The future of Palestine’s children and society at risk

Palestinian girl taking cover in Nablus as Israeli tanks block the streets (Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh)

Israel portrays the children of Palestine as terrorists, faceless stone throwers, but due to Israeli policies, it’s highly complex matrix of control, the health, education and overall well-being of the 1.8 million children of Palestine are at severe risk, Adah Kay, Professor at City University, London stated at the UN Conference on Palestine held in New York City in mid-September. Kay co-authored the book Stolen Youth, with Catherine Cook and Adam Hanieh, former staff and volunteers with Defense for Children International/Palestine Section. Published in 2004 and subtitled, “The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children,” Stolen Youth is the first book to explore Israel’s incarceration of Palestinian children based on first-hand information from international human rights groups and NGO workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Children make up 53 per cent of the Palestinian population.

“Through law, politics and economic restrictions Israel governs Palestine with thousands of military orders controlling every aspect of their lives, down to what plants are allowed to be grown,” Kay explained, noting that particularly harsh punishment is handed out to Palestinian children in violation of Article 3, the Rights of Children. The principles espoused in Article 3 first appeared in international law in 1924 as the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and was later adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959 and recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1989.

Article 3 states that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” The article also acknowledges that “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”

“The use of prison is central to the occupation,” Kay said. “Since 1967, Israel has detained more than 600,000 Palestinians. Since the intifada until 30 June of this year, 2,650 children have been arrested and imprisoned.” Under Israeli jurisdiction, Palestinian children have no right to a lawyer nor are they permitted to know what the charges are.

“Children of 16 and 17 are treated by the military as adults, contrary to international law,” Professor Kay reported. “Palestinian children once arrested are subject to torture including severe beatings, exposure to extreme temperatures and forced into extreme positions. They are blindfolded, shackled and put into detention centers in military camps or in settlement outposts where the Israelis force them into signing confessions and attempt to recruit them as collaborators. They are almost always sent on to prison.”

Conditions in Israel prisons are overcrowded, and unsanitary. They lack supplies and medical care. Children are isolated, lonely and abused and endure lasting symptoms. Abuse in prison is systematic and amounts to torture. Many attempt suicide and are subject to disease. Once incarcerated, children have no access to formal education which historically has been highly valued in Palestine, according to Kay.

Professor Kay described how Palestinian education in general is under attack because of restrictions on movement. “Children and teachers are stopped at checkpoints and mounds of dirt block roadways. They are gassed, shot at and injured going to and from school,” she said. Between 2000 and February 2003, 132 students have been killed on their way to and from school.

“Schools and universities have been broken into, shelled and bulldozed by the military. Because of the constant disruptions there has been a decline in concentration. Absent-mindedness, panic attacks and requests for frequent breaks are on the increase,” the professor stated. Military orders have been used to close down schools and universities. Under these conditions, it is difficult to maintain standards and the arts and physical education have suffered as drop-out rates increase.

The over-all health of Palestinian children is also deteriorating with death, injury and disability on the rise. Though previously a middle class society, poverty has significantly increased along with severe malnutrition. In Gaza, malnutrition now equals that in poor sub-Saharan countries. Vitamin A deficiency is also on the rise and the immunization program which once had enjoyed a 90% participation rate has dropped to 50% due to sieges, closure and movement restrictions.

Kay outlined how Israel has deliberately prevented the supply of vaccines from reaching the Palestinian population. “Electricity is cut to clinics so medical supplies, including vaccines, are spoiled and mobile clinics are prevented from reaching their destinations. Palestinians lack access to safe water and must live with open sewers,” she added. Siege and military incursions have led not only to births at checkpoints, where dozens of women and their newborns die, there has been a serious decline in preventive health care for mothers and new born babies. Lack of access to safe water also increases health risks for children suffering from malnutrition. Water costs have risen by 80 per cent since 2000.

Despite violence which has become a fact of life under Israel’s brutal occupation, Palestinians still display a remarkable resiliency and strong coping mechanisms. However, the children are fearful for themselves and their families, with Gaza and the refugee camps displaying the greatest stress. Among these children violence is increasing. Funeral games are common and aggressiveness toward one another has increased. With death, disease, and disruptions, including homelessness common, parents are experiencing increased difficulty controlling their children as well as a decreased ability to care for them. Social opportunities are rare for these children and their vision for a future is bleak. “With the future of Palestine’s children and society at risk, how much longer will the world stand by?” Professor Kay asked.

Genevieve Cora Fraser is an environmental and human rights activist.

Related Links

  • Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children, Catherine Cook, Adam Hanieh, Adah Kay, Pluto Press (March 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: Children