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, one week before 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.