Palestinian children have been the subject of much debate during the second intifada. Israeli government officials have falsely portrayed them as unwitting pawns of Palestinian gunmen who use them as human shields, and as the offspring of calculating parents who value their children’s lives as an economic commodity that they are willing to sacrifice for money.
As the intifada has intensified, the image of Palestinian children in Israel has become progressively melded with the faceless image of the “Palestinian terrorist.” In the international media, children are depicted as either stone-throwing youth or as casualty statistics, lying on a stretcher or in a morgue. Palestinian children are either demonized or victimized. The reality of these children’s lives is far more complex.
For the past 36 years, each generation of Palestinian children has grown up under Israeli occupation. The occupation not only impacts their immediate physical integrity and mental health, but also has a profound impact on their future. At present, children live in an environment of extreme instability and are exposed to violence on a daily basis. Vital factors necessary for their healthy development, including stability, security, recreation, and sound nutrition are frequently lacking. These conditions prematurely force children into adult roles and rob them of their childhood.
Israel’s measures in the Occupied Territories result in gross violations of children’s rights as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with only two countries–”the United States and Somalia–”having failed to ratify it. As a state party to the CRC, Israel is legally bound to implement its provisions.
The overriding principle of children’s rights is found in article 3, which states: ”In all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” But documentation from human rights organizations and other institutions indicate that Israel has shown insufficient consideration for the impact of their policies on Palestinian children.
These children are routinely subjected to a variety of violations, including of the right to life (article 6), the right to education (article 28), the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (article 37), and the right to health (article 24), among others.
Killings, Injuries, and Arrests:
As of January 2004, the Palestinian child rights organization Defense for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI/PS) had documented the deaths of over 500 Palestinian children (under 18). These deaths were the result of Israeli occupation policies implemented in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip since September 2000. DCI/PS reports that an estimated 10,000 children were wounded during that period.
The majority of these children were killed and injured while going about normal daily activities, such as going to school, playing, shopping, or simply being in their homes. Sixty-four percent of children killed during the first six months of 2003 died as a result of Israeli air and ground attacks, or from indiscriminate fire from Israeli soldiers.
In addition to children killed and injured, approximately 2,200 have been arrested. As of January 2004, between 360 and 370 children were being held in detention centers and prisons in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Testimonies gathered from child prisoners, and confirmed by local and international human rights organizations, demonstrate that from the moment of arrest through their incarceration these children are subjected to a systematic pattern of physical and psychological abuse, often amounting to torture. Such abuse includes being beaten, tied in contorted positions for extended periods of time, deprived of food and sleep, and being threatened and humiliated. Family and attorney visits are regularly obstructed or denied.
Virtually every convicted Palestinian child is sentenced to prison, where they are held in overcrowded, unsanitary facilities and face abuse from prison staff and Israeli inmates. In most facilities, Palestinian children have no access to formal education and the prison administrations fail to provide them with adequate supplies and medical care.
Health and Education:
Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement, such as curfews and closures, have resulted in skyrocketing unemployment and poverty rates. This has caused a drastic decline in children’s health as families are unable to adequately feed their children or access to food is restricted. A January 2003 report by CARE International noted that chronic malnutrition among children under five has reached emergency rates and over 40 percent of children in that age group are anemic.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, confirmed these trends in an October 2003 report. His report noted that the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is on the verge of a manmade ”humanitarian catastrophe.” Over 50 percent of Palestinians are completely dependent on food aid and severe malnutrition rates among children in the Gaza Strip have reached those found in sub-Saharan Africa.
Perhaps the gravest impact of Israel’s occupation policies has been to children’s mental health. Since September 2000, Palestinian children have lived in an environment of continuous violence and uncertainty, which has led to a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. An April 2003 survey by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program found that 33 percent of children surveyed require psychological intervention and 49 percent suffered from moderate level PTSD symptoms. Only 2.5 percent of the children surveyed had no symptoms of the disorder.
A March 2003 Save the Children Sweden and United Kingdom study noted that parents report that their children under five exhibit disturbing behavioural symptoms, including increased violence and aggression, lack of concentration, failure to eat properly and maintain good hygiene, bed-wetting and nightmares. According to a July 2003 joint study by Save the Children US and the Secretariat of the National Plan of Action for Palestinian Children, 90 percent of parents reported that their children exhibit similar, traumatic stress-related symptoms.
The educational process also has been severely disrupted. The poor economic situation has prompted some children to leave school in search of work. Those who remain enrolled face significant challenges. Maintaining a national educational standard has been extremely difficult given that each area of the West Bank and Gaza has been affected to a different extent by Israeli curfews, closures, and invasions.
On the way to school, children and teachers are routinely tear-gassed, harassed, or present when soldiers open fire–”all of which affect the quality of instruction and a child’s ability to perform well once in the classroom. Additional factors such as increasingly stressful home environments and military raids on residential neighborhoods, as well as attacks on schools themselves, exacerbate the difficult situation.
The conditions of children’s lives during this intifada are not new; they are simply an intensification of those experienced by previous generations of Palestinian children who have grown up under occupation. The violations to which Palestinian children are subjected are not an arbitrary departure from otherwise good practice. They are part and parcel of Israel’s occupation–”a system of control that is backed by legal, political, and economic structures. This system is fundamentally aimed at regulating and restricting the lives of Palestinians and keeping over three million people under submission.
Despite the trying circumstances of their lives, Palestinian children express resilience. While only 15 percent of children surveyed in the Save US/Secretariat study believed that the political situation is likely to improve, 70 percent believe they have the ability to improve their personal situation. Ninety percent responded that personal and academic ”self-improvement” was their main way of coping with the current situation and preparing for the future.
However, the cumulative effects of more than three years of sustained rights abuses will take many years to mitigate. The children Israel targets today with its violence, repression, and policies of collective punishment are the future of Palestinian society. With children constituting over half the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories, the impact of Israel’s rights abuses during this intifada is cause for grave concern about the future.