A tale of two girls: Ahed Tamimi and Bana al-Abed highlight media bias

Palestinian Ahed Tamimi (R) appears at a military court at the Israeli-run Ofer prison in the West Bank village of Betunia on December 20, 2017 © Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Comparing western media coverage of two Middle Eastern girls – one from the occupied West Bank and one from eastern Aleppo – reveals the media is beholden to the imperatives of US foreign policy.

On Monday night, Israeli forces arrested Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old girl Palestinian girl. She now sits in a military prison awaiting judgement. But if you’re watching US mainstream media, you wouldn’t know it. That’s because the coverage of Tamimi – or lack thereof – is in stark contrast to the case of Bana al-Abed, an eight-year-old Syrian girl who became an almost overnight media sensation in October 2016.

Ahed Tamimi is from the hamlet of Nabi Saleh, one of a handful of West Bank villages which stages weekly demonstrations against Israel’s 50-year occupation. Every Friday, dozens of villagers are joined by international solidarity activists as they attempt to march towards the spring that Israeli forces confiscated for a neighboring settlement. They are invariably stopped by heavily armed Israeli soldiers who employ a variety of tactics to suppress the marchers, injuring and occasionally killing them. Israeli soldiers frequently target the village with collective punishment measures.

Ahed is the daughter of prominent anti-occupation activists Bassem and Nariman Tamimi. Her father, Bassem, was called a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2012, when Israeli forces imprisoned him for non-violent activism. In 2012, a widely-seen photo of then 12-year-old Ahed confronting an Israeli soldier earned her recognition from then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A Tamimi image went viral again in 2015, after they were photographed and kicking and biting an Israeli soldier who was choking Ahed’s 11-year-old brother Mohammed. In 2016, the State Department denied Ahed a visa to visit the US as part of her “No Child Behind Bars/Living Resistance” speaking tour.

During last Friday’s demonstrations, Israeli soldiers shot Mohammed, 14, in the head with a rubber coated bullet. He is now in a medically induced coma. A video filmed Sunday that circulated across Israeli media showing Ahed and her cousin Nour, 20, confronting and pushing Israeli soldiers who were blocking the steps to their family home. The video was widely circulated across Israeli media as commentators praised the soldiers as an example restraint for not attacking the girls on the spot.

Instead, Israeli forces stormed the Tamimi home early the next morning under the cover of darkness, arresting Ahed. Her mother, Nariman, was arrested the following day, and her cousin Nour was arrested overnight. Bassem Tamimi was summoned for questioning Wednesday when we went to the Ofer military court to see Ahed, though he has not been formally arrested.

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, a leader of the far-right Jewish Home party [Bayit Yehudit], called for Tamimi and her cousin Nour to “finish their lives in prison.” In contrast, Bennett said Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who was filmed executing a wounded Palestinian, should be freed from his 18-month jail sentence.

Despite the high profile nature of Ahed’s arrest, US media has taken a de-facto vow of silence – in glaring contrast to US media’s fixation with Bana al-Abed.

As fighting in Aleppo between Syrian government forces and jihadist groups intensified in September 2016, a Twitter account of seven-year-old al-Abed appeared, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers almost overnight. The account claimed to be tweeting from the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo under control of al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, though it was unclear how that was possible as internet access was largely unavailable. Twitter had even verified the account, in violation of its own rules which prohibit verification for minors.

Media personalities like CNN anchor Jake Tapper promoted  al-Abed’s account, urging his millions of Twitter followers to “Follow @AlabedBana.” (Tapper again called for his followers to follow  al-Abed in April 2017 in a tweet since deleted.)

With help from her mother Fatemah, she tweeted calls for no-fly zones and US military escalation to overthrow the Assad government, and even a third world war. In contrast to her tweets which demonstrated near fluency,  al-Abed’s spoken language was broken – an indication that she had little to no grasp of the English language. As the liberation of Aleppo by the Syrian army and Hezbollah neared,  al-Abed’s account tweeted that her death at their hands was imminent. Weeks later, she and her family appeared in the al-Qaeda controlled Idlib province in northern Syria, where jihadists fighters and their families had been bused to in an agreement with the Syrian government following their defeat.

Throughout that time,  al-Abed was featured in western media outlets. The Washington Post dubbed her “Our era’s Anne Frank.” CNN assured viewers that  al-Abed had survived.

In April, 2017, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota interviewed al-Abed in an apparently scripted interview. “What is your message to President Assad?” Camerota asked. “I am very sad. A lot of died and no one help them,” she said.

In May, al-Abed gained Turkish citizenship and – like Ahed Tamimi – was photographed with Turkish President Erdogan. In an interview with Turkish state media outlet Anadolu, it became clear that al-Abed did not understand English and was being told what to say by her mother.

Soon after, she was awarded a book deal by publishing giant Simon and Schuster, with help from J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Titled ‘Dear World,’ the 224-page book chronicled al-Abed ’s story “in Bana’s own words, and featuring short, affecting chapters by her mother, Fatemah.”

Since the publication of her book in October, al-Abed has embarked on a promotional tour of the US. With improved English, she has appeared at high profile film screenings in Los Angeles and of course, on CNN.

Al-Abed also has a new article in Time Magazine, while Tamimi awaits sentencing in Israeli military courts – which have a 99.8% conviction rate – amid a western media blackout.