Israel Pulse

How Israel created a Palestinian heroine

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Article Summary
By arresting Ahed Tamimi for slapping an IDF soldier, Israel turned her into a symbol of Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

Thirty-nine days have passed since Nariman Tamimi uploaded a video documenting her daughter Ahed and a relative slapping Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh on Dec. 18. The footage went viral on social networks and was broadcast by TV stations around the world. The video's life span was expected to be short, like that of many other videos in the past. The soldiers who were hit did not allow themselves to be dragged into provocative countermeasures, so the event remained a small news item even though the incident was well-covered.

“If we would have arrested them, the results would have been worse, and who knows how it would have ended,” explained one of the soldiers, whose name was not divulged, during an investigation of the episode. The soldiers didn't lose any sleep over the incident, and they didn't feel humiliated or ridiculed by the brief confrontation.

Then certain Knesset members and the more chauvinistic flank of the right wing entered the picture, replacing the restraint and prudence of the soldiers with a different spirit. Their statements twisted the level-headedness and restraint of the soldiers into “spinelessness.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett remarked, “The pictures are harsh,” and argued that the young Palestinian girls involved “should finish their lives in prison.” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ruled that Ahed, 16, and the rest of the Tamimi family should be dealt with severely and subject to punishment as a deterrence. Liberman ordered that restrictions be placed on the entire clan; in fact, permits to enter Israel were canceled for 20 family members.

The day after the incident, on Dec. 19, security forces arrested Ahed and her mother, and on Dec. 20, they came for her cousin, Nur Tamimi. The short video that went viral worldwide was thus followed by an engaging sequel. We therefore came to see, up close, the girl who clashed with armed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fighters with her bare knuckles. We learned about her life, her village and her family.

When Ahed Tamimi was brought before a judge in the military court in Ofer for continued detention, she kept her back straight and her head up. The soldiers and police surrounding her served as staging. Foreign journalists in the courtroom gave a high-five to the girl from Nabi Saleh whose face then adorned news sites the world over for many days.

A picture of Ahed’s proud face as she looked at the judges led the BBC to report that the girl is viewed as a heroine by the Palestinians. The Atlantic did a story on Ahed under the headline “A symbol of the Palestinian resistance for the internet age.” CNN asked if Tamimi was a Palestinian heroine or dedicated troublemaker. Ahed became a Palestinian symbol who turned the spotlight on the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and on the military court system it operates there. Now there is no way that Israel can emerge from this affair with the upper hand.

Even the culture sections in newspapers featured the Tamimi case. On Jan. 23, Liberman instructed Army Radio not to play Yehonatan Geffen songs, because Geffen had written a new song in which he compared the Palestinian girl to Anne Frank and Hannah Szenes, a Jewish parachutist executed by the Nazis. This new skirmish put Ahed at the top of the news agenda for another week.

Thus, almost every day for five weeks, coverage intensified of the new Palestinian symbol, a symbol that Israel created itself, with its own hands. All that remains is to watch with amazement the ineptness of politicians trying to detract from Ahed Tamimi’s legitimacy, but all the while producing the opposite result. After the mistakes made in the criminal, legal, media and cultural spheres, diplomacy's turn came to jump on the bandwagon.

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington and the current deputy minister, who is “responsible for diplomacy” in the prime minister’s office, told Haaretz that he wanted to hold a discussion in the Knesset on the issue of whether the Tamimi's are a “real” Palestinian family or if they are professional actors.

According to Oren, when he headed a classified subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about two years ago, a theory circulated that the Tamimi family recruits European-looking children to star in staged Palestinian protest films. “Members of the family were chosen for their appearance,” Oren claimed. “Blond, blue-eyed and light-skinned. Also clothing. A real costume. American dress in every respect, not Palestinian, with backward baseball caps. Even Europeans don’t wear backward baseball caps.” It was the perfect thing to say to keep the Tamimi story in the headlines, in Israel and around the world, for a few more days.

Such mistakes are being made more than 17 years after the France 2 television network documented the death of a Palestinian boy at the beginning of the second intifada, on Sept. 30, 2000. The child, Muhammad al-Durrah, became the symbol of the uprising. For many long years, Israel waged a fight against the recording with the goal of proving that the child, shot while taking cover with his father, was not killed by IDF fire but by shots fired by Palestinians.

Innumerable terror attacks and thousands of deaths characterized the second intifada, but Israel’s obsessive fixation on the Durrah footage etched Muhammad’s image in the global collective memory. So, too, with the Ahed Tamimi affair. The slap Tamimi delivered to the face of an Israeli soldier could have been forgotten a day after it occurred, but when it comes to the international media, Israel repeatedly gets hit, but never learns its lesson.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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