I visited Ahed Tamimi in her home the day after she was released from almost eight months in an Israeli military prison. She committed a crime under the laws of occupation and was convicted in an occupation military court. She was 16 years old when she was arrested from her home in the middle of the night.
I knew her family from years before. In 2012, I began watching YouTube clips of the weekly demonstrations in her village of Nebi Salah. What I saw in the clips was pretty horrible – young Palestinians throwing a lot of stones at soldiers who fired massive quantities of tear gas back at them, always ending up entering the village and conquering it. Every week the same scenario repeats itself. I was curious to know how the whole series of events begins. I couldn’t discern from all of the videos that I saw how it all started. So I decided that I had to go to see for myself. I contacted some activists from Ramallah and was instructed to meet at a factory outside of Nebi Salah at 10:30 a.m. on that Friday.
We met at the factory – a group of about 15 people, including several other Israelis. The main entrance of the village was blocked by the army, so we had to walk through the hills to get there. We had to walk on goat trails and be careful not to be seen by the soldiers. It took about an hour to do the small trek. We arrived in the village and proceeded to the central square where tens of people were sitting under the shade of a large mulberry tree. The atmosphere was quite like a festival. There were many children from the village drawing pictures and protest signs. Teenagers were pouring Arabic coffee and cups of water. We all waited for Friday prayers to end at about 1 pm. When the prayers ended, half of the village paraded out of the mosque into the square and in an instant everyone organized to start a march. In the front were women and youth carrying Palestinian flags and slogans against the occupation. Some 50 meters into the march, when about 150 people turned into the street that leads down to the main road some 200 meters away, we were bombarded with a rainstorm of tear gas from soldiers at the main road. At this point, not a single stone had been thrown at the soldiers.
I am a veteran protester, going back to my childhood marching against the war in Vietnam and in favor of civil rights. In the past 40 years living in Israel I have participated in so many demonstrations that I lost count years ago. I have swallowed a significant amount of tear gas over the years. The tear gas used by the Israeli army these days is much more potent and debilitating than anything I experienced in the past. That gas not only burns your eyes, your throat and your skin, it zaps the energy out of your body. Every house in the village turned into a field clinic.
I was led into a house, my eyes burning with agony. I laid down on a mattress and a woman in a hijab, a mother, wiped my face with cotton and warm water. Warm compresses were placed on my eyes. I felt her compassion and appreciated her help. Then we moved into the “cat and mouse chase game” – still no stones were thrown at the soldiers. People scattered into the hills and the soldiers positioned themselves 360 degrees around the village to reach the top and to take control of the main square. As they climbed the hill and the young people gathered, the soldiers shot more tear gas in all directions. Homes were hit where people were seeking shelter inside; people who were not even participating in the march were gassed.
Then came the skunk. This is something that no human being should ever experience. A giant water cannon shot the most putrid smelling liquid I have ever smelled in my life. They sprayed directly at people. They sprayed the main square. They sprayed a house where about 15 people were seeking shelter from the tear gas and being treated by a family that was serving endless cups of coffee, tea and water. About 30 minutes after the housed was”skunked,” the smell was too intense to stay inside. I felt totally nauseous. Everyone went outside and about 10 people gathered with soapy water and brooms to try to clean the house and get rid of the smell. It didn’t really work. People told me that it takes about two weeks for the smell to dissipate.
The great Israeli army conquered Nebi Salah. The soldiers took over the square. They went on the roofs of the homes around the square. They paraded with their guns, their eyes burning with hatred. I took a lot of pictures and when some soldiers began eating the fruit from some trees that belonged to a family near the square, I lost my temper and started screaming at them. They were older soldiers, not kids, and I think I shamed them and they stopped. As the soldiers left the village after about an hour, after the army had demonstrated who is really in control, the young people started throwing stones. No soldier was hurt or even at risk. I stayed in the village cleaning up and talking to people until about 7 p.m. They told me that later that night, and all of the nights of the upcoming week, the army would be back and would arrest people, taking them from their homes in the middle of the night.
I went back the following week and several weeks afterwards. I took groups of Israelis with me who were not typical leftists. I wanted other people to see what I saw. I also went to similar demonstration in other places like Bil’in, Naalin, Al-Masara, and more. After a few months, I stopped going. I stopped because in all of the demonstrations the Palestinians ended up throwing stones at the soldiers and I did not want to be part of that. For me, non-violence is non-violence and the power of non-violent resistance is that even when violence is used against you, you keep hold on the higher moral ground, shaming the other side by not becoming violent. I cannot tell the occupied how to wage their struggle against the occupier, but I do not have to participate in it if it becomes violent. So I stopped going, but I never stopped admiring people who pay such a high price every week for their justified resistance against the occupation and their struggle for freedom.
Ahed Tamimi said some really horrible things when she was filmed slapping the soldier. She was asked by her mother on film what is her message for the Palestinian people. She talked about standing firm against the injustices of the occupation and that the struggle will continue until Palestine is free. She then called on everyone to join the struggle in every way possible, with the stone, with the knife and with suicide attacks.
This is horrible and in no way can I support those calls. Those words were spoken after a day of protests and tear gas and attacks by the army against her family and her town. Nebi Salah is a small community of some 600 people, most of them from the Tamimi clan. Ahed Tamimi has witnessed cousins being killed, and others wounded and maimed for life by Israeli soldiers. She grew up with her own father and other relatives spending years in prison. She grew up with the daily injustices of occupation. She is from a politically active family in a struggle for liberation against what is seen by them as a brutal enemy who invades their town, their land, their homes on a regular basis for years and who steals their land and water for building Israeli settlements that now surround them with road closures, checkpoints and daily harassment.
Ahed Tamimi spoke after her release about her desire to live a normal life and to live in peace. She does not support a two-state solution, but she does speak about peace. I have seen Israelis in her home and I know that Israelis who are against the occupation are welcome there. She is now an icon and she will continue to be part of the Palestinian struggle. I hope that positive interaction between herself, her family and Israelis who also want to live in peace will steer her anger and her energies into a positive struggle. My visit to her after her release was aimed at giving her that message.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.