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The constant presence of death in the lives of Palestinian children

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Relatives of the four boys from the Bakr family, killed during Israeli shelling. (Photo: Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images)

Relatives of the four boys from the Bakr family, killed during Israeli shelling. (Photo: Mohammed Abed / AFP – Getty Images)

At a gathering at the Abu Khdeir house in Jerusalem after Muhammad Abu Khdeir was burned alive, a mother narrated a conversation she had with her daughter:

Lama: “If I die, will they burn me like they burned Muhammad Abu Khdeir? What will happen to us? If I die like all the children in Gaza, how could I play or sing?”

Her mother replied: “But, you must keep on singing, nothing in this house is like you playing and singing. You are my little girl.”

Lama: “No Mama, I won’t sing, because my voice is afraid to be happy, I can’t even draw, because my hands do not want to draw the sun and the flowers. Mama, did they bomb the sun? Can they?”

Her mother: “No, no one can take the sun or the moon from us.”

Lama: “I know, the children are dying in Gaza, and all the colors died in Gaza… Mama, if I die, will you ever have a home? …Don’t worry, I will draw you a home, and children, they will sing and bring all the colors back to us…but, why do they fear children and kill them Mama?”

Lama’s voice is one of the many young voices that present serious questions, not only to her parents in Palestine, but to the world, about our failed morality. Scenes of displaced, injured and dead Palestinian children affected by the attack on Gaza are shared in the international media, yet their ordeals and suffering in the continuous attack on their society remain insufficiently examined and under-discussed. These are things that have occurred every day since the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”) in which their parents and grandparents were forced off their lands and into exile in places like Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. Today, the innocent children in Gaza pose questions that seem innocent, like those quoted above, but these inquiries must actually be interpreted as political questions that should challenge world leaders.

Numerous publicized reports and documents published by international and local Israeli and Palestinian human rights and children’s rights organizations teach us that politically motivated abuses against children are additional tools of Israel’s colonial dispossession of the Palestinian people. According to an update from Defence for Children International-Palestine, citing statistics from the United Nations, over 400 Palestinian children have been killed since Israel began its military offensive on Gaza. Over one three-day period of the conflict, a Palestinian child was murdered every hour, according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Lama’s questions, like many other Palestinian children’s questions, are matters of urgent concern in Palestine today. How can one reply to Lama’s question: “Why do they fear us Mama?” How can we explain that the conquest, the fear, and the continued dispossession of Palestinian life and land are the result of the settlers’ ideology and of the policies that have resulted from their own constant feeling of being threatened simply by the presence of the indigenous Palestinian population?

Childhood experience in Palestine is characterized by constant anxiety, the loss of homes, fear for safety even in children’s bedrooms, and worry over the meaningful objects they possess, such as toys. Palestinian children’s experiences are preconditioned by the larger socio-political context, that of living under the structural machinery of settler colonialism.

Israel is aware of the power that each Palestinian child possesses by virtue of their mere existence, and therefore, they need to keep children under constant threat of disappearing. For the colonizer, life passes not only through the capacity to kill the “other” in order to live, but also through the capacity to control the death of the “other” even after they are dead. Within the Israeli context, Palestinian children are viewed as security threats and therefore thrust outside the accepted and established human rights framework—one that sanctions the high civilian death toll that has been experienced in Gaza over the last few weeks— and into a discriminatory structure of power. In hearing Lama’s questions, one realizes how ever-present death is in her life.

Evicting the natives and targeting them at such an early stage in life serves to further the demonization, criminalization, incarceration, and killing of Palestinians, denying them the right to resist their own oppression. How else can we explain the statement by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel condemning the use of children as “human shields” in an ad so offensive in its comparison of Palestinian culture to “barbarism” that the London Times refused to run it? In this instance, even a Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor joined the settler colonial machinery of violence and uprooting to legitimate the regime and its expansion through continuous colonial appropriation.

During the attack on Gaza, the dead bodies of children became contested politicized objects. While some reporters and anonymous Twitter commenters highlighted the horror of the murder of innocent young civilians, the Israeli state sanctioned these actions, transforming children into approved tools to further the eliminatory regime of dispossession in Palestine. Yet despite the death and the hardship these particular Palestinians face, Lama’s narrative and the story of other children like her show that Palestinian children have already created their own kind of resistance. Even in the rubble, subjected to vicious shelling and an uncertain atmosphere of uprooting and loss, children find a way to draw their home, whether or not they actually still have a physical house, and speak out against the Israeli oppression by refusing to stop singing. These children find new ways to live, to play, to bring back the sun and create life.

Children’s dead and living bodies bear great significance and meaning, revealing the relationship between living, death and living death within Israel’s colonial regime of death. The all-too-ample evidence of Israel’s arbitrary power over the lives and bodies of Palestinian children and their abused and stolen childhoods challenges the securitized claim that “Israel has the right to self-defense.” The senseless deaths of Palestinian children, and the hardships and discrimination they experience in life even when they are permitted to live, show that the claim that Israel is simply “protecting itself” is racialized, immoral and unethical. The very claim collectively disciplines and punishes the entire Palestinian community and inscribes deadly terror on children’s lives and deaths. Palestinian children’s space—their homes, their playgrounds, their schools and even their drawings—become specific spaces of power where Israeli forces can exhibit their control.

In the context of a past history and continuing infliction of displacement, dispossession and violence, the attacks against Palestinians in Gaza should be considered an act of genocide. Israel targets and kills Palestinian children, not just because they pose a threat as “future terrorists,” but because they are the builders of the next generation. This feeds into the larger eliminatory strategy and therefore requires immediate political intervention—not just in the form of a ceasefire or truce, but by ensuring that these crimes against humanity and, in particular, against the Palestinian population, can no longer be committed by Israel or supported by the international community.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian
About Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian is the Director of the Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel and is a professor at the Faculty of Law, Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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6 Responses

  1. Scott
    Scott on August 22, 2014, 2:58 pm

    Very powerful piece. I hope sometime you write some first person accounts from Jerusalem–curious if such a piece were published in Haaretz, what would people say to you. (Of course, they’d say, that’s just the left wing Haaretz.) But how many Israelis wonder about Palestinians at all.

  2. just
    just on August 22, 2014, 4:16 pm

    Good comment, Scott.

    It is genocide, Nadera. Grotesque, depraved, and deliberate as genocide always is/has been. Nobody should be reluctant to use the word as it is clearly what is/has been happening since the beginning.

    Thank you.

  3. Citizen
    Citizen on August 23, 2014, 6:36 am

    Breaking News–IDF soldier stubs toe on Gaza debris, US Senate votes to send him and his family $250,000 compensation.

  4. Kay24
    Kay24 on August 23, 2014, 7:02 am

    Meanwhle beyond the apartheid fence, the youth are proud to be racists.

    “Israeli teenagers: Racist and proud of it
    Ethnic hatred has become a basic element in the everyday life of Israeli youth, a forthcoming book finds.
    “For me, personally, Arabs are something I can’t look at and can’t stand,” a 10th-grade girl from a high school in the central part of the country says in abominable Hebrew. “I am tremendously racist. I come from a racist home. If I get the chance in the army to shoot one of them, I won’t think twice. I’m ready to kill someone with my hands, and it’s an Arab. In my…
    Haaretz.

    • just
      just on August 23, 2014, 7:37 am

      Well Kay24, that article is sickeningly revealing and deeply disturbing.

      “A year later, however, the incident itself was still remembered in the school. The same student who told Yaron that she won’t think twice if she gets the opportunity “to shoot one of them” when she serves in the army, also said, “As soon as I heard about the quarrel with that leftist girl [Michal], I was ready to throw a brick at her head and kill her. In my opinion, all the leftists are Israel-haters. I personally find it very painful. Those people have no place in our country – both the Arabs and the leftists.”

      Anyone who imagines this as a local, passing outburst is wrong. As was the case with the girl from the ORT network vocational school who alleged earlier this year that her teacher had expressed “left-wing views” in the classroom – in this case too a student related that he cursed and shouted at a teacher who “justified the Arabs.” The students say that workshops to combat racism, which are run by an outside organization, leave little impression. “Racism is part of our life, no matter how much people say it’s bad,” a student said.

      The demand for quiet in the schools is not only an instrumental matter, deriving from the difficulty of keeping order in the classroom. There is also an ideological aspect involved. In general, there is a whole series of subjects that are not recommended for discussion in schools, such as the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to denote the establishment of the State of Israel), human rights and the morality of Israeli army operations. This was one of the reasons for the warnings issued by Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev during the fighting in the Gaza Strip about “extreme and offensive remarks.”

      Harpaz: “In Israel, the most political country there is, political education has not been developed as a discipline in which high-school students are taught how to think critically about political attitudes, or the fact that those attitudes are always dependent on a particular viewpoint and on vested interests.”

      http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.611822

      “such as the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to denote the establishment of the State of Israel)”

      seems the author has his own ‘problem’, eh?

      Good to see that Haaretz used a photo of the Lehava at the wedding…

  5. just
    just on August 23, 2014, 8:25 am

    Gideon Levy:

    “The picture on the mourning poster shows the beautiful, sad face of a boy, his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, his skin sallow, his eyes wide open. In the photograph, one of two images used for the posters, the boy is already dead. Only his open eyes give the impression of life. In the other poster, the eyes are already closed for all time.

    Khalil Anati was 10 years and eight months old and came from the Al-Fawar refugee camp, south of Hebron in the West Bank, when he was killed. An Israeli soldier had opened the door of his armored jeep, picked up his rifle, aimed it at the upper body of the boy, who was running with his back to the soldier, and cut him down with one bullet, fired from a distance of a few dozen meters.

    It was early morning on Sunday, August 10. The street was almost empty – the idleness, the unemployment and the heat in this squalid refugee camp leave people in their beds late – and the soldiers were apparently in no danger. According to testimony, there were only another three or four young children in the street; they were throwing stones at the jeep. There were no “riots” and no mass “disturbances.”

    Khalil tried to advance another few meters after the bullet lodged in his lower back, before falling to the ground in the middle of the narrow alley, its width about that of a person, that ascends to his home. Someone heard him shout, in Arabic: “The bastards shot me.” By the time he arrived at the hospital in Hebron – he had been transported in a private vehicle since the camp does not have an ambulance – he was dead from loss of blood.

    The soldier who shot him quickly shut the door of the jeep and hightailed it out of the camp, together with his buddies. Mission accomplished.

    The bereaved father, Mohammed, asks now with dry eyes why the soldier who killed him did not at least offer his son first aid, or summon help. “If they are human beings, that is what they should have done. Why didn’t they do that?”

    We sat this week in front of the Anatis’ ramshackle home, a few meters from the scene of the crime. No other refugee camp is comparable to Al-Fawar, in terms of wretchedness and forlornness. A putrid stench wafts from the bursting garbage bins, which no one empties, and from the sewage that flows unchecked through the alleys. An Israeli who has never been here cannot begin to imagine what it’s like. It’s also a tough place, which the army rarely enters.

    But on that fateful Sunday two army jeeps, one of them flying a huge Israeli flag, drove in, escorting a vehicle of Mekorot, the national water company, which had apparently come to check the pipes connecting to the camp’s wells.

    Khalil was shot to death at about 9:30 in the morning. His father, a scrap peddler, was still asleep. Only the boy’s uncle, Mahmoud Anati, peering out of his window which overlooks the narrow alley, saw what was going on and spotted the jeep. He rushed to his 80-year-old father, Ahmed Anati, Khalil’s grandfather, who was at that moment on the roof of a house that is being built as part of a special United Nations Refugee Agency project, for the camp’s old people.

    Mahmoud told his father to come inside, for fear of the soldiers; from experience he knows that the troops are quick to fire teargas in order to disperse the children. He hustled his aged father into the house, but is today consumed with feelings of guilt for not having done the same for his nephew.

    The street, Mahmoud recalls, was quiet. Then he suddenly heard a single shot ring out and his nephew shout. He rushed into the alley. A construction worker at the site of the home for the aged had already picked up the bleeding boy and was running with him toward the main street, in order to flag down a car to take him to the hospital.

    At one point, Khalil fell from the worker’s hands. He and Mahmoud picked him up and put him the car of a Bedouin man who was visiting in the camp. They shouted to people to call an ambulance, but knew that would take precious time, so they sped in the private car to Al Ahli Hospital in Hebron.

    As the car left the camp, Khalil stopped moving, and by the time they reached the hospital, he was no longer breathing. Mahmoud tried to staunch the bleeding with his hands. The boy’s last words to his uncle were, “Don’t be afraid.”…. ”

    http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/twilight-zone/.premium-1.611856

    “Don’t be afraid.”

    (Not at all unusual for a brave-beyond-their-years critically ill or dying child– trying to soothe the adults.)

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