Meet 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, the new face of Palestinian resistance

To Palestinians and their supporters, hers is the face of a hero, a new symbol of resistance, but many Israelis call 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who is awaiting trial on a dozen offences, "Shirley Temper" and accuse her of inciting violence.

Teenage Palestinian girl charged with a dozen offences awaits military trial Feb. 13

Ahed Tamimi's arrest in December 2017 has stirred a debate about Israel's treatment of Palestinian children in detention in the occupied West Bank. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

To Palestinians and their supporters, hers is the face of a hero, a new symbol of resistance. But many Israelis call 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi "Shirley Temper" after viewing videos showing the girl angrily lashing out at Israeli soldiers.

The long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been about competing narratives, and in this age of social media and viral videos, Ahed's defiance has made her into something of a star in the Arab world and beyond.

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Palestinian girl spent her 17th birthday inside an Israeli military prison last week, where she, along with her mother, await trial on Feb. 13, charged with a dozen offences, including incitement and assault against a soldier.

In a Dec. 15, 2017, video, Ahed, dressed in a blue jacket with a kaffiyeh tied around her neck, confronted two armed Israeli soldiers, outside her home in Nabi Saleh, a village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

She can be seen pushing, punching, slapping and kicking one of the soldiers, who tries to evade her, but ultimately does not respond. Ahed shouts "Get out!" and later in the video her mother, Nariman Tamimi, becomes involved as well.

It's not the first video featuring Ahed. Cellphones captured her in 2012 taking on an Israeli soldier, demanding to know the whereabouts of her brother, who had been arrested by Israeli soldiers.

The Tamimi family is well known in international circles that support Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, which has spanned half a century. The Tamimis are usually out on the hilly roads of Nabi Saleh for Friday protests against the Israeli settlement of Halamish, a mere 500 metres away. Those demonstrations frequently end in clashes between the protesters and Israeli security forces.

"We are freedom fighters, and we will continue to represent [ourselves] in front of our enemy as freedom fighters," said Ahed's father, Bassem Tamimi.

He's spent almost all his life opposing the occupation and helps organize the Friday demonstrations. Arrested several times, Tamimi has spent roughly four years in Israeli prisons, including a stint for inciting violence.

Ahed's father, Bassem Tamimi, outside his home in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, which has become a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Asked about his daughter's starring role in the resistance movement, Tamimi said that he feels "proud." 

"I feel worried. I feel sad. I also feel guilty," he said.

It's his generation's responsibility to end the military occupation, he said, but they have not succeeded in that.

Ahed's anger in the December video, according to her father, was directed at the soldiers after her cousin Mohammed was shot in the face by a rubber bullet. The video was allegedly taken about an hour after the shooting.

"The soldiers all the time represent death, injury and suffering," Bassem Tamimi told CBC News. "He slapped her eyes by his uniform, by his weapons. He scared her with his weapons and shooting her cousin."

'Pallywood' probe

The Tamimi family has long been on the radar of the Israeli authorities, who are clearly concerned that their activism could harm the image of the Jewish state.

In fact, an Israeli government minister launched a secret parliamentary committee investigation into the Tamimis in 2015 to determine whether the demonstrations were genuine or the family was being paid to send children to provoke Israeli soldiers.

Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the Israeli government and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the classified probe examined "Pallywood," which he described as "an industry where various Palestinian entities are directing funding, mostly [in the form of] video clips against Israel, that cause us … strategic damage around the world by influencing world opinion against us."

Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister in Israel's coalition government in Tel Aviv, says Palestinian activists have made an industry out of trying to influence world opinion to side with the Palestinian cause. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

Oren told CBC News that the investigation aimed to determine whether the children "were being chosen because of the way they looked … they dressed Westerner. They didn't dress like West Bank Palestinian children."

"They were being sent to provoke soldiers, quite violently, biting them, kicking them, slapping them in order to get the soldiers to strike back," said Oren.

He said his investigation never reached a definite conclusion.

The Tamimi family dismissed the probe as "silly and stupid."

'She posed no actual threat'

The Dec. 15 video of the confrontation provoked strong reactions among Israelis, with some arguing the soldiers should have responded more forcefully. 

Calls grew louder for Ahed to face punishment, and on Dec. 19 — just hours after Israeli security forces conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Tamimi home and arrested Ahed and her mother — Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman said: "Whoever goes wild during the day will be arrested at night."

Amnesty International called for Ahed's release, saying her arrest is "blatantly disproportionate."

"In capturing an unarmed teenage girl's assault on two armed soldiers wearing protective gear, the footage of this incident shows that she posed no actual threat," said Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Magdalena Mughrabi.

Ahed's arrest has also shone a spotlight on Israel's treatment of Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank. The advocacy group Defense for Children International Palestine estimated that about 375 young Palestinians between the ages of 12 and 17 were detained by Israel's military in 2016, often for throwing stones.

The tactics of the soldiers charged with guarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank include 'suppressing and intimidating the villagers living next to those settlements,' says Gerard Horton, co-founder of Military Court Watch. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Military Court Watch, an NGO in the West Bank, studied the arrests of 127 Palestinian children and found that in 98 per cent of cases, the detentions occurred near Israeli settlements, which most nations, including Canada, view as illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

"If the politicians in Israel decide to put 400,000 Israeli civilians into the West Bank," said Military Court Watch co-founder Gerard Horton, "and you give the job to the military of guaranteeing their protection, then the tactics employed by the military generally include suppressing and intimidating the villagers living next to those settlements."

Potent symbol of Palestinian nationalism

Ahed may be young, but her face is now featured in the Palestinian street art that adorns Israel's separation barrier. Her image was also plastered on posters at recent demonstrations demanding her release held in New York and Paris.

While some Palestinians have criticized her for not wearing a traditional head covering, there is little denying she is well-known across the West Bank and Gaza.

'She's more of a symbol to us,' said 16-year-old Nadim Bargouthi, left, when asked about Ahed Tamimi while walking with his friend Yousef Almbaid in Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"I do not know her personally, but I have heard about her," said Nadim Bargouthi, a 16-year-old student in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"She's more of a symbol to us, because she showed that the youth, people our age, can do something for Palestine and for the Palestinian cause."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.