Q&A: She slapped an Israeli soldier and was sent to prison. Now a Palestinian teen is free — and in the limelight
Two days after her release from an Israeli jail, the 17-year-old Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi sat in her parents’ yard, wearing jeans and a tired expression, the front of her mane of blond curls tied in a bun atop her head.
TV crews from the United States, Turkey, Germany and Norway vied for on-camera interviews with her. Since her release, her representatives say, she has responded to questions from about 175 media outlets. She has six media advisors, one of them Israeli, and they have worked hard to make her the face of the Palestinian resistance.
In December, Israeli authorities detained Ahed, then 16, after she was filmed slapping and kicking a soldier. She had just learned that a cousin had been shot and wounded with a rubber bullet by Israeli soldiers. It was not her first time in the spotlight: She had been filmed confronting soldiers in 2012 and again in 2015.
Video of the 2017 incident went viral, igniting an international debate about the nature of nonviolent resistance, the behavior of the soldier — who did not react — and the legality of child arrests.
She is, by now, the most recognized member of the Tamimi family, whose 300-plus members populate the tiny West Bank hamlet of Nebi Saleh. Her family has gained fame and notoriety for the weekly Friday protests her father, Bassem, leads against encroachment from a neighboring Jewish settlement.
Palestinians celebrate Ahed for her grit and courage; Israelis view her as a provocateur, if not a terrorist.
She was sentenced to eight months in an Israeli women’s prison, and was released after 7 months and 10 days. At a news conference shortly after her release, she said she hopes to become a lawyer so she can defend her people.
In that and subsequent interviews, she has seemed to alternate between standard political rhetoric — “The resistance continues until the occupation is removed” — and remarks that serve as reminders that she is still a teenager. In an interview with The Times on Tuesday, she spoke about both geopolitics and her desire to go swimming and play soccer. Because she is on probation, she declined to speak about the incident that led to her detention.
Her remarks are edited for length and clarity.
Is Israeli jail a rite of passage for Palestinian teens?
Yeah, a lot of Palestinian teens go through this. When you spend eight months in jail you come to see how many other girls go through this, including some who are now adults because they were sentenced to 10 or 12 years in jail. You still can’t call it a normal part of adolescence. For the Palestinian people it has become a normal part of life, but it is abnormal that we see it this way, and we should fight against seeing this as normal.
What do you hope to do now that’s you’re out?
I want to go swimming and swim and swim. I want to play soccer. I miss it a lot, playing in the neighborhood. I miss sitting on the couch with my brother and his friends and eating junk food so late that Dad comes out and yells at us.
Where is your brother?
Waed is 21. He’s in jail. His hearing is on Sunday.
What’s it like to be the only girl in a family with three brothers, and a girl in the male world of political protest?
In my household, I’ve never felt any difference among us. We are all treated the same. It is really important, because we all live in a patriarchal world, and this is very annoying. Women are pivotal in the struggle for liberation, they have a key role bringing up the next generation, and there will not be freedom here in Palestine until women are free. It is important not to view women as merely homemakers and caretakers of babies, but to work towards raising awareness in society.
What do you say to non-activist teens your age who are just living their lives?
First of all, I’m a little bit jealous that they can have a chilled-out life and don’t have to deal with occupation or soldiers near their homes, and they get to have normal, teenage lives. But as a Palestinian I have a message for them, and it is that they have to step up and play a role in ending the oppression we face as a people. They should take a stand to boycott Israel, tell their governments to isolate Israel diplomatically, they should not participate in any sports or cultural activities that Israel leads, until Israel understands the oppression of Palestinians is wrong. I hope youths my age begin to accept that responsibility.
What about young Palestinians?
Although I believe in personal liberty I really hope these young men and women will become aware of the importance of their role. We need to ensure the next generation of Palestinians are not left with defeat but with seeds of hope for our freedom. It is up to us in this generation to do that, so they need to read more and find their place in the struggle.
Have you ever had any positive contact with any Israeli?
Of course. I’ve met people on both sides, Israelis who support us and soldiers. When I went to South Africa, they took me to speak to South African Jews who supported Israel and the occupation, and I realized while I was speaking to them that I was able to change their minds. This had a big effect on me. I was able to change their point of view.
It was a very positive and empowering experience in my life, and it convinced me that we can change people’s minds by defending our cause and telling people the history of our struggle, we can transform people’s minds and change people who are pro-Israel to find their humanity.
Tarnopolsky is a Times special correspondent.
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