The ongoing betrayal of Palestinian children (1/2)

A Palestinian teacher escorts school children during an Israeli military operation in the village of Al-Yamoun, near the West Bank city Jenin, December 20, 2005. (MAANnews/Mohamad Torkoman)

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, dispossession of Palestinian land and properties and discriminatory policies in Israel have hit Palestinian children hard. Recent research of the Palestinian Counselling Centre (PCC) has conclusively established that the wall has had a profound negative impact on the mental health of Palestinian children1 and created a major obstacle to them obtaining an education.2 In this article, Adri Nieuwhof and Jeff Handmaker examine certain violations of children’s rights caused by the formation of the State of Israel and following Israel’s occupation since 1967 and further explore their social and psychological impacts on children.

Long-term impacts of violence

In an appeal for donor support in 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that almost fifty per cent of Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have directly experienced violence or witnessed violence affecting a family member.3 In a document about children in situations of armed conflict of 1986, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came to the conclusion that:

“… war has an all-embracing impact on a child’s development, on his attitudes, his experiences of human relations, his moral norms and his outlook on life. Facing armed violence on a continuous basis creates deep-rooted feelings of helplessness and undermines the child’s trust in others.”

Well-respected researcher Raija-Leena Punamaeki is also quoted in the UNICEF study, drawing on her comprehensive research of Palestinian children and coming to a shocking conclusion: “Socialisation of children to desirable moral values is impossible in a beleaguered society”.

Ongoing violence towards children

Writing about Palestinian children who have been hurt by war and occupation is depressing. It is clear that for generations children have paid a particularly high price for this. Children who experienced the war in 1948 and witnessed the 1967 war are the parents, grandparents and possibly great-grandparents of today. Millions of Palestinian children have become homeless, refugees, displaced and orphans.

After 1967, children have, in addition, experienced daily the effects of the Israeli occupation. Israel’s illegal policy of encouraging and financing Jewish settlers to live in the occupied Palestinian territories has brought even more anxieties. As documented by numerous Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations as well as United Nations organisations and some governments, settlers who have received military and financial support from the Israeli occupation authorities have threatened and attacked Palestinian children. Israel is directly responsible for their illegal behaviour.

The perspective of an eyewitness from the village of Al-Nahalin was quoted in a United Nations document, which is mentioned in the study of the Division for Palestinian Rights:4

“From the outset the settlers have been provoking the inhabitants and now the village is like a virtual prison. The settlers, of course, have the support of the authorities. …. When they find children they beat them, and chase them. … All the complaints addressed to the authorities and to the settlers themselves have remained futile.” (sic)

The UN document makes clear that Palestinian children are made to feel inferior by the settlers who were far better off economically. Settlers are furthermore permitted to “defend” themselves with firearms, provided by the Israeli government. Settlers also benefit from a legal system that is not impartial.

Even a 1988 report by the United States Government5 described a discriminatory legal system prevailing in most of the Occupied Palestinian Territories:

“Jewish settlers in the occupied territories are subject to Israeli law while Palestinians are subject to Israeli military occupation law. Under the dual system of governance applied to Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians are treated less favourably than Jewish settlers in the same areas on a broad range of issues, such as the right to legal process, rights of residency, freedom of movement, sale of crops and goods, land and water use, and access to health and social services.”

“Iron fist” policies

In the eighties, Israel’s “iron fist “and “strong-arm” policies increased, leading to considerable loss of life and widespread injuries of children as well as violent interference with their universal rights to personal security, family, education and health.

In many different and tragic circumstances, most of which were fully avoidable had Israel respected human rights and the rules of engagement provided by international humanitarian law, countless Palestinian children have been killed or severely wounded.

For example, thousands of Palestinian children have been killed while travelling in a vehicle that did not stop for questioning by soldiers; during military or security agency operations where a family member was arrested; playing with explosives left behind (deliberately or through negligence) by the Israeli military; stepping on a mine; or during a raid on a school or participating in a demonstration that was met with Israeli military gunfire. There are accounts of soldiers beating and kicking children as young as 12 years old, either in prison, or in full view, outside on the street. Children have also been killed, kidnapped and beaten by settlers.

In each of these well-documented examples (there are many more), the fundamental right of children to personal protection was violated.

During this period the mental health of children has also become an urgent concern. Mental health professionals have documented a massive increase in psychiatric disorders amongst Palestinians.

Home demolitions in the Naqab In a recent press release, Physicians for Human Rights wrote that home demolitions in the Naqab (Negev)6 are a source of serious trauma for children. Physical trauma is particularly caused by the current weather conditions of cold weather and rain. Demolitions also cause profound emotional trauma that is intensified during Muslim celebrations, such as the sacred Eid al-Adha. The press release stated: “Home demolitions are under the cover of ‘unlicensed construction’, when their real intention is to traumatise the residents”. For children, this violent act implies not only the demolition of their homes but also of their lives, and will instil in them a destructive drive.7

On Wednesday, 18 January 2006, the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev warned about the recommendations of the Israeli National Security Council (NSC), which will be presented in the Herzliya Sixth Conference the following week. The NSC suggested that Palestinian Bedouins be forcefully evacuated in a campaign that can be compared with evacuation of the settlers from Gaza Strip. The population of the unrecognised villages is estimated at 80,000; 50 per cent is under the age of 18. However, unlike the settlers who illegally occupied land not belonging to them, Palestinian Bedouins are the indigenous residents of the Negev who lived on their land long before the establishment of the State of Israel.

An attack on a home is an attack on a child

Destroying the homes of children, the sealing-off of homes or rooms and the blocking and sealing-off of streets is a collective punishment. Apart from the fact that it is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, it also has a devastating psychological impact on Palestinian children. A safe and secure home is a basic need for every person. As Qouta and El-Sarraj have noted:

“When families witness the destruction of their own homes by enemy soldiers, the psychological effects can be serious. Loss of home can be a traumatic experience for not only the material loss but for psychological meaning. The home means the shelter and heart of family life. It contains memories and pain as well as attachment to the families’ objects. Home is associated with feelings of security and consolation.”8

Qouta and El-Sarraj studied a substantial amount of data on the severity of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms among children in the Middle East. Displacement from home especially led to increased depression among Lebanese children during the 1982 invasion and among Israeli children after the Iraqi shelling in 1990. Any attack by military forces on the homes of children is a major trauma in the life of a child.

Between 1967 and 1987, hundreds of houses were destroyed. This made children extremely vulnerable as it was not permitted to rebuild homes. According to UNRWA, between October 2000 and January 2004, 3,062 homes were completely or partially demolished and 2,524 homes needed repair in the Gaza Strip following attacks by the Israeli military. It has been confirmed by Defence for Children Palestine that there were 1,037 house demolitions in the occupied territories in 2003. In 2004, a staggering 1,471 families in the West Bank and Gaza lost their homes following attacks by the Israeli military, affecting the lives of almost 5,000 children.

Attacks on Palestinian homes and home demolitions are a regular activity of the Israeli military. In its weekly report of the week of 8 January 2006, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports that numerous houses were raided and 94 Palestinians were arrested, including 11 children. Six houses and a shop were transformed into military areas by the Israeli army.9

Accumulation of frustration and rage

A 1990 study from the Division for Palestinian Rights notes that:

“By the late 1980s, two generations of Palestinian children had grown up under military occupation. The children of 1967 had become adults and their children experienced the accumulated pain of a generation enduring a childhood under military occupation.”

The first Intifada that started in 1987 gave children the opportunity to clearly express their rejection of the occupation — its humiliation and deprivation. During the first year of the Intifada, 32 children under the age of ten were reported to have lost their lives. The number of children injured also rose sharply. After a year, thousands of Palestinian children under the age of 15 were recorded as having suffered injuries due to systematic beatings, exposure to tear gas and gunshots by live ammunition as well as plastic and rubber-coated metal bullets. Many injuries led to permanent disability.10

Since the beginning of the second Intifada (Al Aqsa), Israel has killed 749 children, 22 per cent of the overall death toll. Of the Palestinians injured, 42 per cent are children.11

The incapacity of the international community to develop adequate policies that hold Israel to account and stop the harm done to Palestinian children is heartbreaking. Rather than protect vulnerable Palestinian children, as they are legally and morally obliged to do, the powerful Israeli government can count on the protection and assistance of Europe and the United States. In the next section of this article, we speak of Israel’s and the international community’s legal responsibilities towards Palestinian children.