A quick glance at the way Ahed is being portrayed on social media reveals how she has become a hero for one side and a villain for the other. What most are conveniently forgetting, in the rush to gain some political capital while she spends her days and nights in a stinking Israeli police cell, is that she is a young person caught up in the much bigger and very nasty game of a 50-year-long occupation of her land and more than a century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Like everyone born in the West Bank and Gaza after 1967, she has lived all her life in an abnormal, unacceptable, unsustainable and tragic situation, where her most basic rights are determined, and in many cases violated, by an occupying force.
Images of her on Facebook as a modern-day Joan of Arc or of her at a very young age waving her fists in the face of an armed Israeli soldier have elevated her to the pantheon of Palestinian heroes resisting Israeli cruelty. For many in Israel, however, especially those on the right, this attitude serves as further evidence of an environment of hatred for Israel in which young Palestinians are brought up. They try to unearth any comments she or her family have made in the past to demonstrate that they have not only been resisting the occupation, but also the very right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Whether this is true or not, it ignores the fact that, since 1967, Palestinians have been brought up in an environment which is bound to instil in them the duty to resist occupation, and to radicalize at least some of them.
The Tamimi family lives in the West Bank Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, where weekly demonstrations have been held since 2009, protesting both the Israeli occupation and the takeover of the nearby Al-Qus spring by the Jewish settlers of Halamish. Ahed, like all other children in the village, grew up in the shadow of constant clashes with Israel’s forces. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem has for years documented these confrontations, in which pepper spray is used against non-violent civilians in blunt contravention of official police orders, not to mention the firing of tear-gas canisters directly at protesters, and the case last year when an Israeli sniper fatally fired live ammunition at Saba Obaid, a 22-year-old Palestinian from the nearby town of Salfit. An hour before Ahed punched the soldiers, her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed Tamimi had been shot in the head by a member of the Israeli forces. Miraculously, Mohammed survived after a complicated operation, but he has been left facing a long and painful rehabilitation process. In her own short life, Ahed has witnessed Israeli soldiers enter her home uninvited in the middle of the night and arrest her father; the illegal confiscation of her village’s land; and houses in the village being demolished by the Israeli authorities. And this is only one story of one young person.
Teen arrested for slapping armed soldiers is being elevated to the pantheon of Palestinian heroes, but in reality, she is just one young person caught up in the much bigger and very nasty game of a 50-year-long occupation of her land and more than a century of conflict.
Will slapping soldiers improve her situation, or that of her village, or that of the Palestinians generally? Most probably not. Should kids — and she is still a child after all, with all her life ahead of her — have to risk their freedom and their lives in resisting the occupation? Of course not. Under normal circumstances, she would have been concentrating on her studies, doing what normal teenagers do, and not facing soldiers of the self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world” outside her front door. But before our very eyes there is emerging a young generation that is traumatised by the occupation, is disillusioned and frustrated, and trusts neither its own leadership, nor the international community, and most definitely not Israel.
Children are growing up in the West Bank and Gaza in perpetual fear for themselves and their loved ones. It is extremely unpleasant and humiliating for an adult to have to constantly go through military checkpoints; and for kids it is a terrifying experience. It is estimated that, in just over a decade, Israel has detained and jailed more than 7,500 Palestinian minors, treating them, in violation of international law, as adults in terms of prisons and facing the military court system. In Gaza, three rounds of wars have exposed the young generation to needless death and devastation, and consequent hopelessness.
The Israeli authorities might eventually see sense and release Ahed, or at least press lesser charges to spare her a lengthy jail sentence. She has already experienced more than someone her age should have to. She is not exactly a strategic threat to the existence of Israel, but by keeping her behind bars the Israelis are turning her into a symbol for her generation, someone who has struggled against the evils of the occupation with her bare hands. Sadly, while the Palestinians would like to make a hero out of Ahed, the Israeli authorities want to make an example of her in order to deter others. It is high time Israel, at least this once, showed some common sense and released Ahed, otherwise there will be many others following in her footsteps.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.