OFER, West Bank — Slouching in her chair and mouthing messages to her friends and family from under a cascade of strawberry-blond curls, Ahed Tamimi in many ways appears to be an everyday teenager.
But the tussle of television cameras and photographers that crowded in for a shot of her in the dock of a small Israeli military court in Ofer for a bail hearing last month was a reminder that she is far from it.
Ahed, who recently turned 17, was arrested after a video of her slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers who had entered her front yard went viral last year. On Tuesday, after nearly two months in detention, she went on trial on 12 charges, including assault of a soldier and incitement.
Although no one was seriously hurt, the Israeli military is keen to make an example of her to deter other young Palestinians from fighting back against the Israeli occupation, her lawyer says. However, a lengthy public trial looked set to raise her profile and highlight human rights concerns surrounding the detention of minors in Israel.
In what rights groups and her lawyer said they suspected was a deliberate effort to try to prevent that, the military judge ejected all journalists and observers from the first trial hearing on Tuesday.
The judge ruled that it was in Ahed’s interests, even though her lawyer argued that it was not.
“The court decided to close doors because they said they don’t think it’s good for Ahed,” said defense lawyer Gaby Lasky. “I think the decision of the court is because the court decided what is good for the court. They understand that people outside Ofer military court are interested in Ahed’s case. So the way to keep it out of everybody’s eyes is to close the doors.”
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.
Jim Fitzpatrick, an Irish artist famed for his iconic two-toned painting of Che Guevara, painted her as Wonder Woman. She has been compared to Rosa Parks and Joan of Arc. An Israeli musician even likened her to Anne Frank.
Her family says letters and messages of support have flooded in from across the region and the world.
Bassem Tamimi, her father, says his daughter’s arrest came just when the Palestinians needed a new source of inspiration.
“It’s the moment of Trump, the moment that nobody knows what to do,” he said. “The people in the Arab countries and the Palestinians are bored of seeing a victim all the time. Now they see a small child slapping the face of the occupation.”
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a White House they see as favoring Israel more than ever, has fueled frustration among Palestinians. Regular clashes have broken out in the West Bank between demonstrators and Israeli forces, which, although not large after 50 years of occupation, have been persistent.
But also a factor in her international fame, her father says, is Ahed’s blond hair and blue eyes.
“They don’t like to see a white girl as a victim,” he said. “They see their children; they see themselves.”
For some, it appeared too convenient to be true. Ahed has been a regular in Internet videos for years. Demonstrations take place in her village of Nabi Saleh, in the occupied West Bank, every week, with residents priding themselves on their peaceful resistance, although they regularly descend into stone throwing and clashes. The villagers accuse Israel of stealing their land and spring for a nearby settlement.
Ahed grabbed media attention at age 11, when she shouted at Israeli soldiers after they detained her brother, raising her fist.
Michael Oren, an Israeli deputy minister and former ambassador to the United States, said that with the family rising in prominence, a probe was launched by
a parliamentary subcommittee three years ago, to see whether they were real or actors picked for their Western looks. It’s a phenomenon he describes as “Pallywood.”
“Pallywood can be a very serious threat to us,” he said. “We looked at the Tamimis. Among the questions were: Are all these children Tamimis? Are they being directed?”
He said the findings were inconclusive. He says that if children are being sent out by their parents to face off against Israeli soldiers, then it amounts to “child abuse.” He says if the trial raises her profile, it’s a price that needs to be paid. “I think there is a cost involved, but there is always a cost,” Oren said.
While Palestinians saw the video as a child standing up to her occupiers, many Israelis saw Ahed as a provocateur attempting to provoke a reaction — which the soldiers did not give. Those on the left lauded the soldiers’ restraint, but right-wingers called for action. Ahed was arrested in an overnight raid on her West Bank home on Dec. 19, with the Israeli military releasing video of her being led out of her house in handcuffs.
In his home in Nabi Saleh, Bassem Tamimi said children are an important part of the Palestinian struggle.
“I’d like it if there was no occupation and let her to go and learn dance or ballet,” he said. “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.”
He began organizing regular protests in the village in 2009. Above the television sits a portrait of Ahed’s uncle, who Bassem says was shot during a demonstration in 2012. Her 28-year-old cousin died after being hit by a tear-gas canister a year earlier, he says. The latest in the extended family to die was a 17-year-old distant cousin, who was the first Palestinian to die in clashes with Israeli forces this year.
“She was born into an environment of resistance,” he said of Ahed.
Marah Tamimi, 17, counts Ahed among her closest friends. She says her cousin would have liked to have been a soccer player, but because of the occupation they both plan to study law. They are among a generation of media-savvy young Palestinian activists who hope they can foster change.
“My generation is stronger,” she said, adding that they realize the power of a camera.
But although Ahed’s case may have drawn attention, it comes at a time of flagging support for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. Regional protests following Trump’s Jerusalem decision lacked zeal.
Meanwhile, Israel has clamped down on access for pro-Palestinian activists. At a birthday party held for Ahed while she was in prison, only a smattering of international activists were present as candles spelling out her name were lit in tear-gas casings.
Even though the hearing will now be held in secret, unless her lawyer successfully manages to petition for it to be opened, rights groups say they hope the trial will shed light on Israel’s treatment of minors.
Ahed’s lawyer accuses the military of breaking the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child during her nighttime arrest and interrogation, during which she says Ahed was threatened. Her trial, like those for all Palestinians in the West Bank but not Israeli settlers, is being held in a military court. She was denied bail at her hearing last month, with the prosecution arguing that she was dangerous and posed a risk of absconding.
“The Israeli military supposes by arresting Ahed Tamimi they can silence their activism,” said Fadi Quran, a senior campaigner with the activist group Avaaz. “But although painful, it’s definitely put a spotlight on Palestinian children in detention.”
There were 352 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons as security detainees at the end of last year, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Although many may be detained for serious offenses, the group says the conviction rate of around 99 percent in the military courts is concerning.
Ahed’s charges date back almost two years, to when she was 15. Earlier that day another relative, 17-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, had been shot in the head by a rubber bullet. The incident left him in a coma, his family said, and he had part of his skull removed. Ahed’s family says that it was shortly after this that the soldiers entered their yard. Ahed shouted at them to leave, later kicking and hitting. Her 20-year-old cousin Nour Tamimi and mother, who were also in the video, were both later arrested and are also facing charges.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said Nour and Ahed should finish their lives in prison. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, defended the then-16-year-old’s arrest in the middle of the night.
“Whoever goes wild during the day, will be arrested at night,” Lieberman said, describing it as an “important message.”
Lasky, Ahed’s lawyer, said Palestinians will be getting another message. “They can see in the video a child pushing heavily armed soldiers away from her house,” she said. “It’s powerful.”
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Nabi Saleh contributed to this report.