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.