Ramallah: A Palestinian teenager jailed by Israel for slapping and kicking Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank is to go free on Sunday after eight months behind bars.
Ahed Tamimi was arrested on December 19, days after she was recorded on video with her cousin Nour Tamimi in the yard of their home in Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, telling two soldiers to leave, then shoving, kicking and slapping them.
She was aged 16 at the time and turned 17 in prison.
She was refused bail throughout her detention and subsequent trial in an Israeli military court on charges including assault, stone-throwing, incitement to violence and making threats.
On March 21 the court agreed a plea bargain giving her an eight-month sentence including time already spent in custody.
The same court hearing freed Nour Tamimi immediately, when she accepted a plea deal.
Ahed comes from a family of prominent activists and has been involved in a series of previous incidents, with pictures of her confronting soldiers widely published.
But the December video went viral and turned her into a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestinians she is a hero, jailed for standing up to soldiers occupying her land and intruding upon her family home.
To many Israelis she personifies how Palestinians encourage their children to hate and how they try to manipulate the media.
This week an Italian artist daubed a 14-foot image of her face and curly reddish hair on the Israeli separation wall in the occupied West Bank.
On Sunday she is expected to step back into the spotlight at a scheduled press conference at her home after her release.
– ‘Terrorist to hero’ –
When the video was originally published, many Israelis saw it as a symbol of the restraint displayed by their army.
As Ahed and Nour pummel the soldiers the two cousins simultaneously film the scene on their phones, apparently seeking to provoke them.
The soldiers do not react, however, backing away instead.
Yet after the girls — and Ahed’s mother, who also recorded the incident — were arrested and then hit with a list of charges, there was criticism even within Israel that military prosecutors were overreacting.
Critics compared her eight-month sentence to that of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who served nine months in jail for shooting dead a prone Palestinian attacker.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas met with her family and hailed her courage.
With each court appearance, media attention grew and helped create a Palestinian icon.
“You cannot take a little terrorist girl and make her a hero, and this is what we did,” Oren Hazan, an Israeli MP from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, told AFP.
Yara Hawari, a Palestinian activist and friend of the Tamimi family, said the tough sentence helped build support.
“It was a symbolic image of a child confronting a heavily armed Israeli soldier at her home,” she told AFP.
“The fact that what she did got her so long in prison is also something that drew a lot of attention.”
– Wider cause –
The Tamimi case also highlighted other aspects of the Israeli military court system including its more than 99 percent conviction rate for Palestinians.
Omar Shakir, head of NGO Human Rights Watch in Israel, said her release on Sunday would be a moment to reflect on what he called the “endemic” ill-treatment of children in the Israeli legal system.
“Ahed Tamimi will soon be free, but hundreds of Palestinian children remain locked up with little attention on their cases,” he said.
Many Israelis, however, still believe Tamimi poses a serious risk, accepting a military prosecutor’s description of her as a threat to public security.
“The fact is that she is very dangerous,” Hazan said, arguing that a slap one day can turn into a shooting or stabbing attack in the future.
“Most Israelis will tell you that they want to see her in jail for 20 years,” he said.
How Tamimi will cope with her return to the public eye is unclear, but indications are she will be vocal.
Her father Bassem, who was not jailed in the incident, has been campaigning against Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank for decades.
“I don’t think any child can be totally ready to become a prominent symbol of the Palestinian struggle, but Ahed is a very strong child,” Hawari said.
“We have seen from the interrogation videos, from how she behaves in court, that she is incredibly confident and resilient. So I think she will take this in her stride.”