When a video of her act of defiance went viral on social media, an Israeli politician demanded that this fearless schoolgirl and her female relatives should “finish their lives in prison.” However, as Amnesty International pointed out: “The footage of this incident shows that she posed no actual threat and that her punishment is blatantly disproportionate.”
At 16 years of age, Ahed is already a veteran of the Palestinian protest movement, hailing from a family renowned for its activism against the injustices of occupation. Several family members have been victims of state violence and detention, with Ahed’s father in 2012 recognized by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience,” and her mother arrested no fewer than five times. Ahed is one of about 700 Palestinian children prosecuted each year through the Israeli military’s juvenile courts.
Ahed’s experience exposes the horrors of life under occupation at a human level: The indignity of daily checkpoints, the reality of police brutality, and the humiliation of seeing your home raided and personal possessions searched. Small children are violently dragged off into waiting vehicles for trivial or imaginary offenses. For posting a video of Ahed’s confrontation on Facebook, her mother faces an additional stiff charge of incitement, revealing the Stalinist mindset of a system where recording the reality of Palestinian daily life constitutes a dangerous crime.
Ahed defines a new generation of Palestinian activism. The evils of occupation have reinforced the passionate attachment of young Palestinians to their land and made them determined not to endure the humiliating loss of identity experienced by successive generations of Palestinian refugees driven overseas. In cyberspace, Ahed has become one of the most recognizable Palestinian faces through social media posts and frequent videos showing her facing off against Israeli soldiers, who tower above her.
With her obvious intelligence and independent spirit, in any normal country Ahed would be promised a glittering future. She had aspired to finish high school and study law but the curse of being born under Israel’s apartheid system means that, even if she avoids a lifetime in jail, has only the brutality of life under the shadow of occupation to look forward to.
Ahed taps into a rich tradition of women’s activism: Not only the role of Arab women in early bouts of confrontation against the Zionist movement, but also heroines such as Djamila Bouhired in the Algerian war of liberation, facing arrest and torture at the hands of the French colonial authorities. More recently in Iran, not just women activists but also the female lawyers defending them, have refused to be cowed by relentless persecution. Ahed and her generation represent a return to the values of the First Intifada: Resolute defiance without resorting to weapons — extolling nationalist principles, while shunning divisive and counter-productive Islamist agendas.
The world is comfortable celebrating women activists in Nigeria, Russia, Pakistan and Myanmar. While activists such as Malala Yousafzai have been feted by world leaders and the global media, Ahed has tended to receive the cold shoulder in the West, with barely a mutter of protest when the Israeli authorities banned her from traveling for a series of speaking events in the US last year. The Zionist lobby relentlessly tarnishes the reputation of all Palestinian activists as terrorists, as if the act of demanding their rights makes them suspicious radicals. Ahed, with her blue eyes and mass of golden hair, confuses the outside world because she sports neither a suicide belt nor a beard.
Palestinians must use the inspiration of the detained teenage activist as a spark to breathe life back into their beleaguered cause at a time when developments appear so unpromising and dispiriting.
Liberal sections of the Israeli media have recognized the terrible injustices encountered by Ahed and those like her, with an article in Haaretz arguing: “Israel will pay a heavy price for its aggression against this girl who resists the occupation, who acted with minimal violence toward the representatives of the army who invaded her home and had earlier critically wounded her cousin... Leaving Ahed Tamimi in jail for a long time will once again show the ugly face and violence of the Israeli occupation.”
The Palestinian movement is in a dark place after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — immediately followed by threats to halt Palestinian funding when Jerusalem’s rightful inhabitants failed to welcome the decision with open arms. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seized the moment to legislatively kill off any prospect of a viable Palestinian state — including proposals for formally annexing land seized for illegal Jewish settlements and extending Israeli law across the Occupied Territories, leaving little more than a few isolated micro-cantons upon which a Palestinian state could be established.
In Jerusalem, changes to the Basic Law aspire to make it legally impossible for future Israeli administrations to hand over any areas of the city to non-Israeli control. Gerrymandering of constituency boundaries would disenfranchise Palestinian communities and exclude them from voting in municipal elections. A purge of unlicensed Palestinian homes could affect tens of thousands of citizens, given the impossibility of obtaining Jerusalem construction permits.
The cumulative impact of such policies is to accelerate the Israeli extreme right’s vision of a single “Greater Israel,” within which Palestinians are marginalized and exiled. Israeli Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared: “We are telling the world that it doesn’t matter what the nations of the world say… The time has come to express our biblical right to the land.”
Ahed is detested and feared by Israeli hard-liners because she embodies determined, unarmed resistance to Israel’s project of stealing the entirety of Palestine. By standing defiantly in the path of soldiers and tanks, fearless of death in the pursuit of justice, she represents humanity at its most courageous. We hope her inspiration will be the spark that breathes life back into the beleaguered Palestinian cause, at a time when developments appear so unpromising and dispiriting.
The world must also act to prevent the flower of Palestinian youth from being devoured by the Israeli prison system. When teenagers face jail for having the courage to take a stand against oppression, is this the kind of world we are content to passively accept our own children growing up in?
Just as Ahed represents the Palestinian struggle in microcosm, by unashamedly celebrating her as a heroine and championing her cause we play a part in fighting for a fairer and more humane world where all young lives are cherished and protected.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.