Sunday, October 14, 2018
Nation & World

Israel’s decision to put a Palestinian teen on trial could come back to bite it

OFER, West Bank ó Slouching in her chair and mouthing messages to her friends and family from under a cascade of strawberry-blond curls, Ahed Tamimi in many ways appears to be an everyday teenager.

But the tussle of television cameras and photographers that crowded in for a shot of her in the dock of a small Israeli military court in Ofer for a bail hearing last month was a reminder that she is far from it.

Ahed, who recently turned 17, was arrested after a video of her slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers who had entered her front yard went viral last year. On Tuesday, she goes on trial on 12 charges, including assault of a soldier and incitement.

The judge though, decided to eject all journalists and all external observers from the hearing, in what rights groups said was an attempt to squash coverage of what could be a lengthy and an embarrassing trial.

The judge argued that it was in Ahedís interest, but her lawyer said it was not.

Although no one was seriously hurt, the Israeli military, her lawyer says, is keen to make an example of her to deter other young Palestinians from fighting back against the Israeli occupation.

But what is expected to be a months-long trial could well have the opposite effect, while highlighting concerns surrounding the detention of minors by Israel.

Already a poster child for the Palestinian cause, her arrest has propelled her to new levels of fame. Images of her standing hands on hips and staring down an Israeli soldier were plastered on London bus stops calling for her release.

Jim Fitzpatrick, an Irish artist famed for his iconic two-toned painting of Che Guevara, painted her as Wonder Woman. She has been compared to Rosa Parks and Joan of Arc. An Israeli musician even likened her to Anne Frank.

Her family says letters of messages of support have flooded in from the region and the world.

Bassem Tamimi, her father, says his daughterís arrest came just when the Palestinians needed a new source of inspiration.

"Itís the moment of Trump, the moment that nobody knows what to do," he said. "The people in the Arab countries and the Palestinians are bored of seeing a victim all the time. Now they see a small child slapping the face of the occupation."

Trumpís decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israelís capital, and a White House they see as favoring Israel more than ever, has fueled frustration among Palestinians. Regular clashes have broken out in the West Bank between demonstrators and Israeli forces, which although not large after 50 years of occupation, have been persistent.

But also a factor in her international fame, her father says, is Ahedís blond hair and blue eyes.

"They donít like to see a white girl as a victim," he said. "They see their children, they see themselves."

For some, it appeared too convenient to be true. Ahed has been a regular in internet videos for years. Demonstrations take place in her village of Nabi Saleh, in the occupied West Bank, every week, with residents priding themselves on their peaceful resistance, though they regularly descend into stone throwing and clashes. The villagers accuse Israel of stealing their land and spring for a nearby settlement.

Ahed grabbed media attention at age 11, when she shouted at Israeli soldiers after they detained her brother, raising her fist.

Michael Oren, an Israeli deputy minister and former ambassador to the United States, said that with the family rising in prominence, a probe was launched by a parliamentary subcommittee three years ago, to see whether they were real or actors picked for their Western looks. Itís a phenomenon he describes as "Pallywood."

"Pallywood can be a very serious threat to us," he said. "We looked at the Tamimis. Among the questions were: Are all these children Tamimis? Are they being directed?"

He said the findings were inconclusive. He says that if children are being sent out by their parents to face off against Israeli soldiers then it amounts to "child abuse." He says if the trial raises her profile, itís a price that needs to be paid. "I think there is a cost involved, but there is always a cost," Oren said.

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In his home in Nabih Saleh, Bassem Tamimi says there is no way for his children to avoid soldiers, with his house raided many times. Children, he says, are an important part of their struggle.

"Iíd like it if there was no occupation and let her to go and learn dance or ballet," he said. "We donít like to see our children face danger, but because there is no safe place, we must give them the ability to survive, we must train them to face their enemy in the future. We need them to be strong."

He began organizing regular protests in the village in 2009. Above the television sits a portrait of Ahedís uncle, who Bassem says was shot during a demonstration in 2012. Her 28-year-old cousin died after being hit by a tear-gas canister a year earlier, he says. The latest in the extended family to die was a 17-year-old distant cousin, who was the first Palestinian to die in clashes with Israeli forces this year.

"She was born into an environment of resistance," he said.

Marah Tamimi, 17, counts Ahed among one of her closest friends. She says her cousin would have liked to have been a soccer player, but because of the occupation they both plan to study law. They are among a generation of media-savvy young Palestinian activists who hope they can foster change.

"My generation is stronger," she said, adding that they realize the power of a camera.

But although Ahedís case may have drawn attention, it comes at a time of flagging support for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. Regional protests following Trumpís Jerusalem decision lacked zeal.

Meanwhile, Israel has clamped down on access for pro-Palestinian activists. At a 17th birthday party held for Ahed while she was in prison, only a smattering of international activists were present as candles spelling out her name were lit in tear gas casings.

Rights groups say they also hope the trial will shed light on Israelís treatment of minors.

Ahedís lawyer accuses the military of breaking the U.N. convention on the rights of a child during her nighttime arrest and interrogation, during which she says Ahed was threatened. Her trial, like those for all Palestinians in the West Bank but not Israeli settlers, is held in a military court. She was denied bail at her hearing last month, with the prosecution arguing that she was dangerous and posed a risk of absconding.

"The Israeli military supposes by arresting Ahed Tamimi they can silence their activism," said Fadi Quran, a senior campaigner with the activist group Avaaz. "But although painful, itís definitely put a spotlight on Palestinian children in detention."

There were 352 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons as security detainees at the end of last year, according to BíTselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Although many may be detained for serious offenses, the group says the conviction rate of around 99 percent in the military courts is concerning.

Ahedís charges date back almost two years, to when she was 15. Earlier that day another relative, 17-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, had been shot in the head by a rubber bullet. The incident left him in a coma, his family said, and he had part of his skull removed. Ahedís family says that it was shortly after this that the soldiers entered their yard. Ahed shouted at them to leave, later kicking and hitting. Her 20-year-old cousin and mother, who were also in the video, were both later arrested and are also facing charges.

While Palestinians saw the video as a child standing up to her occupiers, many Israelis saw her as a provocateur attempting to provoke a reaction - which the soldier did not give. Those on the left lauded the soldierís restraint.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said Nur and Ahed should finish their lives in prison. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman meanwhile, defended the then-16-year-oldís arrest in the middle of the night.

"Whoever goes wild during the day, will be arrested at night," Lieberman said, describing it as an "important message."

Gaby Lasky, Ahedís lawyer, said Palestinians will be getting another message. "They can see in the video a child pushing heavily armed soldiers away from her house," she said. "Itís powerful."

The Washington Postís Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Nabi Saleh contributed to this report.

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