NABI SALEH, West Bank — Palestinian protest icon Ahed Tamimi returned home to a hero’s welcome in her West Bank village on Sunday after Israel released the 17-year-old from prison at the end of her eight-month sentence for slapping and kicking Israeli soldiers.
Ahed and her mother, Nariman Tamimi, were greeted with banners, cheers and Palestinian flags as they entered their home village of Nabi Saleh.
Ahed was arrested in December after she slapped two Israeli soldiers outside her family home. Her mother filmed the incident and posted it on Facebook, where it went viral and, for many, instantly turned Ahed into a symbol of resistance to Israel’s half-century-old military rule over the Palestinians.
With her unruly mop of curly light-colored hair, the Palestinian teen quickly became a local hero and an internationally recognizable figure.
Her supporters see a brave girl who struck two armed soldiers in frustration after having just learned that Israeli troops seriously wounded a 15-year-old cousin, shooting him in the head from close range with a rubber bullet during nearby stone-throwing clashes.
In Israel, however, she is seen by many either as a provocateur, an irritation or a threat to the military’s deterrence policy — even as a “terrorist.” Israel has treated her actions as a criminal offense, indicting her on charges of assault and incitement. Her eight-month sentence was the result of a plea deal.
In Nabi Saleh, supporters welcomed Tamimi home Sunday with Palestinian flags planted on the roof of her home. Hundreds of chairs were set up for well-wishers in the courtyard.
“The resistance continues until the occupation is removed,” Ahed said upon her return. “All the female prisoners are steadfast. I salute everyone who supported me and my case.”
From her home, Ahed headed to a visit to the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. She laid a wreath and recited a prayer from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and was then taken with her family to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah.
“I will continue this path and I hope everyone will,” she said. “The prisoners are fine and we hope the struggle for their release continues.”
Her father, Bassem Tamimi, said he expects her to take a lead in the struggle against Israeli occupation but she is also weighing college options. He said she completed her high school exams in prison with the help of other prisoners who taught the required material. He said she initially hoped to attend a West Bank university but has also received scholarship offers from abroad.
Since 2009, residents of Nabi Salah have staged regular anti-occupation protests that often ended with stone-throwing clashes. Ahed has participated in such marches from a young age, and has had several highly publicized run-ins with soldiers. One photo shows the then 12-year-old raising a clenched fist toward a soldier towering over her.
In a sign of her popularity, a pair of Italian artists painted a large mural of her on Israel’s West Bank separation barrier ahead of her release. Israeli police say they were caught in the act along with another Palestinian and arrested for vandalism.
Abbas, after meeting Ahed on Sunday, called her “a symbol for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence.”
“The popular and peaceful style of struggle that Ahed Tamimi and her village and nearby villages have been practicing, proves to the world that our people will remain steadfast in this land, defending it no matter how much needs to be sacrificed,” he said.
Tamimi’s scuffle with the two soldiers took place Dec. 15 in Nabi Saleh, which is home to about 600 members of her extended clan.
At the time, protests had erupted in several parts of the West Bank over President Donald Trump’s recognition 10 days earlier of the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. She was arrested at her home four days later, in the middle of the night.
Ahed was 16 when she was arrested and turned 17 while in custody. Her case has trained a spotlight on the detention of Palestinian minors by Israel, a practice that has been criticized by international rights groups. Some 300 minors are currently being held, according to Palestinian figures.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians are increasingly disillusioned about efforts to establish a state in those territories, after more than two decades of failed negotiations with Israel.
Israeli Cabinet minister Uri Ariel said the Tamimi case highlighted what could happen if Israel lets its guard down.
“I think Israel acts too mercifully with these types of terrorists. Israel should treat harshly those who hit its soldiers,” he told The Associated Press. “We can’t have a situation where there is no deterrence. Lack of deterrence leads to the reality we see now … we must change that.”
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