OFER MILITARY PRISON, West Bank—When an Israeli military judge opened the courtroom at Ofer prison for the press to watch his acceptance of Ahed Tamimi’s plea bargain, the teenage Palestinian activist who had already spent months in prison for slapping a soldier was blunt in her short message to the world.
“There is no justice under occupation,” said the 17-year-old cuffed in the docket on March 21, looking at her family and friends at the back of the gallery. “We are in an illegitimate court,” she continued in Arabic, speaking in a calm, explanatory tone until her guards shut down the impromptu statement.
The curly-haired teen has grown up with cameras documenting her family and village’s struggle against Israeli settlements on their land and military rule over their lives. She has learned, over years in a local protest movement, against overwhelming army domination, that publicly speaking out is her best defense. So in February, when the military judge ejected the media and diplomats who packed into the first hearing of the trial where Ahed intended to make a statement, the strategy changed, says her father, Bassem Tamimi.
Ahed was born and raised in the central West Bank village of Nabi Salah, where unpleasant daily encounters with Israeli settlers and soldiers are a fact of life. As a protest movement against the restrictions of the occupation took root during her childhood, her family became the focus of her village’s role in the movement, as it spread through West Bank border villages that opposed Israel’s expanding wall and settlements.
Growing up in the digital age, amid the media’s extensive reporting on her family and community, Ahed has become known in Israel for images of her boldly accosting Israeli soldiers as they attacked or arrested her friends and family. While hardline Israeli politicians and nationalist activists view her actions as humiliating for the army and undermining of the military rule in the occupied territories—for which they heap vitriolic condemnations on her—she has also become an inspiration for the handful of left-wing Israelis still protesting the occupation.
So when a video of Ahed confronting, shouting at, and slapping an Israeli soldier—who had recently shot her cousin in the head with a rubber bullet and temporarily put him in a coma—went viral in December, a storm of condemnations by Israeli politicians and calls to punish the teen and her family ensued.
The viral video of the slap and her displays of defiance during the public hearings have made Ahed into both a Palestinian icon and Israeli hate figure. Ahed has been mythologized as Wonder Woman by Jim Fitzpatrick, the artist behind the iconic image of Che Guevara, and her case exemplified as an experience so common to young Palestinians that it is lamented as a rite of passage. Meanwhile Israeli politicians have sought to undermine the Tamimi family by claiming—falsely—that they are actors and not a real family, and by describing their determination to protest as akin to terrorism.
Facing years in prison for slapping a soldier, Ahed agreed to a plea deal, like the vast majority of Palestinians going through the Israeli military court system. The conviction rate, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, is near 100 percent and plea bargains are the backbone of the system. Under Ahed’s deal, she serves eight months in prison, including her three months served in pretrial detention, and will have to pay a fine of nearly $1,500. She will serve only two months less than Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot and killed a disarmed and incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron as he lay motionless on the ground.
Ahed’s trial was mostly closed to the public and has received widespread condemnation from international and local human-rights groups. The teen’s statement and plea deal followed an ordeal that involved multiple arrests of her family members and numerous grueling interrogations where she was denied the presence of her lawyer or parents. Although the Israeli army had brought Israeli TV cameras to their arrest raid at the Tamimi home, in a bid to appease growing demands by right-wing politicians, the military judge cited the “rights of the minor” when closing the courtroom to all but family and sealing the proceedings.
Yet in a nearly two-hour interrogation video of Ahed from Dec. 26, seen exclusively by The Daily Beast, her rights as a minor seem to be of little concern to the two male interrogators bearing down on her. Handcuffed and sitting at a desk in a police office, Ahed watches and withstands the security officials’ escalation from theatrical displays of good cop-bad cop and creepy attempts at flirting to terrifying threats against her family. According to her support team, the video is of her third interrogation—yet, throughout it, she continuously asserts her right to remain silent. It’s a point her prosecutors used in pretrial hearings as justification to deny her bail and continue her interrogations.
Beyond the legend-making and vilifying that has surrounded the Ahed Tamimi trial, it is the chillingly banal interrogation of a defiant and at times terrified then-16-year-old that captures the weight of occupation.
From the viewpoint of what appears to be a camera on top of a computer, in the corner of a police office, Ahed is led into the room and seated at a desk. She is offered water and a sandwich but refuses.
With a nonchalant expression her face, she says nothing while asked a series of routine questions. Even when asked to state her name, she asserts her right to remain silent. As the interrogation gets underway, the main interrogator—an Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern origin who is overheard saying he is from military intelligence, appears to be in his late 20s to early 30s, and sports a buzz cut, grayish shirt, blue jeans, and a gun on his waist—tries to engage Ahed in conversation.
She stays resolutely silent, maintaining a blank expression. The interrogator, speaking in Hebrew-accented choppy Arabic, tries flirting in an overbearing and intimidating manner.
“You have eyes like an angel,” he says to the 16-year-old as she responds with a cold stare and silence.
The interrogator switches to the familial approach and launches into an explanation of how Ahed is just like his sister and how his sister spends all his money on clothes. Ahed appears unfazed and uninterested, her eyes glazing over at times.
Seeing his colleague failing to relate, the second interrogator tries direct intimidation. “I’m an interrogator from Israel,” he says authoritatively. “We walk in line with the law... In all the areas the law is Israeli, the law of the military. And you have to listen to the law, you and all the family.”
Ahed says nothing, so the main interrogator again tries to relate her to his sister. All the while, a second man wearing a plaid shirt, whose face can’t be seen, sits behind a desk, occasionally encouraging the main interrogator to give up.
At one point the main interrogator becomes flustered and theatrically throws his notepad and removes his gun, telling Ahed that it isn’t an interrogation and pleading with her to chat with him. Ahed says nothing.
Then the interrogator starts showing her videos of what appear be the slapping incident and protests in her hometown. The expression on her face softens.
The interrogator pounces. “Your mom, this is the voice of your mom! Whose voice is that?” he demands. Clearly distressed, Ahed keeps her lips sealed. He then threatens her with jail time. She remains silent.
Throughout most of the interrogation Ahed maintains a relatively blank and at times tired and bored expression. However, it is when the interrogator starts threatening to arrest her family and friends that Ahed’s expression melts into a look of horror followed by melancholy.
Ahed was not beaten by soldiers from her arrest to arrival at the interrogation center or physically tortured during interrogation, an experience that Palestinian, Israeli and international child and human-rights groups claim is routine for young Palestinians. Still, she knows the stories of many of her friends and family who experienced some of the worst of Israeli detention.
In 1993, Bassem Tamimi was shaken so severely by an Israeli interrogator that he went into a coma in an event documented by Human Rights Watch at the time. While in prison, his sister was killed when she was pushed down the stairs in an Israeli military court by an army translator and broke her neck. Accused of involvement in killing a settler, Bassem woke up from his interrogation temporarily paralyzed with 63 stitches in his head following surgery. He was never charged and left prison on the day of his sister’s funeral. So it is hardly surprising that Ahed is so shaken by the interrogators’ threats to detain those close to her.
“I don’t want to bring those children here,” the interrogator tells her in English. “I pray that you take the easy way. You don’t want me to speak with those children, right?” he says, referring to Ahed’s friends and family. As the interrogation winds down, with Ahed still silent, the interrogator takes a final desperate stab at breaking the teen with threats of violence upon those she’s closest to.
“Think about it, OK?” he coaxes. “I don’t need you to speak, we know. They will suffer this place.”
The interrogation ends soon after, and as Ahed is led out of the room, she casually grabs the sandwich she refused at the beginning of her questioning and walks out without looking back.
In the aftermath of the interrogation, some of Ahed’s family members and friends whom the interrogator threatened with arrest were taken during military raids on Nabi Salah. With B'Tselem calculating that 5,980 Palestinians, including 356 people below the age of 18, are currently being held in Israeli detention, Ahed’s interrogation video shines a light on an experience that continues to scar and shape Palestinian society and politics. It also comes at a time of growing Palestinian protest from Gaza against Israel’s long siege and a renewed campaign demanding rights for Palestinian refugees that left nearly 20 people dead and hundreds injured by Israeli live fire last week during border protests.
At the same time, Palestinians, disillusioned with their official leadership yet continuing to protest against the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, are hungry for examples of courage and steadfastness in confronting Israeli occupation. Bassem hopes his family’s example and Ahed’s leadership can provide a model for how Palestinian families can engage in collective struggle.
Ahed spent her sentencing like most of her pretrial hearings open to the public—chatting from the docket with the family and friends she has been cut off from, while at the same time apparently uninterested in hearing her judgment translated from Hebrew into broken Arabic.
There was a similar air of disinterested defiance from Ahed’s mother, Nariman Tamimi, 30 minutes prior. Talking to her family and ignoring the formal proceedings, she begrudgingly accepted a similar plea deal to her daughter with tears in her eyes. Her crime was filming and posting her daughters’ slap of the Israeli soldier in her yard.
While Nariman was being led away, an Israeli anti-occupation activist who had been observing the trial leaned over the gallery rail and slapped the military prosecutor on the back of the neck, twice. “This is what you deserve,” she said in Hebrew.