On Tuesday, December 19, the Israeli army arrested sixteen-year old Ahed Tamimi for slapping two Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers in the occupied West Bank, after a video of the encounter went viral. Ahed, a young, blonde girl from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, is just one of approximately 400 Palestinian children currently held in Israeli prisons. Still in custody, indicted and facing 12 charges, including assault, in a military court, Ahed awaits an almost certain conviction.
Although she is still a minor, Ahed may face a long prison sentence if the Israeli military court finds her guilty. The Israeli government has defended its harsh treatment of the young girl by claiming she is a danger to Israel’s national security. Ahed does, in fact, pose a threat to Israel, but not in the way the government insists. Rather, she threatens to undermine Israel’s public image. The narrative of a young, female Palestinian teenager standing up for her rights by slapping Israeli occupation soldiers does not fit Israel’s “hasbara,” or propaganda, which depicts the country as “the only democracy in the Middle East” defending itself against violent extremists and terrorists.
The Palestinian “Joan of Arc”
A feisty protester against the Israeli occupation since the age of ten, Ahed is already being called the “Joan of Arc of Palestine.” Both her age (Joan of Arc was seventeen when she went to battle and nineteen when she was put to trial) and her unfazed defiance in the face of Israeli military oppression parallel traits of the famous Maid of Orleans, who bravely resisted the Anglo-Burgundian occupation of France.
But Ahed is not Joan of Arc. She is her own person while also representing a frustrated generation of young Palestinians born under Israeli oppression. Israel’s military occupation of Palestine has systematically violated the basic human rights of these young people and their families. With no end to the occupation in sight, Palestinian teens are exasperated.
Hasbara and Ahed?
Hasbara is a crucial part of Israel’s public diplomacy and is used to “explain” (hasbara’s literal translation is “explanation”) why the international community should give its unconditional support to Israel. It includes initiatives like the Aliyah programs, which aim to convince young non-Israeli Jews to migrate to Israel and become Israeli citizens. Israeli tourism leaflets and maps are full of hasbara and are handed out to unassuming foreign tourists traveling through Israel, particularly Christian Zionist evangelicals visiting the Holy Land.
According to the hasbara narrative, Israel was established on empty land through some sort of divine manifest destiny. According to hasbara, Palestinians, who are considered a ‘demographic threat’ to the so-called Jewish State, belong to Jordan. Hasbara actively conceals the fact that the State of Israel was established by massacring indigenous populations and destroying their towns, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and villages. By removing evidence of these events, hasbara denies the forced removal of Palestinian and Syrian people from their homes. According to the hasbara narrative, there was no Nakba.
Hasbara is used to justify the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Hasbara disregards and, indeed, is threatened by international law on the occupation of Palestine. This propaganda machine regularly refers to the occupied West Bank by its ancient biblical name, “Judea and Samaria,” even though these areas, which are geographically outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders, are internationally recognized as Palestinian territory. Hasbara promotes the annexation of Area C—which was established under the 1995 Oslo II Accord and makes up 60 percent of the West Bank. According to hasbara claims, the Cave of the Patriarchs in the Old City of Hebron, a West Bank Palestinian city, is Israeli property, because the biblical prophet Abraham purchased it and buried his family members there. UNESCO recently designated the Old City of Hebron a Palestinian world heritage site, angering Israeli hasbarists. According to hasbara, Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, a view supported by Donald Trump and all U.S. presidents before him. Yet, the overwhelming majority of UN member states reject unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state.
Hasbara is ultimately about justifying territorial control over Palestinian land. In the world of hasbara theater, Palestine does not exist and neither do defiant Palestinian teenagers like Ahed. Israel paints its enemies as a mob of angry, bearded Islamist extremists threatening to destroy Israel and ultimately the entire Western world. Ahed, however, does not fit this orientalist image. She is unarmed, does not wear a hijab, has blond hair, and wears jeans and peace sign T-shirts. She has a feisty charisma with broad appeal. Her appearance and acts of defiance may even give pause to Israeli teenagers preparing to join the IDF. Ahed, who dresses and looks like them, is unlikely to fit their image of the enemy living on the other side of Israel’s annexation wall.
To protect their narrative, some hasbarists have claimed Ahed looks “too western” to really be Palestinian. Her arrest, however, seems to have produced the opposite effect. Already, Ahed has become an iconic symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. Both she and Palestine, which has been recognized as a sovereign state by 136 countries, are real and thoroughly Palestinian.
Ahed Tamimi is not going to destroy Israel. But whenever she displays a peace sign and defiantly raises her fists against the Israeli occupation, she does help destroy the fabricated image of Israel that hasbara is so desperately trying to propagate.