Suffer the little children: Childhood and the Occupation in Palestine

My teammate Eva and Iwalked up the family home stairs to get a better view of the nearby settlementof Itamar from the flat rooftop. Along with the clothes drying in the intensemorning sun and the view that stretched across olive trees to the Itamarsettlement, were the detritus of a child’s playtime – a small bed, a stick withflag of ragged plastic, two boxes filled with rocks and stones. Our host Najah indicatedto the mess her eight year old son had promised to tidy up, remarking on howall boys seem to be untidy, and then explained what the bed and rocks were for.

Her son hadbuilt this miniature camp on the roof to protect the family from settlerattacks. Settler attacks are a part of life in this area and, as elsewhere inthe West Bank, the settlers enjoy impunity for their actions and are defendedby the Israeli army. According to Defence of Children International (DCI), “By deploying the military and police for theprotection of settlers in the Occupied Territory at the expense of the occupiedPalestinian population, Israel is failing to uphold its obligations to protectthe rights of all children under its control without distinction”. Thisyoung boy has lived his short life in the shadow of the occupation and the fearthat comes with it.  When he was twoyears old the Israeli army came in to their home and took it over, locking thefamily in one room. This is common practice when the army wants to use a house asa strategic base. After this experience the toddler became increasinglynervous, was afraid to go to the bathroom alone, would wake shouting out in thenight and cling to his mother during the day. This makeshift ‘camp’, a tragic reflectionof a frightened child prepared to protect his parents from something too bigfor any of them to take on, was heartbreaking and symptomatic of the fear thatexists in so many children living under the occupation. In my team’s conversationswith teachers in several villages in the North West Bank, they reportedchildren as experiencing nightmares, bedwetting and general anxiety because ofsettler violence and army incursions.

Article 31 ofthe Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children have “the right torelax and play”, but the fear that permeates the childhoods of children whoexperience regular army incursions and settler violence and intimidation takesfrom this right. Furthermore, the UNCommittee on the Rights of the Child, in March 2010, acknowledged that Israel hasfailed to meet its obligations to apply the right to life indiscriminately(DCIReport, 2010).

Naja is a teacher andso sees firsthand the impact of the occupation on her young primary agestudents. The village of Awarta has suffered numerous army incursions thisyear. In March, immediately after the murder of five members of the Fogl familyat nearby Itamar settlement, Awarta was subjected to six weeks of nightly armyincursions, where houses were searched and ransacked and hundreds of men, womenand children arrested. While this was a particularly intense period for thevillage, army incursions are not out of the ordinary in the normal run ofthings. Naja reported how many children are not sleeping well at night becausethey fear settler attacks. She has often found that they fall asleep at schooland that when asked about this they have said that they feel safe enough tosleep in the school, that for them school is the safest place they can be. Forsome getting to school is too difficult. Those travelling from Aqroba, 3kmaway, have no access to transport and so even at six years of age must walk thesteep and frightening path to school. Many stop coming because they arefrightened of meeting soldiers or settlers on route. During the Awarta armycurfew the girls secondary school was used by the Israeli army as a place tointerrogate the residents of Awarta, including the children (UNICEF, May 2011).

The Declaration of theRights of the Child states that a child is entitled to receive education(Principle Seven) and according to International Humanitarian Law “theoccupying power must  facilitate all institutions devoted to thecare and education of children” (Article 50, 4th Geneva Convention).These needs are not being met, across the West Bank children are prevented fromattending school because their route to school involves passing soldiers andsettlers, or because their school route involves passing through armycheckpoints. In the case of Ein El Helwe, a community the EAPPI Yanoun teamvisit in the Northern Jordan Valley, the bus is too small for the numbers thatneed it. When the children reach the Tubas checkpoint they are made to get offand the boys are harassed by the soldiers. The bus is only allowed through withthe correct number of students and the rest, usually boys, are made to walk the10km back home, past a settlement and soldiers, without attending school.

Across the villages andfamilies we visit, this theme of fear of soldiers and settlers amongst thechildren is a common denominator. In the Jordan Valley, Abu Saker in theHadidiya community spoke to me of how he sees his children as being differentfrom his generation because they are all so afraid. This Bedouin community isoften used as a military training ground and they have experienced a number ofhouse and animal shelter demolitions. Likewise, here in Yanoun I saw a childshiver when her mother explained to her that we were discussing a recentsettler ‘visit’,  another child was toofrightened to answer the door one day when I called to buy cheese, his fatherexplained that he had thought I was a settler as I passed the window. This fearwill only be augmented by the arrival on Sunday morning (August 07) of twosettlers with an armed Israeli army escort of four soldiers before 6am. The twosettlers wearing army bulletproof vests and helmets and accompanied by fourarmed Israeli soldiers spent an hour in the village photographing it for“research”. Villagers were told to get back into their houses by the soldierswhen they questioned what the men were doing and why they were wearing armyclothing.

I would neverwant to suggest, however, that Palestinian children live their lives in acheerless fog. As I am writing this I can hear the shrieks and peals oflaughter from the children gathered outside, making the most of thepost-fasting night-time of Ramadan. The children here, as with the adults,laugh and joke and open their doors with incredible generosity in spite of thestress and heartache of the occupation that they also feel every day. Thechildren of all the villages have grown up with soldiers and settlers arrivingat any time of the day or night, of guns, tear gas and sound grenades andpossible arrest. The Declaration of The Rights of the Child states that“mankind owes to the child the best it has to give”, there is so much betterthan this to give.

References:

http://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf (Convention on the Rights of the Child)

http://www.dci-pal.org/english/publ/research/Settler_violence_2010_report.pdf (Defence for Children International Report, 2010)

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