Changing Image of the Palestinian Protester: ‘Terrorist’ to ‘Icon’

"“She’s powerful, part of a sophisticated machine that tries to delegitimise Israel by using photos and creating scenarios that portray Israel as Goliath and the other side as David.”"

That’s what Yoaz Hendel said to ABC News. The Israeli media commentator and former spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was talking about 17-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi.

A few days later, the David and Goliath narrative went viral on Twitter. But it wasn’t about Tamimi.

A photograph of 20-year-old A'ed Abu Amro with a slingshot in one hand and a Palestinian flag on the other, spread across social media. It was compared with Eugene Delacroix’s French Revolution painting, Liberty Leading the People. It was also compared with the Poseidon of Melos statue where the Greek god is aiding the Greeks in the Trojan War.

Calling the photo “iconic,” Newsweek reports Abu Amro was participating in a weekly demonstration that began in March. Palestinians have been demanding their “right of return” to the homes and land their families were expelled from 70 years ago by the state of Israel.

Titled ‘13th attempt to break the Gaza blockade by sea,’ the photo was snapped by journalist Mustafa Hassona on a beach close to the border with Israel. The protests are also aimed at ending the 11-year-old Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The demonstrators were pelting stones at the fence and at Israeli forces. The latter responded with live fire and tear gas. Gaza’s health ministry told the BBC that 32 Palestinians had been wounded.

The case of Ahed Tamimi is a year old. Then a 16-year-old, Tamimi was handed an eight-month prison sentence for slapping an Israel Defense Forces soldier. ABC News reported that weeks after the end of her incarceration, Tamimi embarked on a “victory tour” across France, Spain, Greece, Tunisia and Jordan.

How Israel Manages Its International Image

Traditionally, Israel is particular about defending its international image. The term hasbara, roughly translating to ‘public relations’, is part of its national lexicon, reports ABC News.

However, with Tamimi, Israel faces a dilemma. Response has to be measured, as any criticism of the teenager may attract more attention to the Palestinian narrative.

But Tamimi's reception at Real Madrid CF was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There, she met striker Emilio Butragueno, and received a team jersey with her name. In response, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon took to Twitter.

Israel has an annual PR-training course in Washington, press officers in every ministry and embassy, and its foreign ministry monitors international coverage around the clock. The Economist reported that Palestinians are “not only outgunned, but outmessaged” by their neighbour.

Also Read: Israel to Supply Missile Defence Systems to India for $777 Mn

In her paper on Open Democracy, journalist and writer Victoria Brittain says the western press has been complying with the official Israeli version of events for over six decades. So, how did Tamimi and Abu Amro break the mould?

Fair & Lovely Tamimi and 8-Pack Abu Amro

Speaking about Tamimi, journalist and writer Ben Ehrenreich told The Atlantic:

" “Unavoidably, she is blonde and light-skinned and light-eyed. A great deal of work goes into ‘othering’ Palestinians […] but when suddenly the kid doesn’t fit into those stereotypes — when she actually looks like a European kid or an American kid — then suddenly all that work of dehumanisation can’t function, and she can’t be ‘othered’ in the same way.”"

An artist paints a mural of Palestinian Ahed Tamimi on part of the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, West Bank. 

In fact – because of their light features and “American” style of clothing – the Israeli government had investigated if the Tamimis were a real Palestinian family, or paid actors, reported Haaretz. They ascertained that it “apparently is a family” but the classified investigation remains inconclusive.

Michael Oren, an Israeli deputy minister and former ambassador to the United States, headed the investigating panel.

On the other hand, A'ed Abu Amro’s popularity is marked with fetishisation and detachment, opines The Independent. All the comparison with art ensures that his struggle is romanticised as picturesque, its horrors not truly realised.

Moreover, social media users have been commenting on his muscular torso and chiseled jaw. Several news outlets have led with descriptions that point out he is shirtless.

This begs the question, if Tamimi was darker and Abu Amro less muscular, would they have garnered as much positive attention?

Keyboard Warriors Winning on Social Media

Brittain suggests that there is something larger at play. She says the change in western attitudes to the conflict is a result of grass roots media initiatives by younger Palestinian academics, journalists, writers, filmmakers and lawyers. And the internet has shifted the power dynamics in journalism as compared to two or three decades ago.

The video that led to Tamimi’s incarceration, was not her first. Ahed was first recorded confronting an Israeli soldier when she was 11, after her older brother had been arrested by the army. Again three years later, she was filmed fighting a soldier who had her younger brother in a chokehold.

"“When we are able to get a video like this, we can use it to great effect. When enough people here see these videos and hear our stories, it can start a kind of intifada [Palestinian uprising] against Israel in the United States.”" - Ahed’s father, Bassem Tamimi, to The Times of Israel

On a similar note, Abu Amro’s photo shot to global prominence only after it was shared on Twitter, by Laleh Khalili. She is an Iranian-American and a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

US Campaign for Palestinian Rights’ Executive Director, Yousef Munayyer, was the first to draw the French Revolution parallel.

On his own profile, Munayyer used the David and Goliath narrative and also compared the photo to Michelangelo's nude sculpture.

Gideon Meir, a top Israeli diplomat, had said to The Economist in 2005:

"“War does not take place just in the battlefield, but also on the TV screen.”" -

The logic stands, only now it includes the phone screen too.

Also Read: Abbas: Palestine committed to peace, negotiations with Israel

(With inputs from BBC, ABC News, Newsweek, The Atlantic, The Economist, Open Democracy, Haaretz, The Independent, The Times of Israel, Al Jazeera.)

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