Nelson Mandela, who knew a thing or two about national struggle, once said: “There is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats children.” And no child in the world has suffered more grievously — indeed more barbarously — than those living under Israel’s rule of the gun.
Think, as a case in point, of the first intifada, which lasted from December 1987 until the Madrid Conference in 1991, when Israel’s then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — an unrepentant war criminal who, as a military commander, was behind the ethnic cleansing campaign in the Palestinian twin cities of Lydda and Ramleh in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war — instructed his soldiers to employ “might, power and beatings” and, in their confrontations with Palestinian adolescents protesting in the streets, not hesitate to “break their bones”.
By the time they were done, well over a thousand Palestinians, most of them children, were killed, 120,000 were injured (from deadly rubber bullets, tear gas, and the rest of it) 15,000 arrested and 1,882 homes demolished. The group Save the Children estimated that “between 23,000 to 29,000 children required medical treatment for injuries”, one third of them under ten. And, yes, the less said about the horrors the armed forces of this apartheid entity inflicted on the children of Gaza, in the three wars it waged there between 2008 and 2014, the better.
I say ‘barbarous’ because I can’t imagine any other word here.
All these facts are known, you say, so why devote a column to this issue today? Blame it on Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager with piercing blue eyes and the cascade of strawberry curls, who is well-known to all of us by now and who, following the familiar midnight knock on the door by occupation authorities two months ago, was roused from her bed, hand-cuffed and hauled off to jail.
Nowadays she is, as we say, the talk of the town among activists and progressives worldwide. In a way, the fearlessness she evinced in confronting that Israeli soldier by slapping him across the ear was seen by the world not just, as her father, Bassem Tamimi, said, “a child slapping the face of the occupation”, but as a gesture communicating the critical truths of life as lived by the occupied under the thumb of their occupiers. Even more telling than that, Ahed (who, now is 17 years old, spent her last birthday behind bars) is reminding adult Palestinians that they owe their children, the most vulnerable individuals in one’s society, a life free of dread, violence and degradation, and when these adults fail — as the enervated folks from the Palestinian National Authority have failed, lacking as they do in direction, spine and will — then they themselves will take matters into their own hands.
Ahed’s type of defiance is not, of course, uniquely Palestinian, for it springs from historical realities and habits of vision habitual to those who, though denied access to all levers of power, still opt to confront colonisers, occupiers, oppressors. The stance has universal resonance. It smashes all assumptions about the quiescent victim of oppression, resigned to his or her fate. It affirms that only in struggle will the identity of the downtrodden, or as Frnz Fanon called them, the “wretched of the earth”, strike root.
No wonder then that the celebrated Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, known for his iconic 1968 two-tone portrait of Che Guevara, recently created a print of Ahed as Wonder Woman, with the strapline ‘There Is A Real Wonder Woman’, the reference clearly dismissive of Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot, a former member of the Israeli Army.
Israel had hoped that by dragging Ahed out of her house in the middle of the night and slapping her with 12 charges, including assault and incitement, her case “would deter other protesters, but it [had] the other effect”, wrote Loveday Morris, the Washington Post correspondent in Palestine in a news report on February 14. “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 ... She has been compared to Rosa Parks and Joan of Arc. And an Israeli musician even compared her to Ann Frank.
On Tuesday last week, Ahed was arraigned in a military court to hear the charges levelled against her. She could face 10 years in jail. In fact, it is very likely that she will receive that kind of harsh sentence. Judges at military courts have a record, obscene to the extreme, of convicting — hold on to your disbelieving hat — 99 per cent of the defendants who appear before them. At any time, in any one year, you will find anything between 400 and 500 Palestinian minors held in prisons in Israel, many of them receiving limited or no family visits, due to restrictions placed on Palestinians travelling across the so-called Green Line.
At the end of the day, what we glean from all this is that the gulf between the legal protections afforded minors in countries in the Euro-American world and those afforded to Palestinian minors under the control of apartheid Israel remains oceanic.
Meanwhile, in his home in Bani Saleh, Bassem, Ahed’s father, who himself as a teenager took part in the first intifada and served several years in Israeli prisons, explained why children are part of the Palestinian national struggle. “I would like it if there was no occupation and I [was able to let Ahed] go and learn, say, ballet,” he told Morris. “We don’t 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”
I get the point, as I’m sure, dear reader, you do too.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.