NABI SALEH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian protest icon Ahed Tamimi is to go on trial before an Israeli military court today for slapping and punching two Israeli soldiers — an act Palestinians said embodies their David vs. Goliath struggle against a brutal military occupation and Israel portrays as a staged provocation meant to embarrass its military.
Israel's full-throttle prosecution of Tamimi, one of an estimated 300 Palestinian minors in Israeli jails, and a senior Israeli official's recent stunning revelation he once had parliament investigate whether the blond, blue-eyed Tamimis are a "real" Palestinian family have helped stoke ongoing interest in the case.
The teen with the curly mane of hair who turned 17 in jail last month has become the latest symbol of the long-running battle between Palestinians and Israelis over global public opinion.
The case touches on what constitutes legitimate resistance to Israel's rule over millions of Palestinians, already in its 51st year after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967.
Ahed Tamimi's supporters see a brave girl who struck two armed soldiers outside her West Bank home in frustration after having just learned 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.
Israel has treated Tamimi's actions as a criminal offense, indicting her on charges of assault and incitement that could potentially land her in prison for several years.
Tamimi's middle-of-the-night arrest from her home in December and her pre-trial court appearances, flanked by Israeli guards and looking impassive, have evoked a sense of history on a loop. Another generation of Palestinians seems locked in a cycle of protests and arrests by Israel, three decades after Palestinians staged their first uprising, throwing stones and burning tires in the streets.
Since the mid-1990s, several U.S.-mediated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel have ended in failure. Gaps in positions only widened in the past decade, as Israeli settlement expansion continued and the Palestinians failed to end a crippling political split between an internationally backed self-rule government in parts of the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas which dominates Gaza.
Tamimi's father Bassem, who threw his first stone at the age of 14 and was an activist in the first uprising, said he expects the military court will deal harshly with his daughter and that she might remain in prison for some time.
His wife, Nariman, is being prosecuted in the same Dec. 15 scuffle in their village of Nabi Saleh and has been locked up alongside their daughter.
Since 2009, residents of Nabi Salah have staged regular anti-occupation protests that often ended with stone-throwing clashes. Ahed Tamimi 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.
Despite the personal pain, the father said he is optimistic heading into the courtroom and he believes he is witnessing progress.
He argues his daughter's case and the outpouring of support for her — more than 1.7 million people have already signed an online petition calling for her release — signal the beginning of the final chapter of Israel's occupation.
"I see that we are starting the turning point in our history, to deal with our occupier and colonization in a different way," Tamimi said. "Yes, there is a price (to pay) but this generation Ahed represents will be the generation of freedom."
In Israel, several senior officials have called for harsh punishment of Ahed Tamimi.
"She is not a little girl, she is a terrorist," said Culture Minister Miri Regev, alleging Tamimi has been manipulated by what she described as "extreme leftist elements" promoting the idea of a bi-national state for Israelis and Palestinians.
"It's about time they will understand that people like her have to be in jail and not be allowed to incite to racism and subversion against the state of Israel," Regev told the Associated Press.
Commentators disagreed on the potential impact of the trial.
Columnist Jeff Barak, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post daily, wrote last month that the two soldiers showed "admirable restraint," but Israel's hard-charging prosecution of Tamimi has been counterproductive.
"Tamimi is no existential threat to Israel, and all the authorities have achieved, in their desperation for revenge on a young girl who in some people's eyes humiliated two soldiers, is to turn her into the perfect poster girl for Palestinian protest against the occupation," he wrote.