Ahed Tamimi rose to prominence in 2017 after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral, bringing renewed attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – especially Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation.
At the time of the confrontation, the 16-year-old girl was indignant over news that an Israeli soldier had shot her younger cousin Mohammad in the head with a rubber-coated bullet, seriously wounding him. It wasn’t the first time Tamimi stood up to an armed soldier, nor was it the first time such an encounter had been captured on film.
But the image of a fearless teen, with curly blonde hair and pink shirt, slapping a heavily armed soldier sparked interest and debate across the world.
Palestinians hailed Tamimi as a hero. Israelis called her everything from a troublemaker to a terrorist. Some in the international community positioned her as the face of a new generation taking a stand against militarism and colonialism. For Tamimi, however, it was the culmination of a lifetime of fear, anxiety and trauma.
Ultimately, Israeli authorities arrested and tried Tamimi in Israeli military court, sentencing her to eight months in prison on four charges of “criminal acts where she disrupted an IDF soldier and carried out incitement.”
At sentencing, Tamimi declared: “No justice under occupation, and this court is illegal.”
Tamimi writes about the moment, and the trauma that followed, in her newly published memoir, “They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom.”
The book, co-authored by award-winning Al Jazeera journalist Dena Takruri, is the coming-of-age story of a girl whose life has been marked by violence and injustice at nearly every turn, and yet still believes it’s possible to forge a new, peaceful and just reality for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
CNN spoke with Tamimi and Takruri about life under Israeli occupation, why it’s important for Palestinians to tell their own stories, and the impact they hope this book will have on the decades-old conflict.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your arrest propelled you to the forefront of Palestinian activism, made you a national hero and even a global icon for popular resistance. Were you aware that any of this was happening while you were in prison? And how did you cope with the onslaught of attention after you were released?
Tamimi: In prison, you’re pretty much cut off from the world. I was able to occasionally listen to the radio and tune into a couple of news channels on the television we had, which didn’t always work, so I was aware that I had received some coverage. But I had no idea the extent to which people had rallied around me and how big my story had become.
I was shocked by the attention I was receiving once I was released. And it wasn’t easy to deal with. It was very difficult to be freshly out of prison and have all that attention and people all over the world focusing on me.
There were many times where I felt exhausted and I didn’t want to keep talking. But I knew I had a duty to take advantage of the platform I had to speak on behalf of the other Palestinian political prisoners and our cause.
Dena, in the past you’ve referred to Ahed as a “once in a generation voice.” What did you mean by that? Do you see her in the same vein as other young, popular activists?
Takruri: I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my career as a journalist, but I can count only a few times that I felt electrified by the interview. Ahed’s was one of them.
Ahed has a unique gift that allows her to powerfully articulate the collective aspirations, frustrations and rightful demands of not just her generation of young Palestinians, but rather the entire Palestinian people. She does so in a way that’s principled, unapologetic and empowering. It’s a breath of fresh air and it’s moving. I certainly see her in the same vein as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg.
How does that make you feel Ahed? Do you see yourself as part of a larger, perhaps even global, youth movement that’s challenging the status quo? Where does the Palestinian issue fall in that movement?
Tamimi: It makes me happy to hear that. If Dena sees me this way, then other people probably do as well. It serves as a reminder to me that I have a huge responsibility that I have to keep working towards. I hope that I’m doing something right to fulfill my obligations.
For me, all human rights causes are one. There is overlap, and our agendas go hand in hand. In advocating for the Palestinian cause, you’re also advocating for women’s rights, because Palestinian women suffer so much under Israeli military occupation. Through the Palestinian cause, you’re defending other causes too because it’s not simply about the occupation. Occupation causes oppression towards women, towards children, towards the environment, etc.
The Palestinian struggle is indeed part of a larger global movement for freedom. I see it as my place to confront and fight oppression everywhere. Our responsibility as humans is to fight injustice and to stand with the oppressed.
At 21 years old, you have so much life ahead of you. People might question why you’re publishing a memoir now, and even wonder what someone so young has to offer.
Tamimi: This book had to be written now because as a Palestinian living under occupation, tomorrow is not guaranteed for me. I need to use my voice and talk about what my people are going through every day that I am alive. We could be killed or injured at any moment under occupation.
I wanted to put something out there in the world in my name that talks about the Palestinian cause and educates people in a way that will live on long after I die.
You recount a lot of painful moments in this book – including when Israeli soldiers killed your uncle and shot your cousin. What was the most difficult memory to revisit and share with readers?
Tamimi: Every moment I shared was hard. Every traumatic moment I lived felt more difficult than the one before it. Each one is still planted inside of me today. In suffering, you can’t really compare. It happens and affects you for your whole life.
I was also surprised to read a lot of beautiful, lighthearted moments in this book, such as the jokes and tricks you played with other young Palestinian girls who were imprisoned with you. Why was it important to you to include those moments?
Tamimi: In Palestine, we really believe that we need to create life out of death. Prison, for us, is a type of death sentence. If we didn’t try to create life out of the most basic things that were at our disposal, we would die internally. We’d deteriorate psychologically. So it was important to live every detail. To feel every feeling. We would derive joy from even the simplest things despite all our hardships.
We couldn’t just slip into a defeated mental state, because that’s what our captors wanted. They imprisoned us so that they could see us defeated and dying from within. So we were deliberate about doing things like sitting together and telling jokes. Spending time laughing. Showing our jailers that despite their goals of crushing our ambitions and dreams, we’re still alive and laughing persistently.
Dena, as a journalist you’ve covered a range of important issues across the world, from refugee crises to climate change. Why did you choose to write your first book on the Palestinian issue? And why from the perspective of Ahed?
Takruri: I became a journalist because of my background as a Palestinian-American and the experiences throughout my life visiting my family in the West Bank and living under Israeli military occupation. Palestine is the issue that made me understand injustice on an intimate level and devote my career to amplifying the voices and stories of the marginalized and oppressed. So in a lot of ways, this was a natural first book for me to write.
With all of the headlines and debates about Palestine and Israel, it’s easy to forget that there are millions of Palestinian children, like Ahed, who are bearing the brunt of Israeli apartheid and its violent occupation. It’s important to understand what’s happening from the perspective of a child, and that is what Ahed offers the world so poignantly and powerfully.
It strikes me as unique to see a book about Palestine written by Palestinians, especially in the West where a lot of popular books on the conflict are written by non-Palestinians. How important is it for Palestinians to tell their own stories?
Takruri: Storytelling is an inherently powerful act, especially when people from marginalized backgrounds are able to own their narratives and present them to the world. Palestinians are unfortunately all too accustomed to being spoken for or about, depicted as terrorists, and having their rights, experiences, and grievances be erased or overlooked to privilege Israel’s narrative of “security.”
But this is slowly changing. There’s been a shift in the last few years in how many people perceive Palestinians. Words like apartheid, colonialism and occupation are becoming more mainstream, and that’s because more people have been willing to listen to Palestinians tell their own stories. A Netflix show like “Mo,” which showcases a Palestinian immigrant and refugee experience in the US, would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, and now we’ve seen it trend.
I hope this book will be a modest contribution towards that shift. I’m proud that it’s not only coauthored by two Palestinian women, but that we also made sure to have the book cover be illustrated by a young Palestinian-American artist, Nada Esmaeel.
Ahed, this book primarily focuses on your experience, as a Palestinian girl living under Israeli occupation. But towards the end, you directly address readers, urging them to stand with you for justice. In addition to being a memoir, is this book also a call to action?
Tamimi: Yes. I am telling my story in the hopes that anyone who reads it will be able to put themselves in my shoes. I want readers to ask themselves: “If this was my experience, how would I want other people to help?” Then go do that.
Perhaps an artist that draws can think of a way to help using his talents. Or a singer. Or a journalist. Everyone can use their skills. Our struggle needs to be shared and united, and we need to work together to have our voices and our message heard around the world.
What do you hope that non-Palestinian readers – especially those focused on social and political issues that aren’t related to Palestine – take away from this book? Will they find it relatable to other struggles?
Tamimi: All human rights issues are one. I want people to feel inspired and to know that they can channel all the suffering they’ve endured into empowerment. And to use that to fight injustice
Takruri: There are so many amazing activists out there doing incredible work on a range of issues from gender and racial equality to anti-war and climate change. But for many of them, there’s a fear factor when it comes to speaking out on Palestine. My hope is that they’re able to see very clearly that the efforts they’re putting towards their respective causes are consistent and aligned with the movement for justice in Palestine because the Palestinian people are simply demanding the most basic human rights.
Is Gen Z, Ahed’s generation, the one that will finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Tamimi: I can’t guarantee if my generation will resolve it. But I have a lot of hope that my generation will create change. Unlike the previous generation, we don’t have a lot of faith in institutions of power, like political parties, the United Nations or other international organizations – so we’re not going to wait for them to act.
My generation doesn’t pledge loyalty to a specific political party. Our only sense of belonging is to Palestine and our Palestinian identity. That’s important and that’s what distinguishes us. We aren’t fettered by the various political parties and their agendas. This reality might create change for the Palestinian cause.
Takruri: One thing you have to keep in mind about this generation is that all they’ve known their entire lives are a violent occupation, checkpoints, a separation wall, no freedom of movement, no rights and a deeply entrenched system of aparthed imposed by Israel.
How could this life of constantly fearing for your safety and having no freedom or rights be tolerable to anyone? It’s not sustainable and I think that this young generation will play a pivotal role in changing the status quo.
Ahed, while in Israeli prison, you developed a deep interest in international human rights law, thanks to informal classes taught by older political prisoners. Now you’re in college studying law. What will you do with your degree after graduation?
Tamimi: I don’t just want to stop at my BA degree, which I’m currently pursuing. I want to continue on and get an MA and PhD. And until I achieve that, wherever there’s a march I’ll be there, and wherever there are Israeli soldiers targeting Palestinian protesters, I’ll also be there.
But at the same time, I also want to confront everyone who speaks in the name of international law and humanity but in reality is doing nothing for humanity. I want to fight those who are exploiting international law, which is supposed to achieve peace around the world, but is being exploited for their interests and power. I want to fight them because they are the reason behind the presence of occupation on my land to this day.
In 40 years, you’ll be 61. If you’re asked to update your memoir – what will it include?
Tamimi: Honestly, if I’m 61 and the occupation is still ongoing I’ll be cursing the entire world!
How can anyone have faith in the world or in peace or in rights or law if there’s a generation after me living this same life? If there’s a girl born after me that will be forced to write about all her suffering in a book to show the world what’s happening to Palestinians?
I hope the occupation is long over by the time I’m 61. I hope that if I write anything at 61 it will be how I felt when Palestine was finally liberated.