CORTLAND, New York – In the aftermath of a viral video in August of Palestinian women and children physically preventing an IDF soldier from arresting a 12-year-old boy for stone throwing, the boy’s father, Bassem Tamimi, is on a five-week speaking tour in the United States aiming to galvanize support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
After a speaking engagement in Cortland, New York, last month, Tamimi told The Times of Israel that the video footage of August’s incident was his “latest tool” to promote BDS efforts.
“When we are able to get a video like this, we can use it to great effect,” he said. “When enough people here see these videos and hear our stories, it can start a kind of intifada [popular Palestinian uprising] against Israel in the United States.”
In the video, a soldier is shown forcefully restraining Mohammed Tamimi, whose arm was in a cast, placing him in a chokehold and pressing his head against a boulder. Moments later, a group of Palestinian women, led by Tamimi’s 15-year-old daughter Ahed, began grappling with the soldier and punching him until a commander arrived and extricated him from the fracas.
The brawl unfolded during a weekly demonstration in Tamimi’s native West Bank Village of Nabi Saleh, in the course of which Palestinians and other activists march toward the neighboring Halamish settlement. Adults bring cameras while children throw rocks at IDF soldiers, who often respond with tear gas and sometimes rubber bullets to prevent the stone throwing from reaching the settlement.
On his current tour of the US, from September 7 to October 19, Tamimi has more than 25 stops scheduled, with an itinerary that includes major American cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, and small college towns, like South Bend, Indiana, and Ithaca, New York. The tour is organized by three controversial pro-Palestinian organizations: Jewish Voice for Peace, Friends of Sabeel and Interfaith Peace-Builders.
These groups have been cited by pro-Israel watchdogs like the Anti-Defamation League and NGO Monitor for systematic attempts to steer public support from Israel.
At every Tamimi gathering, a representative of Interfaith Peace-Builders is present to speak with attendees after the talks about participating in one of their organized trips to the West Bank. The group sends three to four delegations to the region every year and, according to the organization, these trips are “intended to introduce delegation participants to a variety of opinions, debates, and analyses on Israel and Palestine.”
The trips have been criticized by NGO Monitor as “highly one-sided” presentations of the conflict “based solely on the Palestinian narrative.” Other watchdogs have also castigated the trips as aiming to demonize Israel, citing their affiliation with groups hostile to Israel such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Friends of Sabeel, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
‘I believe a Jewish state is racist’
Ariel Gold, an Ithaca coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist group, organized Tamimi’s US speaking tour. Though the tour was planned in advance of August’s episode, she said she hoped to capitalize on the media attention surrounding Tamimi to advance the goal of dissolving the Jewish state.
“I believe a Jewish state is racist,” she told The Times of Israel. “Any country that favors one group of people over another is racist. We need people like Tamimi who can demonstrate that reality.”
When this reporter asked if she was also advocating boycott or dissolving any other nation-states or countries involved in conflict, she said she was not.
‘Our cameras are our weapon’
Tamimi is no novice at gaining publicity. In March 2013, his family was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story titled, “Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” In 2011, he drew international attention after being convicted by an Israeli military court of sending youths to throw stones.
Perhaps most pronounced among the criticisms directed his way is that of child exploitation, in that he urges children to throw rocks at soldiers in order to provoke confrontations captured on video and later disseminated. This is a charge he does not deny.
“Our cameras are our weapon,” he said. “And when we force IDF soldiers to confront our children, our cameras are a way for us to fight Israel and the occupation.”
Talking to students
“We need the support of all of you to do something for our issue,” Tamimi told a crowd in mid-September of roughly 20 gathered at the Tompkins Cortland Community College, located in upstate New York, more than 215 miles north of New York City.
In an interview shortly after his one-hour talk with students, which included a question-and-answer session, Tamimi said he felt it was imperative for his vision of the Palestinian cause to reach “American college students.”
‘The United States is the biggest supporter of Israel. It is the next generation who will have to change that. And that is why I am here’
“The United States is the biggest supporter of Israel,” he said. “It is the next generation who will have to change that. And that is why I am here.”
His talk began with the showing of a YouTube clip of the August 28 melee, and then a brief summation of his personal history of activism, which he said centers around “nonviolent protest.”
“Our stones are our voices,” Tamimi told the students. “The Israeli soldiers are in armored vehicles, they have tanks. Our stones reflect our refusal to live in occupation and to resist an enemy.”
“Six years ago, we developed a model of protest,” he added. “We have a weekly demonstration where we clash with the army … and we film it to show the world the realities of how we live.”
Amid the current escalation of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stone throwing has become a more prominent issue within Israeli politics after the murder of 64-year-old Alexander Levlovich, who was killed when his car was pelted with rocks while he was driving home from a Rosh Hashanah dinner in East Jerusalem. In one of several other recent incidents, an Israeli family suffered minor wounds after it was targeted during a ride home to Tekoa following a Sukkot meal in Efrat.
Instances such as these prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek harsher penalties for stone throwers, including instituting mandatory minimum sentences.
When asked if stone throwing is “nonviolent,” Tamini said: “In the context of our resistance, no it is not violent … Can stone throwing technically be violent? Yes. But for our protests at Nabi Saleh, they are our voices, our expressions of resistance against an enemy.”
Tamimi’s message appears to be finding a receptive audience among some campus youth.
‘There are two different sides of the story to what’s going on, depending on who you’re hearing it from your views can be distorted into supporting one cause or the other’
One of the students who came to the Cortland event was 19-year-old Madeleine Glahn, a freshman at the community college. She was assigned by one of her psychology classes to attend a talk on campus and write an essay on the event, applying material learned in class.
“I was interested in this talk after last summer’s war in Gaza,” she told The Times of Israel. “After today, I feel like I learned from [Tamimi] that what so much of the media tells us about Israel is not what’s happening. There are two different sides of the story to what’s going on; depending on who you’re hearing it from your views can be distorted into supporting one cause or the other.”
Before leaving the event, she approached a representative from Interfaith Peace-Builders. She wanted to see how she could sign up for a future trip to the West Bank. At the beginning of the talk Gold had introduced the representative for those interested to speak with afterword.
“She really made it seem like a good opportunity to just see the conflict for yourself without someone telling you what to think,” said Glahn. “I want to go there to see this conflict with my own eyes and make my own decisions.”