A video documenting a violent scuffle between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian child and his family in the West Bank went viral over the weekend, becoming a sort of Rorschach test of the passions and perspectives of the Middle East conflict.
Shot on Friday by Palestinians in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, site of weekly demonstrations since 2009, the footage shows an Israeli soldier wrestling 11-year-old Mohammed Tamimi down to the ground in rocky terrain and pinning him as the child’s mother, aunt and sister thrash at the soldier and bite him to pry the child from the soldier’s grip.
The scene appears to continue for about a minute before the soldier’s commander appears on the scene and intervenes to release the boy.
Besides the boy’s young age and the presence of cameras, the incident was not unlike many other encounters between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers at this location and others.
Capturing an almost random incident from one physical angle, the video became open to widely differing interpretations.
A statement from Israel’s military described the demonstration as a “violent riot” during which crowds threw rocks at the soldiers in an “ongoing assault.”
“The forces decided to detain one of the Palestinians identified hurling rocks,” the army said, referring to Mohammed, and a “group of rioters, amongst them women and children, attacked the soldiers in [an] attempt to prevent the arrest.”
The commander on the scene said the boy was arrested “to prevent an escalation of violence.”
From the family’s perspective, the army acted with excessive violence against a child, whose relatives were trying to protect him. Noting that he had a broken arm in a cast, the family denied that Mohammed had been throwing rocks.
“If you are a mother, you will protect your children without thinking,” Nariman Tamimi told the Middle East Eye website. “They weren’t just trying to arrest him, the way the soldier’s hand was around my son’s neck he could have killed him.”
The soldier’s parents also defended their son. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 10 by phone, his mother (who was not identified in order to protect the soldier’s identity) said she was proud of her son for showing “great restraint” in a very difficult situation.
“It might have ended very differently if he had not conducted himself with restraint,” his father said.
The image of the soldier holding a Palestinian child in a stranglehold has reached millions of viewers on social media and international news outlets, sparking outrage at Israeli policies in the West Bank, in particular involving minors.
In Israel, many looked at the same footage from the other direction, that of a soldier being beaten by Palestinian women. While many sympathized with the soldier, some criticized army policies for being too weak.
Opposition lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of “lax leadership” and failing to back Israeli soldiers; the incident, he said, gravely undermines the Israeli army’s deterrence.
The images of a soldier being beaten by Palestinian women and children and ultimately backing down from arresting the suspect “convey weakness and helplessness” of the army and Israel, Lieberman wrote in a Facebook post, adding his intent to ask for an urgent discussion of the incident in parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
“The Palestinians have understood that the camera is a weapon,” Chen Bareket, a former commander of an army unit assigned to the West Bank, told Israeli television Sunday. He suggested soldiers be equipped with portable cameras to document such encounters from their angle as well.
The extended Tamimi family is among the leaders of the Nabi Saleh campaign; at least one member of the clan was killed in clashes with soldiers in recent years.
The campaign has also made wide use of media during the six years of weekly protests, with dedicated websites and frequent footage.
In 2012, Ahed Tamimi, Mohammed’s older sister, became a famous symbol of the Nabi Saleh protests when filmed defiantly shouting at an Israeli soldier, demanding a different brother be released. Friday’s footage shows her biting the soldier.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.