- A harrowing account of the cruelty of the occupation experienced by one of Palestine’s most fearless families in resistance—the Tamimi family.
This January, 55 students and I from Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) traveled to the West Bank through Paltrek—a student-led trip which provides Columbia policy graduate students an opportunity to witness the reality Palestinians face under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The nine-day trip was student-funded and organized by SIPA’s Palestine Working Group. This article provides a harrowing account of the cruelty of the occupation by one of Palestine’s most fearless families in resistance—the Tamimi family — whose home we visited on our trip.
On January 10th, 2020, before the world came to a screeching halt just two months later, I found myself in the West Bank in the living room of the Tamimi family. Who are the Tamimis? A Palestinian family from the village of Nabi Saleh that became internationally known when 16-year-old activist Ahed Tamimi was imprisoned for eight months for famously slapping an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier. Since her arrest, Ahed has become a symbol of the Palestinian youth’s resistance against Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank. But even within her own family, she is not alone.
At the Tamimi’s home, our student group was warmly greeted by Manal Tamimi and her 13-year-old niece, Janna Jihad. Janna, Ahed Tamimi’s younger cousin, is often dubbed the “world’s youngest journalist.” Since the age of seven, Janna has been recording the daily atrocities IDF soldiers inflict on Palestinians and posting them on social media to give the world a firsthand look into the horrors of Israel’s occupation.
As we sipped the warm coffee the family had kindly made for us, Janna described the psychological fear her family endures at the hands of the IDF. She told us about the weekly Friday protests she and her family organize to directly confront the occupying forces. She described the multiple checkpoints her family encountered, often forced to reroute to alternate roads that take hours to reach a nearby destination. She told us how the soldiers raid Palestinian homes at odd hours of the night to detain young children as they had with Ahed. She showed us her videos of soldiers deploying gas bombs and of screaming children bleeding from the blasts. We learned her cousin Mohammed had been shot in the head and subsequently arrested; her other cousin Musab was killed at the age of 17. The Tamimi family was living in hell on Earth.
Only two days after visiting their home, we experienced a sliver of the psychological torment Janna and Ahed experience every day.
The leaders of our trip took us to Hebron, a deeply segregated city often called “the microcosm of the occupation.” As we entered into ‘H2’, the Israeli-controlled sector of the city, armed guards stopped us before allowing us to proceed, asking us point blank, “Are any of you Muslim?” Our group had several Muslim students, who heartbreakingly had to deny their own identity for our safety and their own. I immediately entered into a panicked state — What if the guards didn’t believe my Muslim peers? What if they decided on a whim to single out the brown students and take us away…or worse?
But the guards let us pass. Shortly after we met with a man from Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans who now speak out against their former service in the IDF. A handsome man, he maintained a stiff demeanor as he detailed how soldiers were trained to mentally distance themselves from the physical and psychological traumathey inflicted upon Palestinians. As captivated by his reflections as I was, I couldn’t shake off the threatening encounter with the guards just moments earlier (I wondered — how many Palestinians had this veteran once antagonized himself?) I crouched down low as he spoke before us, noticing the dozens of soldiers, men and women alike, strolling around almost tauntingly with their guns.
My fear was not entirely unfounded. We soon learned that Hebron was notorious for being a lawless place — a city in which violence against Palestinians by its growing settler population is not only met with impunity, for all intents and purposes, it is encouraged. Most settlers in Hebron relocated to the ancient city on ideological grounds. Believing it to be their God-given right to reclaim Israel as the Jewish homeland, a part of these settlers’ mission is to displace Arabs from the land.
In just one hour in Hebron, we witnessed a slice of this ‘divine’ mandate firsthand: A Palestinian child withheld by a soldier from following us. A settler brazenly carrying a gun strapped across his chest. A barren street named Al-Shuhada which Arabs were forbidden to enter. A net cast over a souk of Palestinian stores to capture the human waste occasionally thrown down by the settlers living above.
After a while I sobered up and exited my terrified state, realizing that as part of a group clearly hailing from the United States, Israel’s most powerful ally, we would be spared from their violence. Janna Jihad and Ahed Tamimi would not. In a moment’s notice, we could leave the horrors of Hebron and Nabi Saleh behind us. Janna Jihad and Ahed Tamimi could not. I resumed listening to the veteran. His raw account of the true nature of his service began to connect to the unthinkable reality of the Tamimi family.
That leads us back into their living room. As Janna’s videos of IDF terror played on, I looked around the room to observe the reactions of my peers. The collective mood was palpably dispirited and bleak. Most were pale, aghast in shock. Many were in tears. One particularly disturbed student, fighting back the tears rapidly streaming down his face, made an impassioned plea on how we must “never go back to normal” once we return to the States, himself vowing to never return to normal, never wanting to return to normal. Little did we know that just two months later, indeed we never wouldgo back to normal, but not the reasons for which my colleague had hoped.
This begs the question — how many of those horrified faces I saw that night at the Tamimi’s, even in the midst of this “new normal,” have indeed “returned to normal”? How many are now too inconvenienced by the absence of NYC nightlife to fret over Palestinian liberation? How many have since replaced the nightmarish memories of Hebron with daydreams of the next “exotic” location they will travel to once lockdown ends? At the very end of our evening with them, the Tamimi’s had one ask of us: to share their story. Seeing the exhaustion in their faces, it became apparent that they had told their story to countless Westerners before us. I wondered if they thought they were wasting their time.
The somber reality is while Americans have been quartered off from the world for seven months, the Tamimi’s and millions of Palestinian families like them have been quartered off from the world for 53 years and counting,since Israel began its occupation of the West Bank in 1967. As we now find ourselves longing to return to the days of normalcy, Palestinians have never had the privilege of experiencing anything close to normal. As we perspired in March over Clorox wipes and toilet paper shortages, Israel demolished a COVID-19 testing clinic in Hebron. As we boast about our “freedom” in our refusal to wear a mask or get a vaccine, Israel conditioned its delivery of ventilators to the Gaza Strip.
The bravery of Janna, Ahed, and countless other Palestinian children speaking truth to power to their occupiers is remarkable yet sobering. No child should have to spend their life fighting for their own freedom, nor should they be left to fight alone. I was heartened to meet many promising students on the trip. These students were able to connect Israel’s human rights atrocities to the United States’ complicity in supporting them, recognize America’s own settler-colonial roots, and draw parallels between the ethno-nationalist vision of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel with the ethno-nationalist vision of Narendra Modi’s India. It wasn’t farfetched to believe that these students, many of whom will soon go on to be policymakers, humanitarian aid workers, and journalists, could become critical in the fight for Palestine’s freedom.
It is imperative that we are a part of this fight. The Tamimis have faced only heightened violence since the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2018. As recently as August 22nd the IDF broke into the Tamimis’ home, released pepper spray, and arrested Hamada Bilal, yet another child in the Tamimi family. A disturbing video of the break-in was posted on Facebook by Janna the same day.
As I think of us weeping in the very same home I now watch being soullessly raided, I know that in life under occupation, the Tamimis don’t have the luxury to weep—they have no choice but to resist.
Aparna Priyadarshi is a development practitioner working in the field of rural development, currently based out of Philadelphia, PA. She recently graduated with her Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and works at a social enterprise assisting smallholder maize farmers in northern Nigeria. Outside work, Aparna is a freelance writer on issues of injustice. Her writings include topics such as white supremacy in the United States, Hindu nationalism in India, and Israeli occupation of Palestine.