The 12-year-old reporter who’s a thorn in Israel’s side
Considered a 'high-security threat', Palestinian Janna Tamimi - who has a social media following of 350,000 - lives on the frontline of a never-ending battle that 'makes adults of us all'
13 November, 2018 — By Leo Garib
LIFTED onto the platform, she stood smiling at the packed conference hall. Janna Tamimi is 12 years old and was barely four-and-a-half feet tall in her baby-pink striped trainers and a Palestinian dress that almost trailed across the floor. She looked nothing like the “high-security threat” Israel says she is.
The world’s youngest accredited journalist, Janna has been reporting from the occupied territories since she was seven, often with a cheap hand-held camera face-to-face with Israeli soldiers. A social media following of almost 350,000 – the sort of numbers a minor celebrity would covet – has made the pocket-sized reporter a thorn in Israel’s side.
Two years ago, she starred in the award-winning documentary, Radiance of Resistance, with her teenage cousin Ahed Tamimi. Earlier this year, the slightly built Ahed was jailed for six months after slapping an Israeli soldier during a raid on her home in which a child was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. Facing a global backlash, Israel’s prosecutor climbed down over threats to put her away for 10 years.
“I decided to be a journalist because I saw there weren’t many reporting what was happening in Palestine,” said Janna, after addressing the public meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. “I get lots of death threats on social media and there are many dangers, but that won’t stop me. Besides, the extra focus on our village has improved things a little.
“They can put me into prison because in Israeli law I’m not a child, but I’m not scared. I have to control my fears. Palestine won’t get free if we remain silent. I believe that the bullet that doesn’t kill us, gives us more strength.”
Born in the US, where she spent her first few months, Janna speaks fluent English and has become a surprisingly precocious interviewee. Her mother is chief of women’s affairs in the Palestinian Authority, her uncle a leading activist, and Ahed has become a global icon.
“I guess I was born into the struggle,” she explained with an impish smile.
Leaked documents revealed Israel regards Janna as a “high-security threat” and national Israeli newspapers frequently traduce her, accusing her of being a “Jew hater” and an apologist for terrorism.
The most infuriating part, said Janna, is the assumption she poses an extra threat because her blonde hair and light features give her a European appearance. Israel fears it makes her a perfect poster-girl.
“It feels like there is extra racism because they say I’m also a high-security threat because I look European and not Palestinian,” she said.
The summer visit to South Africa – her first overseas tour – was part of national celebrations for Nelson Mandela’s centenary and included primetime TV, schools and public meetings. It was, she admitted, a bitter-sweet experience, her first taste of freedom in a post-Apartheid country that has done away with race laws.
In the West Bank, Janna’s village, Nabi Salih, is one of the smallest. A few score houses clinging to a rocky slope, it is bordered by an Israeli settlement that has encroached on olive groves and farm land belonging to the Palestinian village. Armed incursions by settlers and by Israeli troops every Friday, have made life hell, she said.
Footage from Radiance of Resistance, some filmed by Janna, shows troops and armoured cars confronting protesters, including women, children and Israeli campaigners. Troops fire tear-gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and skunk water, which coats protesters in a foul residue that takes days to wash off. Fired at rooftop water tanks, it pollutes supplies. One Friday, said Janna, more than 1,500 tear-gas bombs were launched into the village.
House raids are another part of Friday life, she explained. Troops kick through doors, drive out families and set up positions from which to snipe across the village. Janna’s family house, which overlooks the village, is a frequent target.
One attack, shakily filmed on someone’s mobile phone, shows a five year-old Janna burying herself in the folds of her mother’s skirt as gas fired through the front room windows fills the house. Amid the broken glass and smouldering furniture, women struggle to shepherd screaming children.
The worst are the night-time commando raids, she continued. Israeli footage shows soldiers in the early hours kicking through a door, levelling guns at startled parents and forcing children from their beds to line them up for photographs.
“They use the photos to make an intelligence map of the village, with information about the children and where they live,” said Janna.
Other footage she points to shows middle-aged women shielding children from soldiers. A short woman in her 60s berates a soldier before another punches her squarely in her face. The woman crashes unconscious to the ground. Amid the melee, the soldiers step over and on her.
“That’s my grandmother. You see how they treat her,” said Janna.
One clash this year has traumatised Janna the most, she admitted. Two young men were shot and killed during a fracas in which troops backed by armour opened fire with rubber bullets. Mobile phone footage captured the last moments as a 19-year-old is prone before a tank, blood pooling from a head wound as soldiers restrain locals trying to reach him.
“He was shot and then beaten. He was lying in the street and bleeding for more than half-an-hour and then he died. We wanted to go to him but the soldiers pointed guns at us and fired gas. All of us, as children, see these things, we live with them. It’s what we go through every week in Nabi Saleh.”
Janna’s mother, Nawal Tamimi, smiled tightly as her daughter spoke. Divided between anguish and hope, she has watched her emerge prematurely from a desperately foreshortened childhood into the frontline of a never-ending battle that runs inescapably through the middle of their village.
Clasping Janna’s hand, she said in Arabic: “Janna was three when the protests in the village started. She was scared when she saw the soldiers shooting and the blood in the street but she wanted to send a message to the world about what is happening. What can I do but allow my daughter to be a journalist, as she wants? It’s impossible to protect our children from the occupation. My daughter’s becoming a strong girl and will be a strong woman. Yes, I am terrified when she stands before the soldiers. I can only hope. She demands the freedom to respond to the occupation. In the end, it makes adults of us all.”
Janna, who was translating, flushed embarrassedly before adding in a whispered aside: “I worry about my parents”.
Asked how she lives with the violence and the threat of being picked up by the soldiers and held, as children can be under Israeli military law, incommunicado before being jailed in an adult prison, Janna was sanguine.
“We control our fears. It’s what we have to do. As far as trauma, when I was three years old my mum used to give me paper and say, ‘Just draw everything and anything’. When I finished, she screwed it up and threw it away, and we started to laugh. It worked, it took off the trauma.
“They can arrest me for trying to send my message out there – they can do anything, but I’m not scared. Never mind, at least the message was sent!
“Anyway, we’re not the only victims. Israeli children are also victims of the occupation. I remember when some settlers came into the village and there was a small child with them. He had a rifle that was bigger than he was. Why would a child have a gun? Why does a child terrorise people? And don’t forget Israelis have to serve two years in the military after school. But they can do something and there are Israeli activists who refuse to be soldiers, a lot who contact us and help. They are our friends.
“I believe we only have the one-state solution. We’re not going to agree to live with Israelis unless we get the same rights. People say it’s a religious conflict but it’s not. I’m a Muslim girl but if the occupation was by a Muslim, I would fight him the same way. We have Christians, Muslims and Jewish Palestinians and we all want equal rights as Israelis.”
She paused and smiled: “I’ve seen a video of the Israeli settlement across a road from my village and I would love to grow up in a place like that. But OK, maybe one day I will.
“In South Africa they had Apartheid too and now they are free. I sat by the sea with my mum in South Africa and it was amazing. The sea is about 25km from my home and I can see it from my bedroom window. We’ve only visited once because the checkpoints make it really impossible to travel, but I know one day I will be able to take my mum there.”