Ahed Tamimi's face has launched a million clicks, so to speak.
The Palestinian teenager spent eight months in prison for berating two armed Israeli soldiers after her cousin was shot in the head. The story went viral on social media. Tamimi, who was released last week, became a talking point for discussion across all platforms, and most recently because of a picture.
A day before her release, two Italian street artists, Jorit Agoch and Salvatore De Luise, were arrested in Bethlehem on charges of vandalism for painting a huge mural of Tamimi’s face on Israel’s illegal separation wall. The pair had their visas revoked, were given 72 hours to leave the country or face deportation and were issued with a ten-year ban from entering Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Why single out these artists?
Given the extraordinary layers of street art and graffiti on the separation wall in Bethlehem in particular, much of it created in broad daylight, beneath, on and around the many manned watchtowers along the wall's route deep into the city, one has to ask why these artists were singled out and charged with "vandalism". This is, after all, a separation wall that was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and which is responsible for destroying Palestinian communities, families and livelihoods, according to UN agencies documenting its effects. While Agoch has not replied to emails for comment, and the Israeli authorities are sticking to the "vandalism" charge, one has to assume that the arrest over the artwork is simply down to its subject matter: an attempt by the Israelis to curtail further exposure of what Tamimi has come to represent today – a symbol of Palestinian resistance and defiance.
Dareen Tatour: the power of words
Last week, an Israeli court sentenced a poet, Dareen Tatour – a Palestinian citizen of Israel – to five months in prison for "inciting violence" for posting her poem, Resist, My People, Resist Them on social media in October 2015. She was detained for three months and put under house arrest for six months in January 2016. She was banned from using her mobile phone and the internet, and from publishing poetry or texts in the media, according to news reports.
Her lawyer, Gaby Lasky, who also represented Tamimi, was quoted as saying: “The verdict violates the right of speech and freedom of expression. It is an infringement on cultural rights of the Palestinian minority inside Israel. It would lead to self-censorship and self-criminalisation of poetry.” This suggests that the pen – along with cameras, social media and spray cans – are potentially mightier than the sword as far as human rights campaigners and those managing Israel’s public relations are concerned.
The ban against photographing the IDF
A controversial new bill, “Prohibition against photographing and documenting IDF [Israeli Defence Force] Soldiers,” was introduced to the Israeli parliament in spring. The bill, tabled by Robert Ilatov, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, says: “Anyone who filmed, photographed, and/or recorded soldiers in the course of their duties, with the intention of undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and residents of Israel, shall be liable to five years imprisonment. Anyone intending to harm state security will be sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.”
"We are concerned but not surprised," Roy Yellin, a spokesperson for B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, tells The National. "Our focus is not what happens to Israeli society, but rather the human rights of Palestinians. This new legislation first and foremost targets Palestinians, who will remain more exposed and more vulnerable. For over 50 years Israel has been denying basic human rights to millions of people – it is naive to believe that such a regime will maintain liberal norms for its own citizens."
In Israel, these cases seem to show that it’s a case of “incitement” versus “entitlement”, depending on who you are and whose rights and interests you represent.
Sahar Francis, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and director of Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights NGO, spoke to The National at the time of Ahed Tamimi's trial earlier this year: "It's a perfect case of how the Israelis exaggerate in drafting the charge sheet to make it look like it's a very dangerous or very serious case, where it could be a very simple activity. If Ahed shares a post on Facebook, this would be considered 'incitement' – no one asks if she really caused hundreds or thousands of people to go out on the streets after her post. It's enough for the court to claim that her post constituted incitement."
Francis says that Israeli courts have yet to release details of the exact numbers, but says “there is definitely a sharp increase in the number of Palestinians arrested by Israeli authorities for incitement” ranging from social media activities to journalism.
Yellin says that “according to Israeli media, the police are enforcing anti-incitement action” in a “discriminatory fashion” between Palestinians and Israelis. “It is clear that hundreds of hate and incitement posts written in Hebrew [by Israeli Jews] are not investigated”, and what’s even less likely is anyone “getting charged”, he says. “A quick read through the B’Tselem Facebook page will give dozens of examples. But also more high-profile calls from rabbis and right-wing leaders are not addressed [by the police or legal system in Israel].”
For Palestinians and anyone working to support Palestinian human rights, the current climate is very worrying. Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who was caught on camera shooting dead a severely wounded Palestinian assailant in April 2016, was given an 18-month sentence for manslaughter, and had it reduced to 14 months by Israel’s military chief of staff last autumn. Eventually, Azaria served only nine months in prison. The contrast between his sentence and that of Tamimi’s for their respective convictions has been strongly criticised by many human rights campaigners.
When asked about these two cases, Yellin says: “We prefer not to make comments about prison sentences as the facts and numbers talk volumes without any need for us to reiterate anything.”
Regardless of the threats and convictions they’ve faced, Tamimi and Tatour have vowed to continue their struggle for Palestinian national aspirations and human rights, knowing that their stories have caught the attention and support of people around the world. For them, exposing the truth is not “incitement”, but an obligation.
"They [Israelis] are afraid of the truth," said Tamimi after her release. "If they were not wrong, they would not be afraid of the truth. The truth scares them. And I managed to deliver this truth to the world. And of course, they're afraid how far I reached. They always fear the truth, they are the occupier, and we are under occupation."