World News

Acts of Resistance and Restraint Defy Easy Definition in the West Bank

Posted December 22, 2017 7:34 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — It is quite a video: A teenage girl, a kaffiyeh over her denim jacket, screaming in Arabic, repeatedly punches, slaps and kicks a heavily armed Israeli army officer, who faces her impassively, absorbing some blows, evading others, but never hitting back.

Finally, he and a fellow soldier turn and walk away — only to spur parallel debates that, more than a week later, are roiling both Israeli and Palestinian society and engaging the conflict’s partisans around the globe.

Israelis could not decide whether the soldiers were virtuous pillars of forbearance and strength — “It’s soldiers like this that give Israel the moral high ground,” Peter Lerner, a retired army spokesman, declared — or an embarrassing advertisement of national paralysis and vulnerability.

“Restraint is a failed and dangerous policy,” said Oren Hazan, a member of parliament from the Likud Party. “Next time it must end differently.”

Palestinians, while universally praising the girl’s courage, debated whether the video might have damaged their cause, by showing their oppressors behaving gently, or helped it, by showing that resistance can be effective even when one is unarmed.

“This is a mockery,” a man named Saber Mohammad fumed on Facebook, saying it showed “the beautiful face of the occupier.”

But with Palestinians and Israelis once again confronting one another with rocks and tear gas, this time in reaction to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, what seemed inescapable was that a moment that broke with the visual clichés of intifadas past had seized imaginations on both sides.

The girl in the video, Ahed Tamimi, 16, is not new to this kind of encounter.

Two years ago she was videotaped biting the hand of another Israeli soldier who was trying to arrest her brother. And in 2012, when she was 11, she was photographed raising her fist and yelling at another Israeli soldier — an action that earned her an award from Turkey.

That her family appears to encourage the children’s risky confrontations with soldiers offends some Palestinians and enrages many Israelis.

“We should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote. “The Tamimi family has to learn, the hard way, that such systematic provocations” come at great cost.

But Ahed Tamimi’s face has already launched a thousand memes, and the Tamimis of Nabi Saleh and their frequent videos have drawn international attention to their tiny village and its long-running disputes with a nearby Israeli settlement, Halamish, that Nabi Saleh residents say has stolen their land and water.

The latest incident, filmed in the family’s backyard, occurred within hours after a cousin of Tamimi’s was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and it was streamed live on Facebook on Dec. 15. It first gained attention Monday, when a clip was broadcast on Israeli television.

Right-wing activists demanded the teenager’s arrest. Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennet, said Tamimi and the other women who scuffled with the soldiers alongside her — her mother and an older cousin — “should finish their lives in prison.”

By Tuesday morning, Tamimi was in custody; the other two were arrested later. A hearing on her case is set for Sunday.

Many Israelis lamented the “impossible situation” facing their soldiers on the West Bank, while others debated whether the officer’s restraint was a laudable act or a symptom of fear. Another soldier was imprisoned this year for fatally shooting a Palestinian assailant who already lay bleeding on the ground.

“When the enemy sends their teenage daughters to smack you around, and you’re too afraid to defend yourself, you are no longer a soldier,” wrote David Zachary Sidman, a Times of Israel blogger. “You are a frightened robot who prefers freedom over dignity.”

In an interview, writer Yossi Klein Halevi said he had conflicted feelings about the scuffle. “My first reaction was I was proud of the soldiers, but I was also ambivalent: Is this going to invite more attacks, and more serious ones?” he said.

“Israelis were worried that this strength of the soldiers would be misperceived in the Arab world as weakness,” Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, added. “And when you see yourself as under permanent siege, your greatest fear is the loss of deterrence.”

Among Palestinians, the soldiers’ poise was problematic for different reasons.

“It gives people the idea that the occupation soldiers are humane in dealing with Palestinians and their children,” Rami Jonny, 32, a Gaza resident, wrote on a Ramallah news site. “Imagine if this girl was in an Arab country, and she hit a soldier in his face publicly, in the middle of the street.”

But other Palestinian activists said they hoped Tamimi’s fearlessness would prompt more West Bank residents to confront the Israeli occupation.

“She represents a generation who are not afraid of soldiers,” said Issa Amro, a Hebron-based opponent of the occupation who preaches nonviolence.

The occupation “is trying to make the Palestinians give up,” he said, but Tamimi’s example argued for the opposite. “The majority of Palestinians are not active,” Amro said. “This shows that they should get over their fears and their weakness — especially the women.”

Though Tamimi’s arrest — in a night raid captured on video and publicized by the army — slaked a thirst for punishment on the Israeli side, the scene of the young woman being hauled away may have given Palestinians the clear-cut propaganda coup they had been denied by the original confrontation. Tamimi, who remains behind bars, quickly inspired a new social-media campaign: #FreeAhed.

“The people of Palestine and all free peoples in the world salute you, Ahed,” wrote Kathem Nasser on Rai Al-Youm, a news site based in London. “We kiss your hand in reverence.”