By Harriet Sherwood/London
A little over four years ago, I drove to the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh to spend a day with a 12-year-old girl. Her name was Ahed Tamimi, and I was interviewing her for a magazine article, Children of the Occupation: Growing up in Palestine.
We talked about her life in the village, the constant presence of soldiers, the demolition order on her home, mermaids, football and hopscotch. She was elfin, with an uneasy mix of worldliness and naivety. Of the many children I met in the West Bank and Gaza over almost four years of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the Guardian, I found Ahed one of the most disturbing.
By then, she was well known in pro-Palestinian circles. In 2012 a video showing her angrily confronting an Israeli soldier had gone viral; Ahed was feted. Now, another video of her slapping and kicking an Israeli soldier has led to her being charged with assaulting security forces, incitement and throwing stones. The teenager is in custody awaiting trial.
The video and the charges have polarised opinion. To many pro-Palestinian activists, Ahed is a symbol of resistance, a child hero, a freedom fighter. Comparisons have been drawn to Malala Yousafzai and Joan of Arc. She has been lionised on social media, and publicly praised by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. On the Israeli side, some have said she is a puppet of political parents, she has been, schooled in violence, and that she deserves stiff punishment.
As usual, it is a little more complicated. Ahed is a member of the second generation of Palestinians to grow up under occupation. Her father, Bassem, was born in 1967 – the year Israel seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights in the six-day war. He and his children have known only a life of checkpoints, identity papers, detentions, house demolitions, intimidation, humiliation and violence. This is their normality.
The family home is in Area C, the 62% of the West Bank that is under Israeli military control. Their village, Nabi Saleh, has been the scene of frequent protests since Israeli settlers appropriated the local spring a decade ago. Bassem and his wife, Nariman, and other members of the family have often been at the forefront.
Stones have been thrown by the protesters; Israeli forces have responded with teargas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live ammunition. At least two villagers, including Ahed’s uncle Rushdie, have been killed, hundreds injured, and at least 140 people detained or imprisoned – among them Bassem and Nariman, several times.
Ahed has grown up in this environment. When I asked her how often she had experienced teargas, she laughed, saying she couldn’t count the times. She described military raids on the family home. I observed Ahed and her brothers as, over and over again, they watched footage of their parents being arrested and their uncle writhing on the ground after being shot.
Many of her answers to my questions appeared rehearsed. “We want to liberate Palestine. We want to live as free people. The soldiers are here to protect the settlers and prevent us reaching our land,” she told me. Her parents seemed proud of her profile among anti-occupation activists, a perspective reinforced this week when Bassem described his daughter as “a representative of a new generation of our people, of young freedom fighters … [She] is one of many young women who in the coming years will lead the resistance to Israeli rule.”
Suggestions that Ahed’s recent interaction with the soldiers was partly for the benefit of the rolling camera, that her mother apparently had no qualms about streaming it live on social media, and (according to the Israel indictment) that the teenager suggested that “whether it is a stabbing attack or suicide bombing or throwing rocks, everyone needs to do something and unite in order for our message to reach those who want to liberate Palestine”, reinforce a sense that the Tamimis are a highly politicised family.
Four years ago, alongside the fledgling activist who insisted to me she was not frightened of the armed soldiers she passed every day, there was a little girl anxious about being photographed near a military watchtower, and who – according to her parents – sometimes shouted out in her sleep or woke up sobbing.
Ahed’s experiences are echoed in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a brutal context for childhood can shape attitudes for a lifetime. Frank Roni, a former child protection specialist for Unicef in the Palestinian territories, said he had observed the “intergenerational trauma” of those growing up under occupation. “The ongoing conflict, the deterioration of the economy and social environment, the increase in violence – this all impacts heavily on children. Children form a ghetto mentality and lose hope for the future, which fuels a cycle of despair,” he said in 2013.
At 12, Ahed told me she wanted to become a lawyer when she grew up so she could fight for Palestinian rights. At 16 she could be facing a long prison sentence. Whatever the outcome of the Israeli judicial process, she looks certain to spend the next formative months of her life in prison, rather than studying for exams.
Her story is not just about one child, but a generation – two generations – without hope and security. Tragically and unforgivably, the same bleak prospects could await a third.
*Harriet Sherwood is the Guardian’s religion correspondent, and former Jerusalem correspondent
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