Ahed Tamimi was 11 when I met her, a little blond slip of a thing, her hair almost bigger than she was. I remember her grimacing as her mother combed out the knots each morning in their living room. The second time I went to a demonstration in Nabi Saleh, the West Bank village where she lives, Ahed and her cousin Marah ended up leading the march. Not because they wanted to, but because Israeli Border Police were chasing everyone, and shouting and throwing stun grenades, and she and Marah ran ahead of the crowd. That’s how it’s been ever since. The Israeli military keeps pushing—into the village, into the yard, into the house, beneath the flesh and into the skulls and tissue and bones of her family and her friends—and Ahed ends up out in front, where everyone can see her. She was there again last week after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral. I can assure you it’s not where she wants to be. She would rather be with her friends, on their phones, doing the things that teenagers do. She would rather be a kid than a hero.
Ahed’s image flew around the world for the first time not long after I met her. In that photo, she was raising her bare skinny arm to shake her fist in the face of an Israeli soldier twice her size. His comrades had just arrested her brother. Overnight she became something no child should ever be: a symbol.
The demonstrations in Nabi Saleh were then in their third year. Israeli settlers had confiscated a spring in the valley between the village and the settlement of Halamish, and Nabi Saleh had joined a handful of other villages that chose the path of unarmed resistance, marching to protest the occupation every Friday, week after week. Ahed’s cousin, Mustafa Tamimi, had already been killed, shot in the face with a tear-gas canister fired out of the back of an Israeli army jeep. Her mother’s brother, Rushdie Tamimi, would not be killed for another few months. In November of 2012, he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier just down the hill from her house. There was nothing unusual about any of it really, only that the tiny village didn’t stop. They kept racking up losses, and kept marching, every Friday, to the spring. They almost never got close. Most Fridays, before they reached the bend in the road, soldiers stopped them with tear gas and sundry other projectiles. The army came during the week too, usually before dawn, making arrests, searching houses, spreading fear, delivering a message that got clearer each time: your lives, your homes, your land, even your own and your children’s bodies—none of it belongs to you.
Last week, the soldiers came for Ahed. It’s hard for me to understand this now, but I didn’t think it would happen to her. I thought she might be spared this, that she might be allowed to finish school and go on to university and without this interruption become the bold and brilliant woman she will surely one day be. I assumed that her brothers and her male cousins would all at some point go to jail—most of them already have—and that some of them would be injured or worse. Every time I visit Nabi Saleh and look in the children’s faces I try not to wonder who it will be, and how bad. Two Fridays ago, the day Ahed chased the soldiers from her yard, it was her cousin Mohammad, one of her little brother’s closest friends. A soldier shot him in the face. The bullet—rubber-coated but a bullet nonetheless—lodged in his skull. A week later, he was still in a medically-induced coma.
If you’ve seen the video that led to her arrest, you might have wondered why Ahed was so angry at the soldiers who entered her yard, why she yelled at them to leave, why she slapped them. That’s why. That and a thousand other reasons. Her uncle and her cousin killed. Her mother shot in the leg and on crutches for most of a year. Her parents and her brother taken from her for months at a time. And never a night’s rest without the possibility that she might wake, as she did early Tuesday morning, as she had so many times before, to soldiers at the door, in her house, in her room, there to take someone away.
I didn’t count on the astonishing fearfulness of the Israeli public, or that a video of Ahed, unafraid, slapping a soldier to force him out of her yard, would strike such a hideous nerve. Ahed Tamimi was not jailed for breaking the law—Israel, in its governance of the land it occupies, shows little regard for legality. She was arrested because she was all over the news, and the public and the politicians were demanding that she be punished. They used words like “castrated” and “impotent” to describe how they felt when they looked at that soldier with his helmet and his body armor and his gun and at the kid in the pink T-shirt and blue windbreaker who put him to shame. For all their strength, power, wealth, and arrogance, she had put them all to shame.
The gulf between the two opposing fantasies that define Israel’s self-image has only grown with the years: a country that still imagines itself to be David to the Arab Goliath—noble, outnumbered, and brave—while taking pride in the unrivaled lethality and sophistication of its military. Ahed made both those convictions crumble. Before the world, she had again revealed Israel to be the bully. And watching that video, they knew that their guns are worthless, their strength a sham. For revealing those secrets, for showing the world how weak and fearful they know themselves to be, Ahed had to be punished. And so the defense minister of the country with the most technologically advanced military in the world stooped from his throne to personally promise that not just Ahed and her parents but “everyone around them” would get “what they deserve.” The minister of education was more specific: Ahed should be locked up for life, he said, so serious was her crime.
So far they have arrested Ahed, her mother, Nariman, and her cousin Nour, who were also in the video. They arrested Nariman when she went to the police station to see her daughter and they came back for Nour the next day. The propagandists have been hard at work spreading lies—that Ahed is not a child or is not Palestinian, that the Tamimis are not a family at all, or are every last one of them terrorists, that none of this is real, that the occupation is not an occupation and what you think you see on video is theater staged for foreigners to make Israel look bad. Anything is easier to accept than the truth—that Ahed showed them who they are, and how 50 years of occupation has hollowed them out as a nation, how it makes them weaker and more frightened every day.
Please don’t make Ahed a hero. Heroes, when they are Palestinian, end up dead or behind bars. Let her be a kid. Fight to set her free, so that one day she can be an ordinary woman, in an ordinary land.