As evening turned to night in New York on January 30, Ahed Tamimi’s seventeenth birthday had already reached its early morning hours in Israel. She, along with a monthly average of 300 fellow child prisoners, entered her late teens isolated behind bars. But she did not spend the day alone.
At the height of rush hour, more than sixty supporters of the Palestinian teenager and the larger struggle for Palestinian liberation that she represents gathered beneath the Amtrak arrivals and departures screen at Penn Station to celebrate her life and demand the 17-year-old’s release.
Tamimi spent her birthday detained at Israel’s HaSharon prison after Israeli soldiers arrested her on December 15 in retribution for slapping one of their own.
Hardened commuters and tourists alike stopped to witness the rally in solidarity with Ahed, her steadfast eyes gazing back from the many signs and posters adorned with her portrait. Speakers included representatives of Palestine solidarity networks like New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as left political parties like the International League of Peoples’ Struggle. Thirty-one organizations endorsed the mobilization in total.
Tuesday’s was the second major support action for Tamimi to take place inside a major commuter hub in New York — the first at Grand Central Station in early January.
With support for Palestinian liberation growing among the more mainstream in tangent with the pro-Israel consensus’ decline, Tamimi’s viral arrest and detainment has united many disparate organizations, bringing protests to larger venues.
“In Northeastern cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially during the cold, dark winter months, transit hubs such as Grand Central, Union Station and Penn Station have been ideal places to inform thousands about Ahed’s imprisonment,” Joe Catron, co-organizer of the rally and U.S. coordinator at Samidoun told Mondoweiss after the action.
“The campaign to free her has united supporters of Palestine in a way I’ve never seen, bringing literally every organization together in a common cause.”
Creating a sea of monotonous-colored uniforms, NYPD officers, New York state troopers, military soldiers and even Amtrak security formed a wall between the large rally and the few counter-protesters, mostly members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the JDL an extremist right-wing hate group.
Zachariah Barghouti, of the New York chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement and Researching the American-Israeli Alliance (RAIA), implored the crowd to research their local police departments to find out if they participate on trips to Israel to train with IDF soldiers.
“In every major city [the U.S. is] sending police officers to Israel to learn from people who are putting Ahed in jail. These are people holding up a model of how they treat Ahed, how they treat other Palestinians, as the model that the United States should follow,” Barghouti told me afterwards.
Barghouti noted that Israel’s distinction as the only country in the world to systematically imprison children should preclude U.S. authorities from any exchange in tactics. Instead, “we’re sending our police officers to actually learn from it.”
Responding to a relatively harmless means of resistance such as Ahed’s slap with arrest and potentially a long prison sentence is something that most inherently understand as unjust.
And collaboration between U.S. police forces and the IDF is particularly problematic according to Barghouti because they teach cops the Israeli narrative — a Birthright with heavier arms.
“Israel is an expert at oppressing people, it’s not an expert at defense,” Barghouti said, emphasizing that the occupation is a military occupation. “When you have police going to train with the military, the militarization of the police is obvious.”
The international movement for Palestine was ignited by Tamimi’s arrest and her birthday / international day of action really brought the movement together on a large scale.
Twitter mentioned Ahed Tamimi an average of once per minute in the 24 hours between January 30 and 31.
In the U.S., actions took place at the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago; Union Station in Washington, D.C.; outside the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles; and many other major cities.
Countless people around the world acted in solidarity with Ahed and all Palestinian political prisoners. Cities in Italy, the United Kingdom, Scotland, South Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Portugal, Uruguay, France, Greece, Germany, New Zealand and more, all heeded the call.
In addition to protests, supporters mounted campaigns to pressure their lawmakers or write letters to Tamimi in prison.
At Berkeley Law School, Students for Justice in Palestine got around 60 people to write letters to Ahed in the course of just two hours.
“Students were shocked that Ahed and hundreds of other Palestinian children are arrested in their homes in the middle of the night, transferred to interrogation centers without access to food, water, or toilets, and then interrogated without an attorney,” said Candace Graff of Berkeley Law School’s Students for Justice in Palestine. “They were outraged at the 99% conviction rate and the lack of due process for Palestinian children.”
Even high schoolers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, a number of them Jewish, took to the streets in protest or wrote letters of solidarity and support.
Speaking at the Penn Station rally, David Letwin of Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, told the story of when British troops fired on unarmed Irish civilians, killing 14 people in a day that has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.
Afterwards, amid attempts by the British government to cover up the massacre, an Irish MP named Bernadette Devlin famously slapped the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the floor of Parliament after he claimed that British troops fired in self defense.
In a mic check echo, Letwin told the crowd that when asked if she would apologize, Devlin responded “I only regret I didn’t grab him by the throat.”
“Forty-six years later, a soon to be 17-year-old Palestinian woman named Ahed tamimi,” Letwin continued, yelling over the crowded station noise. “[Ahed Tamimi] slapped the face of the same racist, occupying, ethnic cleansing regime, in this case called Israel.”
The rally closed by singing happy birthday to Ahed in English and then Arabic.