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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 April 2018

Jailed Palestinian teenager 'may be brave but she is one of many'

Ahed Tamimi, who faces charges of assault, incitement and stone-throwing, will face an Israeli military court next week

Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi is brought to a courtroom inside the Ofer military prison near Jerusalem on December 28, 2017. Mahmoud Illean, File / AP
Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi is brought to a courtroom inside the Ofer military prison near Jerusalem on December 28, 2017. Mahmoud Illean, File / AP

A few slaps, ineffectual kicks and shouting. Ahed Tamimi's confrontation of Israeli soldiers outside her home has achieved something quite rare: attention from mainstream media to the arrest of a Palestinian child.

The 16-year-old has been in Israeli military custody since soldiers took her from her home on the night of December 19, four days after the incident. She faces 12 charges, including assault, "incitement" and stone-throwing, and will next appear in a military court on February 6 — just a week after her 17th birthday. Ahed's mother, who was filming the incident and posted it on Facebook Live, and a 20-year-old cousin, Nour, who also confronted the soldiers, face similar charges. Nour, however, was released on bail.

Ahed last made headlines two years ago when she was seen in another video that went viral, biting the hand of an Israeli soldier who had pinned down her younger brother. Videos of Ahed when she was even younger show her defying Israeli forces in her village, fist raised.

The catalogue of online footage has cast her as a heroine to those who oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank, while its supporters portray her as a "serial provocateur", manipulated and exploited by her activist parents to draw world sympathy.

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Rights campaigners say that although Ahed is unusually brave, she is just one example of how Palestinian children respond to life under occupation.

There are currently about 350 Palestinian children in Israeli detention, most on charges of stone-throwing and taking part in illegal demonstrations. About 700 are arrested and prosecuted in Israeli military courts each year. According to Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' rights organisation, the number of Palestinian child detainees has doubled over the past three years.

"There is nothing unusual about the arrest of Ahed Tamimi," wrote Amit Gilutz of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem in an op-ed several weeks ago. "But this high-profile arrest does serve to illustrate how Israel uses 'the rule of law' to oppress Ahed Tamimi, her family, the residents of her village — Nabi Saleh — who have been fighting non-violently for a decade against the state-backed settler takeover of their land, and the Palestinian people as a whole."

Nabi Saleh sits atop a small hill in the occupied West Bank, about a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem, and is home to about 600 residents from the Tamimi clan. In most ways it is typical of any Palestinian village located near an illegal Israeli settlement — in this case, Halamish, about 500 metres away on an adjacent hill. At the foot of the main road into the village is an Israeli military tower and a yellow metal gate which the army uses to control access.

Palestinians march holding posters of Ahed Tamimi and her mother during a demonstration in the village of Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine
Palestinians march holding posters of Ahed Tamimi and her mother during a demonstration in the village of Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine

What distinguishes Nabi Saleh is that since 2009 its residents — men, women and children — and western and Israeli peace activists have held weekly peaceful protests against the annexation of their land and spring, raising international awareness of the village’s plight. Ahed’s parents have been at the forefront of organising these protests and both have served several prison sentences on related charges. Her father, Bassem, was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience and is now barred from travelling abroad, according to the rights group.

As in the Palestinian villages of Nil’in and Bil’in, which conduct weekly anti-wall protests, the protests in Nabi Saleh are routinely met with military force. Injuries caused by tear-gas inhalation, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition, and damage to homes and property, are common. Two villagers have been killed.

The mounting injuries and arrests are one reason why Nabi Saleh suspended the protests about 18 months ago, says Manal Tamimi, a relative of Ahed.

Manal was shot in the leg with live ammunition during a protest in 2015 and has been arrested several times — most recently in December while protesting against Ahed’s detention. Her son, Mohammed, 19, was arrested on January 11.

"Living under occupation means living under constant threat — constant," Manal says. "We are often woken at 2 or 3am to find the house full of tear gas because soldiers decided to shoot tear gas at the village and return to the settlements. They regularly come at night to arrest people, and shoot at houses with live ammunition or rubber-coated steel bullets."

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The mainstream argument in Israel is that violence by Palestinian children towards Israeli soldiers and settlers is wrong and should be dealt with by the military courts. Instead of allowing their children to attack soldiers and settlers, Israelis say parents of children like Ahed should ensure that they are in school, rather than teaching them hatred and violence.

Manal says this view ignores reality.

"We send our children to school but they see Israeli soldiers raiding their schools. They see them killing their family members, their friends, in front of their eyes. They see soldiers raiding homes — and their homes — at night. Our children here have 250 relatives [out of a village of 600] who have been arrested," she says. "But despite all of the violence that they face, it’s incredible that they still believe in life, that they still believe that there’s something beautiful in life."

Sahar Francis, a human rights lawyer and director of Addameer also blames the Israeli military's actions.

"The army comes to provoke and the children throw stones because they have no way to say 'no' to the occupation. They witness violent attacks and arrests by the army at their homes, in their schools. They have to go through one, two, sometimes three checkpoints just to get to school. We don’t teach our children to be violent — faced with violence, they are standing up for their rights and responding to what they are subjected to."

Mr Gilutz dismisses the Israeli accusations as "thinly veiled victim blaming".

"Palestinian children are subjected to exorbitant amounts of violence by Israeli authorities, having been born into a reality where a foreign military occupies their land and governs their lives, with no prospect of participation in a political process in any meaningful way," he says.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli forces during a demonstration in Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli forces during a demonstration in Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine

Gerard Horton, a British human rights lawyer and founder of Ramallah-based Military Court Watch (MCW) organisation, says Palestinian children are victims of an Israeli policy to secure the settlements it has been building in the occupied territories for the past 50 years.

"In order to ensure that illegal settler communities in the West Bank can go about their daily lives in relative peace, Palestinians living in adjacent communities must be subjected to relentless intimidation to ensure submission. Ultimately, child detention is a settlement issue."

Mr Horton said in an interview in 2013, the year he set up MCW to advocate for Palestinian children's rights in military courts: "From a military perspective, [the Israelis] have to break the generations one after the other. "[They] can’t just break one generation because the next one will rise up."

A 2013 Unicef report said the "ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing. It is understood that in no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights."

Mr Gilutz says Ahed’s case is an example of Israel's refusal to tolerate any form of Palestinian protest against their subjugation and denial of rights.

"When an entire system works in unison to humiliate and penalise a 16-year-old on the grounds that 'she has no fear', it gives us an excellent opportunity to understand its essence. Let us state the obvious: if Ahed Tamimi were Jewish, chances of her being arrested would have been negligible; only Palestinians are tried in Israel’s military courts in the West Bank, the conviction rate is almost 100 per cent. Behind this carefully staged role play, cloaked in well-reasoned legal verbiage, lies one of the occupation’s most injurious apparatuses. Its goal is not to seek justice or truth, but to maintain Israeli control over the Palestinian people."

But the worldwide coverage given to Ahed's case shows how a new generation of Palestinians is benefiting from technology — video cameras, mobile phones and the immediacy and ubiquity of social media — to present a serious challenge to Israel’s narrative.

In 2013, while interviewing former child detainees in Nabi Saleh and documenting one of the villagers' protests, a young girl in the crowd stood out. She wore jeans, trainers and a black “I love Palestine” T-shirt, with a kaffiyeh around her neck and a Palestinian flag in her hand. She seemed mature beyond her years.

Manal Tamimi identifies her from photos taken then as Janna Jihad Ayyad.

Eleven-year-old Janna Jihad Ayyad, who has been described as Palestine's youngest journalist, gives an interview during a demonstration in Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine
Eleven-year-old Janna Jihad Ayyad, who has been described as Palestine's youngest journalist, gives an interview during a demonstration in Nabi Saleh on January 13, 2018. Heidi Levine

An internet search for "Janna Jihad" yields more than 180,000 results. Janna’s Facebook page has more than 268,000 followers. She is just 11 years old, speaks English articulately, and has been described in media reports as Palestine’s "youngest journalist".

Armed with her mother’s mobile phone, Janna films and reports on demonstrations, daily life and Israeli incursions into her village. Her Facebook Live video post from Ahed’s overturned bedroom on the morning after her arrest has had 68,000 views.

She describes Ahed as her dearest, closest friend. Like Ahed, Janna has been featured, interviewed and praised as brave, bold and fearless — but also derided as the newest member of the Tamimi clan to be manipulated into advancing a hostile, anti-Semitic Palestinian agenda.

Ahed's case has provided an unparalleled opportunity to raise long-standing human-rights issues from a grass roots, online perspective. And it shows that when it comes to the battle for narratives, hearts and minds, a new generation of very young Palestinian activists is emerging. In a military court trial of a Palestinian child, it might be Israel that is in the dock.

The writing is on social media walls.