Nine months ago, before the slap across an Israeli soldier’s cheek that changed her life, the world knew little of Ahed Tamimi. Now the 17-year-old is a cause célèbre, her full head of curly blonde hair recognisable on “Free Ahed” posters from Toronto to Tokyo. In the Palestinian territories, she is revered. In Israel, she is reviled. And at the Reef Cafe in Ramallah, she gets the best table in the house.
It is the sort of place where people lounge for hours, with a palm-lined courtyard and English football showing on the big screens. Ahed and her family — her father Bassem, her mother Nariman, and her brothers Mohammad and Salam (a third, Waed, is in prison) — are seated close to a faux-garden in the centre of the room, where the waiters can attend to their every request.
I had feared that our rendezvous would be disrupted by fans seeking selfies. But it is already 3pm by the time the Tamimis arrive and the restaurant is starting to empty out. Were it not for the odd discreet glance from a fellow diner, they could easily be taken for just another Palestinian family out for lunch in an elegant part of the West Bank — three teenagers absorbed in their cell phones, their parents trying to pry them off and generally failing.
In the four weeks since she was released from prison, there is one question in particular that I have been wanting to ask her. Why did she slap the soldier? “Because there is an occupation,” she replies.
I had expected a more elaborate answer. But on reflection, perhaps those five words are enough. Raised in the tiny West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Ahed has grown up in the shadow of Israel’s 51-year military occupation. For her family, and for many Palestinians, the occupation is omnipresent — armed soldiers on the streets, helicopters in the skies, checkpoints in and out of villages and towns.
Her life has also been circumscribed by the walls that keep most of the West Bank’s estimated 2.7m Palestinians separated from Israel — and in particular by the nearby settlement of Halamish, which lies in the 60 per cent of the West Bank under direct Israeli military control. Part-founded in 1977 by the followers of Gush Emunim (“the faithful bloc”), a nationalist, religious group that believed Israel’s capture of the West Bank in the 1967 war was a miracle, the settlement encroached on land claimed by residents of Nabi Saleh and a few neighbouring Palestinian villages.
Ahed’s parents, longtime activists, raised their four children to resist. From 2009, they began to gather relatives and others from the village on Fridays to march to a tiny stream that the settlers had taken over. They rarely reached their destination — soldiers used tear gas, rubber bullets, a noxious mix of chemicals known as skunk and, sometimes, live fire to stop them. Over the years, the village became a sort of magnet for anti-occupation Israelis and foreign activists.
By the time she was 12, Ahed’s activism had attracted the attention of the media, winning praise from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But few outside the Middle East knew of her before last December’s confrontation. You can watch it online — millions have since her mother posted the video. Ahed, 16 and tiny, slaps and punches an Israeli soldier in full military gear standing in her front yard; the family says this happened hours after a rubber bullet hit a cousin in the head.
Metaphorically at least, the slap landed hard. The rightwing Israeli press accused the Tamimis of enacting an elaborate charade for the cameras; there was also an odd sort of anger towards the soldier, who clearly acted with great restraint. Ahed says she doesn’t know his name — it has never been publicly released. If she met him today, what would she say to him? “Nothing,” says Ahed.
Later I ask her what advice she has for her younger brothers, who are just about the age when young Palestinians start throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers entering their villages. She gets a little upset. “I don’t like how we are always being asked, ‘Why do you go to the streets, why do you protest, why do you resist?’ Why don’t they ever ask me, ‘Why is there an occupation?’ ”
It is almost exactly a quarter of a century since the Oslo Peace Accords tried to resolve this most obdurate of conflicts with a historic handshake on the South Lawn of the White House — Yitzhak Rabin on the left, Yasser Arafat on the right, and Bill Clinton, with his arms outstretched. For a fleeting moment peace was within the grasp of the imagination, but deep mistrust and intransigence on both sides caused the process to flounder and today the Palestinians are no closer to having a state of their own.
When I ask Ahed about Oslo, she dismisses it as a failure, perhaps the only position she shares with rightwing Israelis. “Oslo has been here for 25 years, and it has brought no results,” she says. “The occupation is still here. I cannot be very supportive of something that up until now has brought nothing, no results.”
Certainly, settlements such as Halamish have moved from the fringes of Israeli politics to the mainstream in the decades since. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, sometimes refers to the “so-called occupation” of the territories captured from Jordanian control in the Six Day war of 1967. In the West Bank, which his government calls “Judea and Samaria”, Israeli settlers now number about 400,000 and enjoy a freedom of movement that Palestinians are denied.
Opposition has come at a heavy cost for the Tamimis. Ahed’s father talks of how he spent days in a coma in 1993 after being shaken violently during a military interrogation. He says his sister died after being pushed down the stairs at a military court by a soldier. Nariman says she was beaten and repeatedly strip-searched during a detention. The Israel Defence Force did not comment on the family’s allegations but has in the past described the Tamimis as fabricators, inciters of violence and media manipulators.
“Israelis want you to believe that resistance brings suffering,” says Bassem. “But it’s the occupation that brought suffering to us.” The remark casts a pall over the table. A waiter dressed in white shirt and jeans approaches, clearly in awe, and we order quickly. The boys ask for calamari, prawns and pizza. Nariman orders corn soup for the family. Bassem has the salmon, Ahed orders her own pizza. I am the only one to choose something traditional, chicken kebabs that hide under a slim loaf of Palestinian bread.
The café is slowly filling up with the evening crowd of shisha smokers, and the Arabic pop over the speakers is getting louder. The Tamimis chose this place for convenience — it is near a few foreign embassies, and they are in the process of applying for a Belgian visa for a speaking tour. (For now, the family has been informed that they are barred from leaving for security reasons.) The food is far from the best I have had in Ramallah, which has a thriving restaurant scene in spite of the occupation. My chicken is quite dry and when I ask Ahed about her pizza, she’s not very enthusiastic. But everybody has an appetite and plates are swiftly cleared.
I ask Ahed whether she’s ever wondered if it would be easier simply to endure the occupation — or even leave, as do many other Palestinians. She is distracted by her phone. Bassem, who in his striped office shirt looks more like an off-duty executive than an activist, answers. “Those people are cheating themselves, accepting humiliation voluntarily,” he says.
It’s not the first time, nor the last, that Bassem speaks for or over Ahed. There’s a complicated familial relationship at play here: protective father and awestruck child, a veteran of political resistance and his successful apprentice, but also, perhaps, a bit of rivalry. It clearly grates on Bassem a little that the world ignored decades of painful protest by his family and his village, and now focuses almost entirely on a single act of his daughter’s.
Ahed, like her mother, is light-skinned with piercing blue eyes. Rightwing Israeli commentators and politicians have fastened on her looks, nicknaming her “Shirley Temper” and portraying her as a star of what they call “Pallywood”. Whatever it is, she has evoked levels of sympathy for a Palestinian unseen since the televised killing in 2000 of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah in crossfire between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants.
I am curious as to whether Ahed has considered the implications of her father’s all-consuming activism. “If you chose a normal, boring life, are you worried you may disappoint your father? Maybe you didn’t want to be a freedom fighter, maybe you wanted to be a singer, or a doctor?” I ask.
This time, Bassem turns to his daughter to listen to the answer carefully. “I’m not afraid,” says Ahed. “I feel like the moment I want to be something else, I can be that. If I decide to be an actress, I will be an actress. Even my father, maybe his parents didn’t want him to be like this, but that’s how he ended up.”
I look unconvinced by the answer. “When I was 17, my biggest fear was of disappointing my father,” I tell Ahed. “I had to repeat a year in high school, and my father was angry with me, and ashamed of me, and even today, I am scared of that.”
My confession prompts Ahed’s mother to interject. “I worry for her, because she is someone that is very open — she doesn’t even have her hair covered,” says Nariman, whose own hair is wrapped in an elegant patterned headscarf. Ahed’s fame means, for instance, that she can’t wear shorts to play football, her favourite sport, in her conservative village. “I don’t know how people who are vengeful or envious will treat her. I am worried when she’s going out, or who she’s going with. Then, there is something that completely frightens me — the settlers are targeting her, calling for her to be killed. They have posted [maps online that show] the road to our house, and this keeps me in a constant state of fear.”
Ahed was arrested within days of the slap last December and advised by her lawyer to plead guilty to assault, incitement and obstruction of soldiers. Her mother, who taped the encounter and posted it on Facebook, also spent time in prison for her part in the incident and was released on the same day as Ahed. (Israeli newspapers have argued that Nariman has supported violence in the past, sharing militant Facebook messages posted by a relative who was involved in a suicide bombing plot. But she has never been charged or convicted of a terror-related offence.)
Spending time in Israeli prisons is a rite of passage for Palestinians who resist the occupation — many get high-school diplomas or college degrees, learn Hebrew and forge new political identities during their sentences. It was the same for Ahed. “Psychologically, I am still affected, but I benefited a lot. I became aware. I finally knew what prison was, what my entire family was talking about.”
At a time when the Palestinian leadership is weak and unpopular, and US support for Israel at its most robust in decades, the video and her conviction made Ahed an international symbol of Palestinian resistance. That sympathy has enraged rightwing Israelis. Culture minister Miri Regev described her as a terrorist, while Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the US and now member of the Israeli parliament, was so infuriated that he spent government funds investigating if the Tamimis were paid actors brought in to shame Israelis.
For all this, she is of course a teenager. Boys keep texting her, she says. She’s been given nicknames such as Umm Kusheh, “the Mother of Big Hair”. The messages she receives drip with nationalist fervour: “ ‘You held our head up high, you brought us pride’ — but you know why they are saying that, though,” she says, with a quick laugh. Her girlfriends tease her, mockingly asking her the same questions journalists pose to her and laughing at her answers. “If there’s another person who can take the spotlight, I wouldn’t mind. But this happened to me, and so I have to go through with it. Still, I’d like my privacy.”
She wants to take a break for a year, especially while under probation, when the Israeli military can jail her again under the vague charge of “incitement”. She wants to go to college, work on her English, maybe travel a bit. Does she really think she can hold on to her privacy, and even her own personality, while becoming a political symbol?
This is clearly something that has been on her mind, and her mother says she has already retreated into a bit of a shell. A few weeks ago in Jericho, where the family were speaking to the families of prisoners, they ended up having to call the police to help with the crowds. “I think these two personalities can exist together,” says Ahed. “I can be the Ahed who speaks about the struggle, gives speeches, but at the same time, I can sit in my room, listen to my music, gossip with my girlfriends and live the life of a 17-year-old. Yes, I don’t live it quite as the rest of our generation does, but I am still experiencing it in my own way.”
This afternoon she has performed both parts, answering my questions about her family’s resistance even though she appears exhausted, at times distracted. She’s played with her cell phone, taken care of her brothers’ meals, talked about hair conditioner with the translator and, finally, it’s time for her to go. She has planned a shopping date with girlfriends in Ramallah. What could be more teenage than that?
Beyond the checkpoint on my way back to Jerusalem, I replay the tape of our interview. I come to the part where Ahed describes the only time she went into Israel proper. When she was younger, the Israelis had let Palestinians cross over to go to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque for Ramadan.
Instead, her family drove north to Haifa, so that she could see the sea for the first time in her life. What was it like, I asked her. “I was depressed for weeks,” she says. Imagine, she says, “To see a soldier in your own land, and you’re afraid of getting caught and arrested, while they can just roam freely?”
Mehul Srivastava is the FT’s Jerusalem correspondent
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