Last week, Israel passed new legislation targeting children. Under the new law, children under the age of 14 can now be imprisoned if they are convicted of perpetrating crimes or acts of resistance against Israel’s military rule.
To date, the international response to this law has been muted, with few international organisations or members of the international community speaking out against it. Why? Don’t societies attempt to create better lives for children so that they do not need to live through the ravages of war, poverty and violence? Apparently not when it comes to Palestinian children.
For Israel, attacking Palestinian children is one of the cornerstones of its measures to ensure that generations of Palestinians — whether old or young — perpetually suffer from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine or its continued denial of freedom. Whether in the realms of education, health or social services, Israel goes out of its way to make childhood a miserable experience for young Palestinians.
Palestinian children in the West Bank are already subjected to harsh prison conditions. Children as young as 12 are routinely imprisoned.
A 12-year-old girl was recently released after spending four months in an Israeli prison. Israel has imprisoned other Palestinian children, some for ‘crimes’ such as Facebook posts, with an estimated 414 children currently languishing in Israel’s prisons.
These children are often arrested in the middle of the night, with scores of heavily armed Israeli soldiers barging into homes where the children are sleeping. They are then blindfolded, their hands tied and more often than not subjected to physical abuse. Access to their parents or a lawyer is routinely denied.
Israel extracts ‘confessions’ from these terrified Palestinian children and, following the ‘confessions’, throws these children in prison, effectively ruining their lives.
But even for children who are not imprisoned by Israel, Israel ensures that they are not allowed to live happily. According to statistics, more than three-quarters of the 300,000 Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem live below the poverty line, including nearly 84 per cent of occupied Jerusalem’s Palestinian children.
A future in peril
This poverty is exacerbated by Israel’s failure to invest money in occupied East Jerusalem — despite collecting exorbitant taxes from them — and refusing to allow others to invest in its future. Today, Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem are woefully underfunded, with the UN forecasting a continued classroom shortage of 2,200 classes as we enter the new school year.
Palestinian parents are forced to find alternative education arrangements for their children in order to ensure that their kids are able to attend school.
But Israel’s actions towards children are not simply about the neglect of infrastructure or social services but of the deliberate destruction of Palestinian livelihoods, including homes and schools.
This year alone, Israel demolished more than 110 homes and buildings in occupied East Jerusalem, displacing the elderly, disabled and children alike. Palestinian playgrounds are the target of Israel’s demolitions too. Israel has demolished schools in occupied Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank and a number of Palestinian schools are currently under threat of demolition, including a school made of rudimentary materials such as tires and mud. Israeli colonists allege that this school, which educates children from ages 5 to 10, is a “security threat” to armed colonists in the neighbouring colony.
For Israel, any means of carrying on with ordinary life — whether it is living safely at home, going to school or even playing in a playground — are all considered threats to its security.
But children should not have to live with the fear that their safe spaces — homes and school included — will one day be demolished. And, should a child resist by, perhaps, throwing a stone at a bulldozer attempting to destroy their house, playground or school, that child can face a 20-year prison sentence. In other words, Israel reserves the right to make life miserable for children by denying them their basic human rights and freedoms.
Open air prison
Israeli leaders have in the past referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes”. This week alone, the mayor of an Israeli town indicated that he does not allow Palestinians swimming in their pools because their “hygiene culture” is “not like ours.” It is little wonder that two-thirds of Israeli teens believe Palestinians are “less intelligent” and “uncultured” while 50 per cent of them do not want to live in the same building as a Palestinian.
Our children live behind walls, in ghettos, dreaming of visiting the sea a few kilometres away. Others live in open-air prisons, having survived three major Israeli bombing attacks in which their friends, classmates and siblings were murdered. Our children know how to distinguish between the sounds of artillery fire and shelling, between Israeli machine-gun fire and snipers. They know how to distinguish between the sound of American-supplied tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets as well as telling the difference between Israeli F-16s and drones. Theirs is not a childhood; it is a death sentence.
Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and policy adviser to Al Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.