- Interview by
- James Tarlton
When Ahed Tamimi is asked about her own future, she says she wants to take up a degree in international law. At which university? ‘I don’t know.’ Where? The same answer. Released after six months in prison earlier this year and still only 17, Tamimi knows it will be difficult to plan a future under the Israeli occupation.
Much of the pretext to her arrest a year ago was lost in the coverage of her detention. In the days preceding it, Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin Mohammed Tamimi was shot in the head at close range by an Israeli soldier. As is so often the case in Israel, this led not to suspicion of the officers responsible but of the victim’s wider family. Israeli forces broke into Ahed’s family home soon after and a video of her pushing and slapping two of the intruders went viral, inflaming the Israeli authorities.
Four days later, her home was broken into again by soldiers looking for her. She was subsequently detained and arrested, where she tells Tribune that various Israeli laws—such as a female detainee’s right to a female guard—were not adhered to. By early January, the Israeli military filed twelve charges against Tamimi, including the assault of a soldier and ‘incitement’; it looked as if she was facing at least several years of jail time.
However, the young activist benefited from a great deal of international attention. Public outcry online prompted media outlets to report on her case, and pressure grew on the Israeli prosecutors. A plea bargain resulted in her receiving an eight-month prison sentence. No charges or disciplinary action have been brought against the soldier who shot Mohammed Tamimi. In fact, a leading general in the Israeli Defence Forces claimed his injuries were sustained after falling off a bike.
Reflecting on her release from prison, Tamimi said she wasn’t sure how she felt. ‘I think I feel good because I am sending out a message,’ she offers, before pausing. ‘But the bad thing is that I’m still 17 and I cannot live [like others] my age.’
After her arrest Ahed Tamimi recalls that she was interrogated intensely. She was threatened with the arrest of her brother Wa’ed (who was subsequently picked up by Israeli authorities) and also, she alleges, subject to ‘psychological pressures’. ‘All the days in prison are similar,’ Tamimi remembers, ‘but the most difficult part was the investigation and the interrogation.’
Twenty-one-year-old Wa’ed was sentenced to fourteen months in prison after his arrest. His crime—throwing stones at Israeli soldiers—was a direct result of the family’s protest against Ahed’s arrest. It is possible to trace the roots of many Palestinian prison sentences this way, from sibling to sibling, cousin to cousin, child to parent—a seemingly endless cycle.
Wa’ed remains in prison today, but Ahed says the family is confident he can get through it. ‘This is the third time,’ she points out. ‘He has experience with it.’ The worst part, she says, will be worrying about what will happen to his family outside. ‘Prisoners, even when they are in prison, think about their family. They know that their family is in a dangerous situation.’
During her court hearings at Ofer military court, near Ramallah, Ahed Tamimi would be woken up at 2.30 AM and kept until 8.00 AM in a cold van without access to toilets or water. Reflecting on this time, she said that the sentencing came as a relief: ‘When anyone takes their sentence, they will feel better, because they then know that they need to spend time in prison, not travelling [to the military court]. I told them: please, sentence me, do not take me every time to the court. I need to stop it, I need to finish it.’
After months of this transitionary stage, Ahed was sentenced in March. In jail, she claims that she was treated poorly, telling Tribune that the authorities deprived her of sleep, and subjected her to arduously long interrogation sessions. While under her daily bout of intense military questioning, she was woken up at 2.30 AM, and was later walked back to her cell at midnight—a 22-hour stretch.
Despite being a child, Ahed was also put in the same van as Israeli adult criminals. Once, she recalled, ‘one of the criminal prisoners asked the guard for my name, and the guard told him.’ After that, he threw a barrage of insults at her, and abused her while they were together in the van. On another occasion, Ahed said, ‘one criminal prisoner saw some girls covering their faces with hijabs, and he took his pants down in front of us’.
Ahed’s experience of poor treatment at the hands of the Israeli state is not an isolated incident. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has sternly criticised the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinian children. This year alone the Israeli military has killed 52 minors, according to Defence for Children International. Meanwhile more than 900 were detained.
In many ways, this is what made Ahed Tamimi such a compelling figure. Her defiance in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful Israeli occupation was impressive, even if she now feels constrained. ‘I have a suspended sentence, so I can’t be free,’ she says. ‘If I do something I will automatically be in prison for eight months.’
But this hasn’t stopped her from speaking about her experiences. Some months after her release, Ahed Tamimi embarked on a European tour, appearing in front of thousands at the Fête de l’Humanité festival in Paris. Here she met Real Madrid striker Emilio Butragueno, who gave her a team shirt. It was the latest act to outrage the Israeli authorities, with a foreign ministry spokesperson labelling it ‘morally wrong’.
Despite being unclear of her own future, and worried for her family, Ahed Tamimi is clear about the political goals she pursues and the need to resist. Later in her tour she spoke to a rally of several thousand in Athens. There, she urged the youth of the world to fight not only for a just resolution for the Palestinian people, but to ‘unite to face capitalism, imperialism, and colonisation.’
‘We are not victims,’ she said. ‘We are freedom fighters.’