UN office: Palestinian children’s rights being violated

An Israeli soldier detains a Palestinian child as a man argues with the soldier during an army operation in the West Bank city of Qalqilia, May 2008. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (IPS) - Palestinian children continue to be victims of disproportionate and indiscriminate violence from the both the Israeli occupation and internal Palestinian infighting in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in its August report expressed concern for the inadequate protection afforded Palestinian children.

“In one of the gravest incidents in July, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Husam Yousef Mosa, was shot in the head with live ammunition and killed by the Israeli border police following an anti-barrier demonstration in Nilin village in the central West Bank,” the report says.

The following day, 15-year-old Yousef Ahmad Amira was declared brain dead after he too was shot in the head at close range with several rubber-coated metal bullets, also by Israel’s paramilitary border police.

“Another 44 children were injured this month, all but one in the West Bank. Two children were killed and seven injured in Palestinian internal fighting in the Gaza Strip in July.”

“All these incidents brings the number of child fatalities to 95 Palestinians and four Israelis, while the number of child injuries has reached 386 for Palestinians and eight for Israelis since the beginning of the year,” the report added.

IPS spoke to Muhammad Ayman, 18, from the West Bank village of Al-Mazraa al-Qiliya near Ramallah who saw his close friend Muhammad Shreitih bleed to death after being shot in the head by an Israeli settler during a demonstration to protest Israel’s bloody offensive into Gaza several months ago.

“I struggle to sleep at night as I continue to have nightmares, only to wake up covered in sweat after seeing Muhammad’s face in a pool of blood,” Ayman said.

Ayman and several friends were shot at by an Israeli settler from the adjacent Israeli settlement of Telmond, but only Shreitih was hit.

“The settler started shooting towards us before we even reached the settlement. He got out of the bus and came towards us and shot from 50 meters away,” Ayman said.

The teenagers attempted to evacuate their seriously injured friend to hospital but he was dead on arrival. A subsequent Israeli police investigation ruled the settler had shot “in self-defense.”

Marwan Diab, a psychologist from the Gaza Community Health Programme (GCHP) that counsels traumatized children says that the psychological impact of the endemic violence on Palestine’s future leaders and adults is dire.

“A generation of Palestinian children face the danger of being psychologically damaged beyond repair unless there is sufficient urgent psychological intervention and an improvement in the political, social and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip,” he told IPS.

Patricia McPhillips, special representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, shared concern over Diab’s findings.

“We are extremely concerned about the children,” she told IPS. “Last year alone, 37,500 Palestinian children in the occupied territories participated in our group counseling sessions, 1,200 in individual sessions, and over 18,000 care givers participated in parenting sessions. We also visited 800 families in homes and hospitals following acute episodes.”

Both Diab and McPhillips reported a positive response to their intervention, but said long-term results still needed to be assessed.

Beyond the high number of deaths and injuries, Palestinian children also battle overwhelming odds to lead a normal life in the face of discrimination, poverty and a lack of recreational and educational facilities, and a political horizon devoid of hope for their precarious existence.

John Ging, Gaza director of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA told IPS that 50-60 percent of Gazan children at UNRWA schools had failed their math exams, while 40 percent failed their Arabic exams at the beginning of the year.

“School attendance has been seriously disrupted due to inter-factional fighting, repeated Israeli military raids, and unprecedented poverty where children come to school hungry and unable to concentrate,” said Ging.

UNRWA provides free schooling for Palestinian refugee children from grade one through nine, and offers limited secondary education. But even these schools are forced to operate double shifts to overcome the shortage of places.

According to UNICEF, 70 percent of Gaza’s children are refugees (588,000 out of 840,000 children).

Haifa Fahmi El-Agha, the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry’s director-general in the Gaza Strip, told IPS that failure rates at schools run by the PA in Gaza were deliberately made lower to cope with overcrowded classrooms, too few schools and limited educational funds.

From birth itself Palestinian children are disadvantaged, with many infants dying from congenital malformation, low birth weight, premature birth and acute respiratory infection in the camps, says UNRWA.

This is compounded by high rates of malnutrition, economic privation and unemployment, exacerbated by the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Palestinian children are also jailed regularly by the Israelis and held in facilities with adult criminals. They receive practically none of the rights given to Israeli minors jailed.

According to a report released several months ago by OCHA, the Israeli army arrested around 700 Palestinian children in 2007, 30 of whom were held on administrative detention orders where they are detained without trial.

“The number of children arrested in 2007 brings the total number of Palestinian children arrested by Israel since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 to approximately 5,900,” said OCHA.

The report also described the physical abuse and humiliating treatment during arrest, and the physical and psychological abuse during interrogation, after many of the children were arrested at checkpoints, in the streets, or at home in the middle of the night following raids by the Israeli military.

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem says some Palestinian children are held in solitary confinement in the “lock-up” — a dark cell one-and-a-half by one-and-a-half meters.

Others are confined to the “closet,” a narrow cell one can stand in but not sit or move. The “grave” — a kind of box closed by a door from the top and measuring approximately one meter by 60 centimeters with a depth of about 80 centimeters is another favorite used by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet.

Many of the children are jailed for political offenses such as throwing stones. According to the Defence for Children International - Palestine Section, the penalties handed out to Palestinian children are generally very harsh.

Stone-throwing can earn 10-20 years, damage to an Israeli army facility carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment at the court’s discretion, and harming, insulting or threatening the army carries a 10-year sentence — five years less than the average murder sentence in Israel, says DCI-PS.

The only ray of light on the horizon is the hope of a political settlement, without which conditions in the Palestinian territories will not be alleviated.

“There is no question whatsoever that the plight of Palestinian children is inextricably intertwined with politics, and my reason for cautious optimism is the amazing resilience I have witnessed amongst these youngsters, despite the extraordinary difficulties they face,” Diab said.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.