|Innocence, the first casualty 3|
The curfew system, which does not allow people to leave their homes at all (you can’t even go into your garden, if you have one) for days at a time, and which has remained in force in some towns for six weeks and more, with only a few hours every few days for people to stock up with provisions and visit the bank or relatives — is a pressure cooker for families. How long can children stay cooped up inside a house in fear, how long can the other members of the family, who are also stuck, take the noise of even happy children playing, let alone of miserable children bickering, without losing patience and getting annoyed? The average Palestinian household has many children sharing very few rooms and this prolonged confinement, in the course of which they become steadily hungrier, is a breeding ground for hatred and resentment. Studies of trauma show high figures for the Israeli violence but also high figures for domestic Palestinian violence, which has increased significantly.
A new shadow is now starting to darken Palestinian children’s horizons all too literally. One of the more horrific manifestations that have emerged out of the conflict is a gigantic wall that the Israelis are constructing as a ‘security fence’. This is a complete misnomer; it is an eight metre high sheer concrete wall with watchtowers. The land around the wall is cleared so that any footprints would show. It is estimated that this wall and the surrounding security zones will take over at least 10 per cent of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The building of this wall takes advantage of the fact that most Palestinians are unable to leave their homes to (try to) defend their land against bulldozers and other equipment. Also, since no negotiations are on at the moment, it is easy to simply appropriate more and more land by building on it — a wall, or houses or roads — without fear of any protest being heard. This wall, therefore, does not follow the cease-fire line of 1948, where the occupied territories begin officially and according to international law, but snakes around to seal off populated Palestinian areas and to include on the Israeli side additional fertile land and water sources. One town in particular, Qalqilya, is now completely surrounded by the wall. There is only one opening for one entry road. The inhabitants whose houses are anywhere near the wall say they no longer see the sun except at midday because the wall is so high. Ironically, Qalqilya has a zoo.
What will this wall do to the children who live near it? When have walls proved to be a solution rather than a problem?
Once upon a time, people of all religions lived together peacefully in this region and the children used to play together, even if they did not all attend the same schools. How can children growing up in the shadow of such a monstrous wall, much higher than the Berlin wall, believe in the humanity of those who built it and live on the other side?
Sesame Street research showed strong negative stereotyping already present in three-year-olds, even during the peace process, and before the violence had reached its current levels.
What will this wall do to the children? What terrors and paranoid imaginings will they create about those who live on the other side?
The solution is not to build walls and to torture and maim children, but to appreciate the interconnectedness of the people. Especially to understand that this is a tiny region where everyone is affected by everyone else, and that by harming the children we are harming our collective future. Walls will not bring security, they will only breed fantasies of hate. Depriving children of an education and traumatising them through military attacks will not just make them less able to cope as adults, it will make them harder to deal with as neighbours. Humiliating a child’s father will not just remind her or him of who is more powerful, it will make her or him hate the author of the humiliation and all that are like him, and make the child seek revenge.
It is so sad that the Jewish people, seeking a refuge for themselves in which they could be certain of freedom from racist persecution, are creating every day the seeds for such persecution in the future, creating a vortex of violence and trauma that will affect their own children one day. It is so sad that the voices of reason and humanity among the Israelis and the Jews are not heard enough to make a difference.
The cycle of violence has a numbing effect. It is not only the children’s drawings that have lost all the colours of life, the children themselves have lost all hope and have no vision of the future. This was often apparent even during the peace process, when many could not come up with any ideas or ambitions. But now, there is overall depression and lack of security, which makes them unable to have any dreams for the future at all. Ask what they would like to be and the children will say that they would like to become martyrs. If the main desire they express is for death, how will they ever live?
The myths are only myths. Palestinian children are like children everywhere and need enough security to be able to dream of a future. Neither they, nor their parents, want them to be martyrs.
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