t show is that moments before, Ahed’s cousin Mohammed Tamimi, 15, was shot in the head by said soldier with a rubber bullet, resulting in injuries that meant he had to have a third of his skull removed. The Israeli military and media have branded that version of events as ‘fake news’ and claim that the injury was caused not by a bullet, but by a bike crash.

The Tamimi’s are famous for their activism. Ahed’s father Bassem Tamimi spent 13 months in a military jail in 2012 for ‘sending people to throw stones, and holding a march without a permit.’ Bassem used to arrange weekly peaceful protests in Nabi Saleh and his arrest drew international attention, with the European Union describing him as a ‘human rights defender’ and Amnesty International designating him a prisoner of conscience.

Ahed’s arrest is actually the third time that the teenager has gained international attention for her activism. Age 11, a photo emerged depicting Tamimi raising her fist to a soldier, a picture that echoed through the world and transformed into a symbol of Palestinian resistance. She was invited to Istanbul a guest of then Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and presented with the ‘Handala Courage Award.’

11 year old Ahed raises her fist to an Israeli soldier

Ahed went viral again in 2015 when she was filmed resisting a soldier who was violently trying to arrest her brother, then 12.

As monstrous as it sounds, this is daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank. Why though, if violence and resistance are such commonplace events, has Ahed specifically caught the eye of the international media?

Media scholar Abir Kopty told Al-Jazeera; ‘What happened with the Ahed-Tamimi case is that it got a lot of coverage in the outside which we haven’t seen lately when it comes to Palestine, and I think that confused the Israeli propaganda machine, they didn’t know how to deal with this.’

She continued; ‘They prefer to find ways to de-legitimise or put doubts on the Tamimi family.’

Oren Persico, journalist for Israel’s only independent and investigative publication The Seventh Eye describes the reaction in Israel to the footage as focusing first on the ‘strong soldier who stayed calm while under attack’, quickly transmorphing in to a focus on ‘the weak soldier’ who let such offensive behaviour slide.

Both narratives completely ignore the Palestinian Ahed which Persico says ‘reminds us, that in Israeli media, Palestinians actually do not exist.’

Honaida Ghanim from the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies says that Israelis ‘imagine Palestinian women are all oppressed, passive, veiled, always in the background. Ahed is the extreme opposite of that. She’s young, has supposedly European features, she reflects the image Israelis have of themselves, suddenly a Palestinian sabeourtages that self image.’  

This juxtaposition of what Israelis believe Palestinians should look like and Ahed’s appearance led to the Israeli media accusing Ahed of being an actress, planted by the West and not Palestinian at all.

Journalist and author of The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, Ben Ehrenreich has also argued that Ahed’s looks have played a part in gaining her not only Israeli attention, but international.

‘Unavoidably, she is blonde and light-skinned and light-eyed’, says Ehrenreich, who profiled the Tamimi family in 2012. ‘A great deal of work goes into ‘othering’ Palestinians, to casting them as some really recognisable other…but when suddenly a kid doesn’t fit into those stereotypes – when she actually looks like a European kid or an American kid – then suddenly all that work of dehumanisation can’t’ function, and she can’t be ‘othered’ in the same way and people freak out.’

The rise of social media and citizen journalism has also added greatly to why Ahed has become an international symbol of both resistance and insolence.

She spoke to NBC news saying ‘There are many children who went through the same thing or something more difficult but there was no camera to film them.’

Activist and Nabi Saleh resident Manal Tamimi cites media as ‘a very important tool’, in resisting the Israeli Defence Forces, and indeed, since the introduction of social media and readily available recording technology, activists, journalists and aid workers have been flocking to the West Bank, and the Palestinians now have the power to challenge the Israeli narrative.  

In this way, as Honaida Ghanim argues, technology and specifically live streaming, has ‘changed the conflict equation to some degree. Tamimi’s case can be seen within the frame of the rise of ‘new media’. If there had been no cameras, the issue would have been handled in a completely different way.’

The Israeli media has spent nearly 50 years hiding the conflict behind propaganda and the dehumanisation of Palestinians. The curious case of Ahed Tamimi has dismantled Israeli propaganda and exposed their blanketing tactics to the world. Without taking sides, it is still easy to see injustice here. Ahed Tamimi has given a recognisable face to the Palestinian resistance, one which Israel is now trying hard to make people forget.

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