OFER MILITARY COURT, West Bank — The line at the check-in window outside the Ofer Military Court stopped moving. Well over a hundred reporters, diplomats and activists began to get agitated, worried they would miss the start of Ahed Tamimi’s trial.
A court officer exited from the other side of the glass window and began shouting at the flock to back up.
“We’re here for the Tamimi hearing,” said one reporter in broken Hebrew, apparently under the assumption that not everyone in the compound knew about the 17-year-old Palestinian girl who was filmed in December slapping an IDF soldier outside her home in the West Bank village of Nebi Saleh.
“Clearly,” snapped the officer. “But you see all those people on the other side of the gate?” he said, pointing to an equal-sized throng of Palestinians standing behind the mostly foreign group. “Those are her family members, as well as other people here for their own trials. You’re preventing me from letting them in first.”
Still, nobody moved.
“What did he say?” asked one reporter, who had been dispatched from London to cover the trial. He received no response, making it clear that most of the crowd did not speak Hebrew.
Eventually, an English-speaking soldier from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit appeared and explained to the crowd why they needed to back up.
The Tuesday scene was emblematic of what the Tamimi trial has become: a must-see attraction for foreign observers whose eagerness to hear and share the story of the young Palestinian icon has collided with the reality that they cannot understand the languages in which it’s being told.
Tamimi celebrated her 17th birthday from prison last month after a military judge ordered her remanded until the end of proceedings against her. The same ruling was given against Ahed’s mother, Nariman, who also appeared in the widely shared footage. The 17-year-old’s cousin, Nour Tamimi, was released after being charged for her participation in the December 15 incident.
Ahed told the court in December that the same soldiers featured in the video had shot her cousin in the head with a rubber bullet an hour before the filmed encounter. “Then I saw the same soldiers who hit my cousin, this time in front of my house. I could not keep quiet and I responded as I did,” she testified.
The three Tamimis are facing aggravated assault charges. Ahed’s 12-count indictment includes a statement she gave to her mother — who was filming the incident on Facebook Live — in which she referred to stabbing and suicide attacks against Israeli civilians as a legitimate form of resistance to military rule.
She has since become a cause célèbre for Palestinian supporters, and rallies have been held in several locations calling for her release. Many Palestinians see her as bravely standing up to military control over the West Bank, while Israelis accuse her family of using her as a pawn.
‘I think he’s saying we have to leave’
Back at Ofer, the hodgepodge of observers allowed the Palestinian group to pass before filing through a metal detector themselves and racing through a gated maze leading to the courtroom.
Upon squeezing inside, they found their view immediately blocked by roughly a dozen photographers who had arrived early and parked themselves at the front of the gallery, cameras aimed directly at the door from which Ahed would enter.
Few appeared to notice when the military judge walked into the caravan-courtroom, as attendees were busy snapping pictures of Ahed. Court officers tried quieting everyone down, but the commotion was too much for the judge, who ordered everyone — save for Ahed’s relatives — outside.
The court officers began enforcing the judge’s order, urging the audience out of the caravan, but the majority again stayed put. A European diplomat frantically asked what was transpiring.
“I think he’s saying we have to leave, but I’m not sure,” her colleague replied.
Less than a minute after the officers succeeded in booting everyone out to the courtyard outside the caravan, the doors once again opened and all non-photographers were allowed back in.
This time though, it was only for Judge Menachem Lieberman to officially announce his decision to conduct the remainder of the hearing behind closed doors.
Lieberman cited the “best interest of the minor” in justifying the move. But his words were likely lost to most of the courtroom, who spoke neither the judge’s Hebrew nor his translator’s Arabic.
Tamimi’s attorney Gaby Lasky objected to the decision, arguing that it was against the wishes of the defendant and her family, but Lieberman’s mind was made up, and the court officers began once again clearing the caravan.
Opening of the Ahed Tamimi trial. 4-ring circus. Media, NGOs, Family. Diplomats. Judge trolling everyone and closing the beginning of the session to the press pic.twitter.com/1iU2bXTvwu
— Anshel Pfeffer (@AnshelPfeffer) February 13, 2018
Lost in translation
Back out in the damp February cold, a large group of the attendees huddled around a staffer from the B’Tselem rights group, who briefed the foreign crowd in English on the judge’s decision.
Lasky popped out of the courtroom to provide a quick statement to reporters — in English, of course — expressing her outrage over the ruling.
The attorney explained that upon returning inside chambers, she would argue that because Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people is illegal, the military court hearing Tamimi’s case was illegitimate as well.
The line of defense appeared to establish an uphill battle for Lasky in that it required the judge to denounce his own authority in order to rule in Tamimi’s favor.
But her audience outside the caravan didn’t seem concerned as they nodded their heads in approval of the defense.
A lone Israeli reporter asked her to provide a sentence in Hebrew, but she only got a few words out before being whooshed back into the courtroom for proceedings to start.
With the little information that they had, some of the reporters began broadcasting segments on the spot.
“We’re here outside the courthouse where Ahed Tamimi’s trial has just begun, but at the request of the family, everyone has been ordered out of the room,” said one European reporter, inaccurately describing the reason for the closed-door hearing to her viewers.
Dressed far more formally, the diplomats were easy to spot among the casually clothed journalists. They had converged on the court from embassies in Tel Aviv and consulates in Jerusalem and represented countries including Sweden, Ireland, Spain and Italy.
“We’re here mainly to observe and report back to our respective governments,” said one official from the Swedish consulate in Jerusalem.
To the side of the diplomatic circle stood a pair of interns from the Spanish and Italian consulates, who compared the half-page of notes that they had each compiled from their two minutes in the courtroom.
“Our presence shows that our country is concerned about Israel’s record of child detentions. At least, that’s what our bosses explained when they sent us here,” the Italian intern admitted.
Asked whether he thought Tamimi’s trial was receiving a disproportionate amount of international attention, the staffer scanned the courtyard filled with observers awaiting any additional update from inside.
“I honestly don’t think so. Italy monitors similar cases in other countries too,” he explained. “Plus, this incident was broadcast on Facebook. The whole world has seen it.”
No camera, no care
That point did not seem lost on Abed Alrahman Amro, a 14-year-old Palestinian who was also present in the courtyard, waiting for his own trial to commence after Tamimi’s.
Flanked by his mother, the baby-faced Hebron resident said he had been near an area where clashes broke out between IDF soldiers and Palestinians in the flashpoint West Bank city. Amro claimed that soldiers mistakenly pegged him as having thrown rocks and detained him at the scene, brutalizing him in the process.
“They kneed me repeatedly in the head. I was covered in blood,” he said, bending down to show a scar on his scalp.
The 14-year-old said he was held in prison for two days before being released. More than two months later he received a phone call from a military official ordering him to report Tuesday to the Ofer Military Court for a hearing.
Amro was then approached by an American activist who asked him if he was related to Tamimi. When the teen shook his head no, the activist walked away.
“Had their been cameras like there were with Ahed, all these people would be trying to talk to us too,” Amro’s mother chimed in.
Nearly two hours later, most of the foreign observers had retreated to a canteen located in a caravan across from the courtroom for some warmth.
With no word from inside the courtroom and no sign that an end to the hearing was imminent, a number of diplomats began discussing plans to head home.
“We made our fuss by coming here,” a Swedish embassy worker told his colleagues.
With the Tamimis still inside the courtroom, the group said their goodbyes to members of other European delegations and proceeded through the maze of steel leading back out of the compound.