|Innocence, the first casualty|
up in Palestine,
Palestinian children are the ultimate victims in the cycle of victimhood and violence that continues here on a daily basis. The vast majority are not only severely traumatised, but have lost all hope of a future, of the possibility that life could ever be anything more livable than their current existence of round-the-clock curfews, random shootings and bombardments, arbitrary arrest and invasion or destruction of their homes. Of humiliation and harassment even when go ing about normal, necessary, everyday business, such as going to school or taking an examination. And denial of the most basic human rights, including freedom of movement, freedom of worship and, in the case of children, freedom of education, freedom of security, the freedom to play, the freedom to have a childhood. As this cycle perpetuates itself in round after round of retaliation, and as anger and hatred are nourished, children are beginning to forget that life was ever any different. Adults adjust as best they can to a distorted form of normality, governed for the most part by fear and frustration. But children are more vulnerable.
The Palestinians have a tradition of being able to provide for themselves, but now many are desperately close to starvation. The bulk of the population is under 18, in some areas even under 14. It is the children who are suffering now. The economic situation in occupied Palestine becomes more serious every day due to Israeli sieges on Palestinian population centres, which not only prevent people from entering or leaving their homes, but have also paralysed commerce and deprived Palestinians of every means of livelihood. The unemployment figures are officially 85 per cent in the Gaza Strip and 65 per cent in the West Bank. More than half the population is below the poverty line, living on less than US$ 1.90 per day. Many children, therefore, now go hungry and malnutrition rates in some areas are even higher than they are in Bangladesh. The average household consists of about seven people, and every day the toll of unrelieved poverty and hunger is rising.
The Palestinian situation is particularly painful because mere individual effort cannot offer a means of escape. The only way out will be via a real and just peace that allows all Palestinians to live normal lives in which they can be free to fulfil their potential without being thwarted at every turn by the crushing weight of the Israeli occupation system. Now, at last, the ‘Road Map’ to peace in the Middle East offers a glimmer of hope — but it is no more than a glimmer, for its fragility is all too apparent even to the most optimistic. At present, all that Palestinian children see is their families’ land being taken over by Israeli colonists or the military, their parents being forbidden to go to work, constant confinement to their homes with nothing whatsoever to do and the constant fear of being shot if they go outside — even if it is just onto a balcony. When they are allowed to leave their homes and go to school, it is at the risk of being targeted by Israelis. They are left with no hope, no future. As long as the Israelis remain in control of Palestinian lives, these lives can only become more harsh, more restricted and less and less livable.
What hope can there be for the children of Pales tine? Children in a poor or disaster-stricken country can hope that they shall, one day, work their way out to a better life. They can dream of becoming prosperous citizens, or of escaping to a less harsh existence, but the Palestinians are in a gigantic prison and their poverty is caused not by any natural disaster or shortage, but by a hostile and highly systematic human (or inhuman) policy of occupation and control. And the irony is that the prospect of being driven out of this prison is even more terrifying than the prospect of having to live forever within it, for people who leave generally lose all chances of returning. This fear of ‘transfer’ of the Palestinian population; this fear of permanent exile, of the land being ‘cleansed’ to make room for more and more Israelis, is one of the factors that helps the Palestinians endure and stay put in spite of everything. In spite, even, of danger to their children.
The Palestinians have been made refugees twice over; in 1948 and in 1967, and the trauma of war and displacement has been handed down to their children, their grandchildren, their very great-grandchildren, along with the keys to the beautiful stone houses they had to abandon and stories of the fragrant orange groves and shady courtyards they had to flee. There is a collective homesickness that pervades all Palestinians, and a rampant nostalgia that all children grow up with, and it overshadows their childhood.
One of the enduring images of the Palestinians — especially among Palestinians themselves — is that of the refugee child. The hungry, barefoot child with only a tent for shelter (and it’s cold and often snows here in winter) holding up an empty bowl for food, or the family huddled together for warmth, again with only a tent. This is the chosen representation of the Nakba — the tragedy of the war of 1948 — when nearly a million Palestinians were driven from their homes or fled in terror from the all-powerful Israeli army. This is the image of children growing up as strangers in foreign lands and forever waiting to go home; children representing the hope of return.
Children have also been prominent in the imagery of at least the two most recent major rounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The image of a Palestinian child throwing a stone at an Israeli tank was one of the most pervasive of the intifada of 1987, and the killing of a small boy in Gaza as he cowered with his father behind a rubbish bin for protection from Israeli fire, splattered across television and Internet screens around the world when the fighting erupted in late 2000. These images strike home because apart from their emotive appeal, they expose a reality of this conflict which is not necessarily known or acknowledged. This is the abso lutely overwhelming imbalance of power in Israel’s favour, militarily, politically, economically — in fact, in every sphere including international public relations.
These images have been abused as well and taken as ‘evidence’ that the Palestinians are so inhuman that they do not love their children as others do, or cherish or try to protect them. Rather, it is implied, they choose to send their children to the frontline of the battle. Not only is this simply untrue, as simply contrary to nature and not possibly true of any group of people in the world (with the sad exception of one or two isolated individuals), but the image of the Palestinian child facing the tank has to be seen in the context of military occupation.
Even in regular war situations, the ratio of civilian casualties to military losses has risen so fast that the former now make up the vast majority of the total. In the tiny area of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians are all jumbled up together. The soldiers are everywhere, in the midst of the people they have conquered and are trying to control. In other words, there is no such thing as a frontline. The frontline is wherever the occupation is, and wherever the soldiers choose to be. If an Israeli tank squats outside a Palestinian school with its gun pointed at the children as they enter and leave the school (as in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, for instance, and in several other places), we cannot conclude that Palestinian parents have sent their children to the frontline, only that they have sent them to school. Most parents are worried throughout the school day until their children return, fearful of what might happen to them in the streets. There is always the fear that a child will pick up a stone — as any child might — to throw at the symbol and the reality of solid enemy control. What is more, the parents know that not only do the children have to cope with their fear of the vast Israeli war machine, they also have to deal with the provocations and taunts of the Israeli soldiers, who try to goad them into throwing stones even when it can cost them their lives.
The reality Palestinian parents and their children have to deal with is like this:
8 The latest figures from the Palestinian Red Crescent (till the end of June 2003) show 418 children killed (105 of whom were under 12), out of the total of 2,212 Palestinians killed since the fighting began in September 2000. One in five killed is a child.
8 At least ten times as many children have been wounded.
8 Many children were wounded in the eyes by sniper fire, especially at the beginning of the current conflict.
8 Thirty six per cent of all Palestinian child deaths have been caused by missiles.
8 Many children are arrested and imprisoned; some are kidnapped. They are at risk both from the settlers and the soldiers.
8 There are currently about 350 children under detention. Over 1,500 children have been detained since September 2000, with all that it entails, such as being blindfolded for long periods, beaten, handcuffed, given insufficient food (one serving of yogurt for ten children, one apple between four, and one-and-a-half slices of bread per day, for example). There are some gruesome stories of torture.
8 Many children have become homeless because of the house demolitions conducted by the Israelis.
8 Six children were killed when their homes were demolished while they were still inside.
8 All Palestinian children live in fear and without any sense of a future.
Lucy Nusseibeh is Director of Middle East Non-violence and Democracy, which works with people and societies affected by conflict, with special emphasis on children. She lives in Palestine