Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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Childhood disrupted

One of the most terrible effects of the Israeli occupation is the destruction of Palestinian childhood. Lesley Whiting shows how

Since the beginning of the second Intifada, over 400 Palestinian children have been killed, around 7,000 wounded, and 500 of those permanently disabled. Defence for Children International (DCI) figures indicate that there are about 350 children currently held in Israeli prisons. Almost all of the 1990 UN Rights of Children, to which Israel is a co-signatory, are routinely violated in the occupied territories.

According to UNICEF, all 1.8 million Palestinian children have experienced violence in some form during the Israeli military operations of April and May 2000. Children may be witness to violence against fathers, friends and brothers, in streets, at checkpoints or in their own homes. Children have been routinely tear- gassed, attacked with sound bombs, verbally abused or injured with shrapnel or rubber bullets on their way to school. Their sleep is often broken by machine gunfire, the sound of Israeli tanks moving in the street, tank shelling, US Apache helicopter gunships, from which missiles are fired into homes or at cars, the scream of F16 fighter jets, sniper fire, explosions, as soldiers explode doors to force entry into houses.

TV for many becomes the only form of entertainment under curfew. Hobbies are few and opportunities to participate in sports, play outdoors, go to movie theaters, clubs, friends or parks is non-existent. TV is often interrupted by breaking news of an attack, a shooting, a killing or new series of demolitions, which heightens the sense of anxiety or insecurity. Many families reported that they cannot even allow their children to look out of windows, due to fear of sniper fire.

At the end of the 2001-2002 school year, the Palestinian Ministry of Education reported that 216 students and 17 teachers had been killed, 2,514 students injured and 164 students and 71 teachers arrested. Approximately 50 per cent of students and 35,000 employees from the education sector were prevented from reaching schools. Most children spent their 2-3 month summer break imprisoned at home under strict military curfew.

Rita Giacaman from Birzeit University conducted a detailed study on schools in the Ramallah area. According to the results published in "Schooling at Gunpoint", 42 per cent of schools were directly affected by gunfire, of those approximately 50 per cent were fired on while school was convening, the other approximately 50 per cent while the school was empty. Most reported that this happened not once but on several occasions. Schools sustained extensive damage including broken walls and doors, shattered windows, furniture, computers, libraries, books and water tanks destroyed. Some had been shelled by tanks. Around 48 per cent had been invaded and some had been occupied by the army, which had then been surrounded by barbed wire to prevent access.

Closures and curfew mean that education is severely interrupted, with many children unable to reach school. When they do, many teachers report that they often find students anxious, distracted,

traumatised, or fixated on the dangers in the streets and unable to concentrate on their lessons. The impact of the occupation upon youth is highly disturbing. Days, weeks and months of being imprisoned in their homes during ongoing curfew take their toll.

Despite the parents' efforts, young boys slip into the streets. Many parents find themselves powerless to prevent this, and volunteers have witnessed children following tanks and being rounded up by adults, only to escape and return again and again to the streets. Schools are closed, shops are boarded up and whatever cinemas or clubs there were have long closed down.

According to DCI, approximately 350 children are currently being held under Israeli military or civil detention. During the first Intifada Israel arrested 175,000 Palestinians. In 2001, the Mandela Institute estimated that there were 2,247 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel does not use the term "political prisoners" but calls them "security detainees", thus delegitimising their political efforts and disassociating them with other legitimate struggles of people for independence, but also protecting Israel's reputation as a democracy.

Arrests of children may happen at home, in the street or at checkpoints. Arrests from home usually happen during the small hours of the morning, when heavily armed soldiers may forcibly enter the house, waking the family from sleep, violating all domestic boundaries that normally permit the child a sense of privacy, security and safety. They frequently verbally or physically abuse the residents, often resort to obscene sexual gestures, remarks or threats to the women, and "search" the house which usually means overturning and ransacking, sometimes stealing, the contents.

As the violations of children's rights have emerged into the media, simultaneously, an Israeli "analysis" of the problem has emerged alongside it. Some of the strangest myths which have made their way into Western consciousness via the media are variations on the following themes: "Their parents train them in violence", "they are schooled in hatred", "they send their children to the frontline to get injured or killed in a play for world sympathy".

Needless to say, these blatantly racist myths are both a way of distorting logic in the light of alarmingly high rate of child casualties in order to absolve the perpetrator and save Israel's face in the eyes of the world, while conveniently turning the blame on the parents and the victims for their own injury or deaths. These myths also conveniently dehumanise the Palestinians, who then become the demonised "other", supposedly capable of unthinkable atrocities against their own children.

As to the accusation that Palestinian parents send their children into danger, the real question ought to be why should children have to walk in front of tanks of an invading army to get to school, to a shop or medical clinic in the first place? Another question is what are heavily armed soldiers or paramilitary gangs of armed settlers doing in the Palestinian refugee camp, market place, or at the end of the street? And finally, which place in the course of living one's daily life as a Palestinian under a belligerent occupying power is considered not dangerous?

This article is excerpted from a lengthy report titled 'Childhood under Siege: The effects of Israeli occupation on Palestinian children'.

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