Driving into the village of Nabi Saleh, north of Ramallah in the West Bank, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have already closed the main gate of entrance. It’s nearly dark and a handful of the village’s youth are still clashing with soldiers in the field beyond the gate. As the soldiers turn their back to the remaining open road leading to the center of the village, the cars of people wanting to return home hurry through, attempting to avoid questioning or having to show their ID to the Israeli officers. It’s routine, it’s normal for them to go through this.
The 31st of January is Ahed Tamimi’s birthday. She is turning 17. Some of the cars passing through the last open gate to Nabi Saleh are traveling to her house to join her party, though Ahed herself won’t be in attendance. She remains in Ofer prison after being arrested on December 19 in a pre-dawn raid on her family home. The story of Ahed is well known, after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral, though left without much context of her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed being shot in the face by a soldier only days before.
Ahed has become a global symbol of Palestinian resistance, which makes her birthday an obvious choice for people not only in Palestine, but globally to come together in solidarity of Palestinian political prisoners. While Ahed’s birthday celebrations in Nabi Saleh were organised by her father Bassem and the Popular Struggle Organisation Committee, other events were independently organised as far as England, Scotland and Canada, according to Facebook. Youth Against Settlements, a Palestinian grassroots movement also organised a party on the eve of Ahed’s birthday at their center in Hebron, in the south of the West Bank.
Arriving at Ahed’s house, family and friends are running around finishing last minute preparations. At the entrance, some of the children are positioning empty tear gas canisters – a present from the IDF – to read the words ‘Free Ahed.’ Photos and paintings of female political prisoners laid out in the shape of a peace sign is lit up by candles in the courtyard. Palestinian flags line the house and garden. It is a true birthday celebration, though it appears to be more catering to press to continue to spread the message Ahed has fought for since she was a young girl. The true emotion of the family isn’t found in these planned demonstrations of resistance. The parents of children in jail have to continue to put on a brave face to provide strength for their other children and in the name of resistance.
Ahed’s father, Bassem Tamimi continues to busy himself, though posters of Ahed around the house constantly remind him his only daughter is in jail. “To celebrate a birthday, for your soul, your daughter, with your family and wife while your daughter is in prison, it breaks or kills or destroys the idea of celebrating the birthday,” Bassem told Mondoweiss, while holding back tears. “Parents [organise a] birthday party to bring pleasure to the face of their children. Now we celebrate the birthday of Ahed, without her, just to say to the [Israeli] occupation that if you jail Ahed, you can’t put the idea that she represents in the prison.”
It was announced Palestinian TV would be filming at the birthday celebration, so the event would reach Ahed and other prisoners, in order to show people continue to support them. For some, this broadcast will never reach them. Mohammad and Osama Tamimi, also from Nabi Saleh, are prime examples of this, though little media coverage has been given to them. Sons of prominent activists, Manal and Bilal Tamimi, Mohammad, just 18 years old and Osama, 22, have been in solitary confinement since their arrest. These, among so many other political prisoners are the stories Ahed’s well-known arrest needs to continue to shine light on.
By the night of Ahed’s birthday, Mohammad had spent 21 days in Baitah-Tekva investigation center, known to be the worst interrogation center of all occupation prisons. Just one week after his mother Manal had been released from prison, more than 15 IDF soldiers came to their house at 3 am to find him. “We didn’t know anything about him for eight days, when the lawyer was able to visit him,” Bilal Tamimi told Mondoweiss. The family was told he was taken to Baitah-Tekva and interrogated by the Israeli intelligence, Shabak. From this time, they realised he was in a very difficult situation. “Nearly for 20 days he was isolated in a cell, always with light on so he can’t know if it’s night or day. He was interrogated many times during this period,” Bilal explained.
Ten days after the Israelis took Mohammad, the IDF arrested Osama on his way home from work. Failing to notify the family, they had no idea where he had disappeared. “That was very difficult for us, we tried to call him, most of the time his phone was ringing but no answer. We asked many of his friends in Ramallah, at his work. Most of them said they saw him until the afternoon and then they didn’t know anything about him,” Bilal said. Within Baitah-Tekva, both Mohammad and Osama have been subject to interrogation sessions of 12 consecutive hours, deprivation of sleep and other sensory deprivation as well as threats against the lives of their families.
One of the initial forces of resistance in Nabi Saleh, their mother Manal has been arrested three times and understands life behind bars well. “But I didn’t care a lot because this is my decision and I knew it was a risky one so I might have to pay a price for it,” Manal told Mondoweiss. “But when they arrested Mohammad… and I knew he was in Baitah-Tekva, it was maybe the worst moment I ever felt,” Manal expressed. “I know how they try to break the prisoners mentally.”
When Osama went missing, Manal and Bilal spent the whole night searching for him. “All the time the worst ideas come to mind, maybe he was attacked, maybe the settlers kidnapped him. The whole night I was awake, there was no one to call. That was the worst night I ever lived,” Manal said, adding a reminder she had been through a lot in her life. According to law, the soldiers are required to tell the family of the prisoners when they arrest them. The following day, Manal and Bilal were notified by their lawyer that Osama was also being held in isolation in Baitah-Tekva.
Manal had never felt so helpless. “As a mother it’s not that I regret the resistance, but I was blaming myself that I couldn’t save my children from suffering, I couldn’t protect them.” Manal and Bilal were unable to see Mohammad for 19 days due to ‘security reasons.’ “I couldn’t sleep… I kept thinking is he cold, is he hungry, are they interrogating him now, are they torturing him now,” Manal said through a strong façade. Their lawyer was able to submit an appeal to end the interrogation and for Mohammad to be sent to Ofer prison so Manal and Bilal could see him. “They brought him for ten minutes. He was so tired, he lost a lot of weight, I barely could recognise him. He was the only person in the court, but if there were other prisoners I wouldn’t recognise this person was my son, he was completely someone else. He looked very sick, very tired and his face had turned to yellow.”
It was a painful moment for Manal seeing her son in such a bad way. “He was totally lost, when I asked him a question he answered with something that was totally unrelated. I tried to speak with him but all the time, it was like when someone is high or has taken lots of drugs, just lost,” Manal said. The lawyer tried to explain to Manal the interrogators leave the light on day and night, so Mohammad lost his sense of time. “When he looked at me it was like I was a total stranger. He began to look at the ground. I was like, what’s going on? He’s supposed to miss us,” Manal recalled. “They’re trying to break him. To traumatize him for the rest of his life, so when he’s released he won’t be able to go back to his normal life.” To this day, Manal and Bilal have still not seen Osama.
For now there are no charges against Mohammad and Osama, they are interrogating them on the basis of past accusations of throwing stones. This is the form of collective punishment the village of Nabi Saleh has undergone since starting weekly protests nine years ago. “The Israeli’s believe this is a virus of non violent resistance that needs to be killed in Nabi Saleh so it doesn’t spread. Now they’re trying to punish [us] through [our] children,” Manal said.
When asked if there is a breaking point for Nabi Saleh’s resistance Manal believes there isn’t. “Already we are losing everything,” she said, referring to their lands and freedom. “We need to keep resisting. It should be a grassroots non-violent resistance across the whole of the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, ‘48 areas and internationally. A global resistance against genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid,” she said hopefully. “Alone we can’t do anything. It’s like when you want to clap, you need your two hands. Palestinian and internationals need to fight together and resist.”