Last Thursday evening, I attended ‘Palestinian Children Under Threat’, the London leg of a speaking tour by Ayed Abu Eqtaish from Defense for Children International-Palestine at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
The event’s timing was fortuitous, foreshadowing this week’s House of Lords debate about the impact of their living conditions on the health and well being of Palestinian children. The debate is sponsored by Lord Norman Warner, who recounted a harrowing visit to the West Bank on Open Democracy last month, concluding “Is it really any surprise that teenagers throw stones in protest?”
Guided by the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), DCI-Palestine monitors human rights abuses of Palestinian children and advocates for their safety and welfare. Ayed is DCI-Palestine’s Accountability Program Director and his sold-out SOAS talk focused on Palestinian children ensnared in Israel’s ghastly military justice system.
Ayed’s delivery is jarringly matter-of-fact. Fiddling with his watch on the table in front of him and unaided by notes, he dispensed grim details of a child’s journey from a night raid by Israeli soldiers on the family home, to incarceration, and sometimes to solitary confinement.
The child is usually a boy. He is occasionally beaten in front of his family. He is routinely removed from the West Bank to Israel, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. He is interrogated without his parents present. He signs a confession in Hebrew, a language he doesn’t know. Sometimes he is tortured, although less often these days.
Ayed tells us that physical torture of Palestinian children was common a few years ago, but interrogators observed that those being tortured often call up reserves of strength to resist, rendering it counter-productive. Instead, they discovered, psychological terror can be more effective: threatening to arrest the child’s family members, for instance, or to revoke his father’s work permit.
We learned that depriving the child of human contact has also proved fruitful. In fact, DCI-Palestine has recorded 78 cases of Palestinian children in solitary confinement, including one kid who was held for 45 days. Afterwards, Ayed said, these children are grateful for anyone who talks to them, will make the interrogator their ‘friend’, will say whatever it takes not to be alone again, not to receive meals through a hole in the wall. For the child in solitary confinement, a voice breaching the silence transcends the human, becomes a blessing.
In short, tactics consist of whatever is likely to produce the required confession. 98% of Palestinian children are thus convicted.
Indeed, Israel makes a range of special provisions for Palestinian kids. For legal purposes, Israeli childhood ends at 18, mirroring the definition set by the UNCRC which Israel ratified in 1991; for Palestinian youth it terminates at 16. (You might recall the New York Times‘s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren infamously selecting the Israeli definition in order to obscure the number of Palestinian children massacred during Israel’s savage 50-day blitz of Gaza in 2014).
Early this month, Israel extended the ‘administrative detention’—incarceration without charge or trial—of seven Palestinian youth, one of whom is only 15. And as I was working on this piece today, I spotted an alert from the Ma’an News Agency that a boy of 14 has been sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly trying to stab a security guard at an illegal Israeli settlement.
Alongside news like this, including the arrest of kids as young as six last autumn in Bethlehem, Ayed’s presentation made plain that a Palestinian childhood expires a good deal earlier than any legal definition can convey.
His talk was preceded by two short films about children in Palestine that had been produced by the UK’s National Union of Teachers (NUT) in collaboration with the charity Edukid, which supports educational opportunities for children living in poverty and conflict. The NUT’s Junior Vice-President, Kiri Tunks, explained that the films had been made as part of the NUT’s Beyond the Wall project, and had met with some controversy.
If you follow the UK media scene, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Daily Telegraph, which fiercely opposes Palestinian human rights and abandons basic standards of journalism relentlessly to smear pro-Palestine activists, alongside rabid ‘red tops’ like The Sun, attacked one of the films, My Name is Saleh, as ‘anti-Semitic’ propaganda being force-fed to the nation’s young.
The charge was led by Sir Eric Pickles, a Member of Parliament and Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel—the AIPAC of the UK—who has made the unconditional defense of Israel and the unremitting dehumanization of Palestinians his life’s mission.
During the Q&A session, an audience member expressed bewilderment at the propaganda claim, and asked Tunks for specifics. She explained that the complaint alleged that Saleh, the 10 year-old featured in the film, had used the word ‘Jews’ rather than ‘Israelis’ or ‘settlers’. Apparently this made the film anti-Semitic. Besides the fact that this simply isn’t true, there were four months between the film’s release at the NUT conference in April 2015 and the objection, which was raised the following August.
Curiously, the complaint appeared the same week Israeli settlers firebombed the home of the Dawabshe family in the village of Duma, killing 18 month-old toddler Ali. His parents died a few weeks later, leaving his brother Ahmed an orphan. For the likes of Sir Eric and the Telegraph’s journalists, a rare instance of international outrage on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians might have seemed the opportune moment to smear a 10 year-old boy, and those who sought to tell his story. It’s what the shrewd Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby would call a ‘dead cat’ story, thrown onto the table when the message threatens to veer off course. Consequently, My Name is Saleh was taken offline for a time as its producers, who were determined to bring the voices of Palestinian children into the public sphere, fended off the hasbara siege. But they prevailed and it’s back up again; watch it here and decide for yourself.