On December 15 of 2017, a video of a Palestinian teenager slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers in front of her home went viral. Described as the “slap that was heard around the world,” the teenager involved—17-year old Ahed Tamimi—was later arrested for the incident in a case that has caused global controversy and focused attention on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian minors.
Shortly before the video showing Ahed assaulting the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers was filmed, soldiers had shot her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed Tamimi in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet. (Israeli authorities in turn alleged that Mohammed had participated in a violent riot prior to being shot, according to a spokesperson quoted in the Times of Israel.) Ahed later testified in court that the soldiers in the video were the same men who had shot her cousin. “I saw the same soldiers who hit my cousin, this time in front of my house. I could not keep quiet, and I responded as I did,” she said.
Described as the "Rosa Parks of Palestine” by Amnesty International and Al-Jazeera, 17-year-old Ahed has become an icon of popular resistance and the new face of a young, defiant Palestinian generation. Her high-profile arrest caused an outcry, with over 48,000 people signing petition calling for her release. After being tried for aggravated assault, alongside 11 other charges, Tamimi accepted a plea deal on March 21, and will serve an eight-month prison sentence and pay a 5,000 shekel fine ($1,400).
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Ahed and her supporters seek to put international pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation of territories in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, where Ahed grew up. Growing up in the occupied territories, children like Ahed experience poverty, human rights violations, violence, and abuse, according to a 2010 Unicef report. She represents a generation of Palestinian teens who have grown up during the occupation, but are using tools like social media to show the world their plight. Ahed herself explained her motives after her plea deal was presented to the judge during her trial. “There is no justice under the occupation,” she reportedly said (journalists were not allowed in the courtroom), “and this court is illegal.”
Despite being only 17, Ahed’s activism dates back many years. In 2012, she was filmed confronting Israeli troops that were trying to arrest her brother. Ahed comes from a family well-known for protesting: her cousin is Janna Jihad, the so-called youngest journalist in Palestine, and her parents Bassem and Nariman are prominent grassroots activists who have regularly organised protests against Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. The Tamimi family live in the village of Nabi Saleh, known for its regular protests, which Ahed began joining at just seven years old.
Ahed is currently in prison, serving the final four months of her sentence (the first four months were discounted as time already served while she was awaiting trial). For human rights observers including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, her sentence raises serious human rights concerns about Israel's treatment of Palestinian activists, many of whom are minors. According to non-profit B'TSelem, the conviction rate in Israeli military courts is nearly 100 percent—as Palestinian teens, often denied access to counsel, are pressured into signing plea deals that admit their guilt. As of February 2018, 356 Palestinian minors are currently being detained by Israeli authorities.
“She is being made an example of,” says her lawyer Gaby Lasky. “It is very obvious that after the video went viral the Israeli authorities were very interested in sending Ahed to prison for a long time. They were humiliated, and want to show other young people to see what happens to them if they decide to act like Ahed did.” In response, Israeli authorities say that Ahed's age is taken into consideration when imposing any judicial sentence.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, many minors, sometimes very young, have been involved in violent incidents including acts of terror, and other offenses,” said an unnamed Israeli military spokesperson in comments to NBC following Ahed’s sentencing. “When the law is enforced against minors, it is done taking their age into account.”
But Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch characterizes Ahed’s case as a violation of international law. “The basic international law standard for the way a child is supposed to be treated is called ‘the best interest of the child,’” Van Esveld tells Broadly. “Nothing about the way Ahed or other Palestinian children are treated really matches that basic standard.”
Ahead of her trial, Ahed's father Bassem was gloomy about her prospects for an acquittal. "[I have] no good expectations because this is a military court, and it's part of the Israeli occupation," Bassem said in comments reported by the Guardian.
Ahed’s case has received unprecedented attention, particularly when compared to other Palestinian activists. “Some of the people I’ve worked on in the past have been indicted for things that are much more severe than Ahed’s, and they haven’t received the same attention,” says Lasky. “Not from Israeli authorities and definitely not internationally.”
In part, increased media attention is due to Ahed's age and gender; she doesn’t fit the model of a conventional Palestinian human rights activist, who is typically older and male. But what Ahed is calling for is not unique, but a desire shared by many in the occupied territories. “I hope that everyone will take part in demonstrations as this is the only means to achieve the result,” Ahed said in comments recounted by her mother Nariman. “Our strength is in our stones, and I hope that the world will unite to liberate Palestine.”
Even as Ahed serves her prison sentence, her activism focuses attention on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. “One of the important things that happened during Ahed’s case is that it was able to bring back the issue of occupation into Israelis' living rooms,” Lasky argues. She believes that Ahed’s case has helped focus attention on Israel’s human rights abuses in the occupied territories—even as the situation remains polarizing for many, as seen in the backlash to Jewish-American comedian Sarah Silverman’s tweet in support of Ahed in February 2018. "Jews have to stand up EVEN when—especially when—the wrongdoing is BY Jews/the Israeli government,” Silverman tweeted, in comments that were condemned and praised by those on either side of the Isreal-Palestine debate in equal measure.
But for now, even as Ahed serves her prison sentence, Palestinians have high expectations of what will become of her after her release. "Ahed is one of many young women who in the coming years will lead the resistance to Israeli rule," her father Bassem wrote during her trial. "She is not interested in the spotlight currently being aimed at her due to her arrest, but in genuine change. In this situation, the greatest duty of me and my generation is to support her and to make way."