Reappraisal of the Rights of Palestinian Refugee Children in the Occupied Territories

Reappraisal of the Rights of Palestinian Refugee Children in the Occupied Territories

PREFACE

"War on children" is undoubtedly one of the most inhuman legacies of the 20th century. More than 1.5 million children were killed in wars world-wide during the 1990s. Palestinian children were not exempted from this scourge. To mark the third anniversary of the Aqsa Intifada the PRC decided to organize a special week of activities in honor of the sacrifices of Palestinian children. The publication of this thought-provoking study falls within the scope of these activities.


 

Whether under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) or in the refugee camps abroad, the life of Palestinian children is characterized by misery and deprivation. While schools are forever in short supply, recreational facilities are virtually non-existent. In Bethlehem where the Blessed Child was born 2,000 years ago there is not a single playground in the year 2003. The net result has been low educational achievements, high drop out rates from schools, economic exploitation, and an imposed dependence upon Israel, the Occupying Power.

While the challenges facing Palestinian children are by no means insurmountable, they are certainly formidable. Yet, Palestinian parents continue to invest invaluable time and resources in their young; hoping that their future will not only be different but actually better than their past.

Present conditions, however, cast a long and dark future over the future. Three years ago the British Member of Parliament, Mr. Richard Burden, told a House of Commons debate (30/11/99) on the Palestinian right to return that "half the refugees are children, who are growing up with an uncertain future." Instead of being inspired by pleasurable childhood memories they are slowed down and impeded at every turn by the permanent psychological injuries inflicted by the Occupier.

With the clouds of political uncertainty still hanging over the WBGS, the rights of Palestinian children remain constantly under threat. There is no definite answer as to who is responsible for protecting them. In theory, Article 22 of the Basic Law of Palestine states that: "Motherhood, childhood, the family, the young and the youth have the right to protection and to the availability of proper opportunities for the development of talents." In reality, though, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has practically no control over parts of the WBGS. It does not have the control over its borders that enables it to import medicine or transfer patients abroad for treatment if the need arises. Until these matters of sovereignty, borders and legislation are resolved the rights of Palestinian children in the territories will remain dead letters on paper.

Having long shattered the barriers of fear, the Children of the Catastrophe [Awlad al Nakba] are, without doubt, Palestine's greatest asset. Tested and pushed to the limits many times in the past they have proven themselves stronger in some ways than their heavily armed adversaries. This is because, "It takes much more courage for a child armed with stones to confront gun-toting troops than it does for those troops to confront children."1 On the occasion of the "Palestinian Children's Week" the PRC offers this tribute with the hope that their current dreams will become the realities of tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

PREFACE

"War on children" is undoubtedly one of the most inhuman legacies of the 20th century. More than 1.5 million children were killed in wars world-wide during the 1990s. Palestinian children were not exempted from this scourge. To mark the third anniversary of the Aqsa Intifada the PRC decided to organize a special week of activities in honor of the sacrifices of Palestinian children. The publication of this thought-provoking study falls within the scope of these activities.

Whether under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) or in the refugee camps abroad, the life of Palestinian children is characterized by misery and deprivation. While schools are forever in short supply, recreational facilities are virtually non-existent. In Bethlehem where the Blessed Child was born 2,000 years ago there is not a single playground in the year 2003. The net result has been low educational achievements, high drop out rates from schools, economic exploitation, and an imposed dependence upon Israel, the Occupying Power.

While the challenges facing Palestinian children are by no means insurmountable, they are certainly formidable. Yet, Palestinian parents continue to invest invaluable time and resources in their young; hoping that their future will not only be different but actually better than their past.

Present conditions, however, cast a long and dark future over the future. Three years ago the British Member of Parliament, Mr. Richard Burden, told a House of Commons debate (30/11/99) on the Palestinian right to return that "half the refugees are children, who are growing up with an uncertain future." Instead of being inspired by pleasurable childhood memories they are slowed down and impeded at every turn by the permanent psychological injuries inflicted by the Occupier.

With the clouds of political uncertainty still hanging over the WBGS, the rights of Palestinian children remain constantly under threat. There is no definite answer as to who is responsible for protecting them. In theory, Article 22 of the Basic Law of Palestine states that: "Motherhood, childhood, the family, the young and the youth have the right to protection and to the availability of proper opportunities for the development of talents." In reality, though, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has practically no control over parts of the WBGS. It does not have the control over its borders that enables it to import medicine or transfer patients abroad for treatment if the need arises. Until these matters of sovereignty, borders and legislation are resolved the rights of Palestinian children in the territories will remain dead letters on paper.

Having long shattered the barriers of fear, the Children of the Catastrophe [Awlad al Nakba] are, without doubt, Palestine's greatest asset. Tested and pushed to the limits many times in the past they have proven themselves stronger in some ways than their heavily armed adversaries. This is because, "It takes much more courage for a child armed with stones to confront gun-toting troops than it does for those troops to confront children."1 On the occasion of the "Palestinian Children's Week" the PRC offers this tribute with the hope that their current dreams will become the realities of tomorrow.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Adult conceptualizations of young Palestinian minds range from celebrating the indomitable little spirit to rebuke of the destructive deviance resulting from a shattered or manipulated childhood. The phenomenon of children trapped in a hopeless political quagmire desperately seeking family, societal and religious approval with reckless defiance is complex. These "children of the stones", as popularized by the Arab media, have been perhaps the single most important factor in sustaining the Palestinian resistance of the Israeli occupation of their lands. With the Palestinians Authority or militants unable to counter the overwhelming military superiority of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), it is the child protestors who continue to engage and frustrate the occupiers. Stirring images of children on the frontline do more than the confused strategies of the Arab politicians to keep international attention on the smoldering dispute despite international apathy. Yet, these children with stones are not made of stone and pay a disproportionately heavy price (Mansour, 1990; Kuttab, 1988; El Sarraj, 1996) particularly with calls for withdrawal of their entitlement to basic rights as children.

The children of the Al- Nakba ("major catastrophe") among the estimated 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homelands during 1947-48, are now among the disconcerted grandparents watching the continuing conflict consume yet another generation. Throughout the Palestinian struggle, children have played a range of roles in resistance, though it was the first intifada or uprising (1987-1993) which exposed to the Western world the scale of participation and suffering amongst Palestinian children. (Aruri, 1984: 250-254, Nixon, 1990). The beginning of the Al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, however, marks a further escalation not only in the body count of the hundreds of Palestinian children killed and thousands injured but also in the levels of violence children are apparently willing to engage in.

Labeled as irregular child combatants in everyday crossfire, these children are easily relegated as regrettable but largely avoidable and ill-conceived footnotes in an encounter between irreconcilable grown ups fighting for complex issues such as land, capital, security, water, return of refugees and ultimately control. However, Palestinian children are not simply "collateral damage" of the conflict in a black hole of law or those who have volunteered to be attacked because they have not been passive. They remain impermissible targets whose basic rights cannot be legally discounted, though their context leads to problems of implementation. Those who argue that Palestinian children have forfeited their rights as children by their participation fail to unlock the complexities and context of these little vulnerable lives under assault as well as misconstrue the nature and scope of child rights.

Over half of the population of Palestine are children1 but despite their increased profile within the conflict, they are largely constructed as mute victims or misguided puppets rather than participants in the process and possessors of rights. Dominant narratives - Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and Western- fail to fully consider the implications of every day degradation of life on the Palestinian childhood experience beyond the statistics of fatalities and injuries. Consider the residual quality of Palestinian child hood in face of the eclipse of child rights- of negations of Palestinian right to dignity and self-esteem, of personal development and family life, of education and opportunity, of health and adequate standard of living, of freedom from torture and stress and most importantly the right to a future.

This article does not provide a systematic study of the universal child rights regime as delineated by the fifty four articles of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) [for an authoritative treatment of CRC see Van Beuren 1997]. Nor does it comprehensively detail the Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian children which have been catalogued by NGO reports and authoritative dealt with by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee on Rights of the Child, 2002) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (UN Special Rapporteur, 2002). Rather, this article considers the problematic Palestinian context for application of child rights. In the first three sections, it is argued that disregard of the dynamics of Palestinian childhood lead to the easy demonization of Palestinian children and our inability to recognize the link between oppression, trauma and the extraordinary child responses. The final section proposes that a child rights framework clarifies both minimal protection guarantees for children and the scope of obligations of all parties involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONSTRUCTING THE PALESTINIAN CHILD

Despite burgeoning interest in Middle East studies within Western academia, there is generally little research on children living in this region. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea's (1995) compilation of articles remains one of the few dedicated to the Arab child. One reviewer explains "Childhood is not a particularly hot topic nor is it sexy like ‘women in Islam'. As such, and apart from a few scattered works, mostly outdated by now, there is little systematic information on the current status of children in this region" (Rassam 1998:71). Consider Daniel Pipes' (1996) review of the Fernea book selectively choosing quotes "(There are) 90 million Arabic-speaking children, of which ‘half today are threatened in their physical health by the dangers of hunger, poverty, and war'. Nor are matters improving, for, as Fernea explains, ‘in general colonialism intensified traditional family patterns, particularly those involving differentials of gender identity,' and matters have changed little since independence". Arab children, on the contrary, are steering the rapid transformation of the traditional Middle East riding on better access to communication and technology catalyzed by education, opportunity and a globalized culture.

Parents in the Middle East "seem to have had, until very recently, few doubts about child rearing practices, or about the goals of parents, children and the family unit... based on widely accepted assumptions about the structure of society and the functions of individuals of all ages within that society" (Fernea, 1995:4-5). The child was seen mostly part of a "complex web of relationships" with the family as a central and enduring social unit ordered on distinctive religious, social and cultural foundations (‘Abd al ‘Ati, 1997). Though the "centrality of the family is being increasingly challenged by the State and other social institutions... young men and women show less alienation from the family than from any other social institution, be it religious, political or social". (Barakat, 1993: 100). Ongoing democratization within the family, which though still hierarchical and patriarchal, distributes greater share of authority and responsibility within the family, including children.

Studies of the Palestinian family sometimes incorporate a child welfare element but mostly fall short of recognizing children as independent rights holders. A child's physical and emotional well being has to be located within family and community adult structures where distribution of political and economic power percolates does ultimately determine the role of a child within society. The Palestinian child hangs on flimsy support threads. The fractured family provides general support, the decimated Palestinian Authority promises protection and the under-funded United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) offers education, health, relief and social services to those registered as refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. All this is contingent on the ubiquity and intrusiveness of the occupying force, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Military occupation, economic strangulation and legal control by Israel have had a profound impact on the institution and dynamics of the Palestinian family and the role of the child within it.

 

The intifada has disrupted family structures particularly through the erosion of parental authority and sudden catapulting of children into authoritative roles. Children feel frustrated at having "trappings of power but no real control over their situation". Parents in turn, overwhelmed with the daily problems, deal with their children in an authoritative manner. (Cohen & Goodwin-Gill 1994: 115). Nor can political violence be seen in isolation. Children actively involved in street confrontations with Israeli troops are also more likely to use violence in their school and family environments (Abuateya, 2000). The preoccupation with the intifada has also postponed sustained measures to deal with violations of child rights within the family and at the hands of the Palestinian authorities and militant groups. (But see Palestinian Authority, National Programme of Action for Palestinian Children, 1995). As Shalhoub-Kevorkian (1998: 234-5) notes "abuses not connected with the Israeli occupation...family violence, incest, rape and battering was discussed and dealt with as a private or individual matter... influenced by traditional cultural codes".

Within the treatment of child issues, the status of the Palestinian girl is often disregarded. Traditional Palestinian society views women largely through the prism of family, honor and chastity (Warnock, 1990:19) and those violating traditional social norms face reprisals. In addition to gender discrimination from the system (Cervenak, 1994), studies have shown "the multiple discrimination which female Palestinian children and youth face at home and in school" (Chatty and Hundt, 2001:4). Similarly, empirical research into the post-traumatic stress levels has found that girl children are at significantly higher risk. (Miller et al, 1999: 371).

Shalhoub-Kervorkian (1998:247), who catalogues violations of rights of female Palestinian detainees by Israel, argues that girl political activists (and now female suicide bombers) constitute a distinctive group in Palestinian society. However, societal reaction reflects a degree of willingness to change the cultural code for the sake of the political struggle, although the attitude of society towards this phenomenon remains in a state of confusions".

Child participatory rights are not only merely about political participation but also consideration of the views and perspectives of the Palestinian child in relief and humanitarian intervention (Sait, 2003). An Oxford study finds that Palestinian children are aware, politically active individuals and interventions should "start with their input and involvement" requiring a shift from top down to a bottom up strategy. (Chatty and Hundt, 2001:8). Children often challenge adult preconceptions about their priorities and strategies (MacMullen, 1999). A UNICEF study (2003:para 23) notes that "children have an important role in determining what disasters are and that they can be involved in preventing and mitigating their effects. (The UNICEF) study encouraged children‘s participation and identified them as an important resource in disaster preparedness programme planning". However, there is a noticeable gap between theoretical postulates and practice.

"Preliminary discussions with the UNICEF programme officers in the region revealed that the underlying issues which inform their programmes are set from headquarters and are based on Western assumptions of appropriate child development rather than an understanding of the cultural, social, political and economic context in which these phenomenon occur. The regional offices make efforts to modify their programmes to fit local contexts. These alterations, however, are not based on any empirical study. They are, rather, an ad hoc assessment by local practitioners of what might fit the community" (Chatty & Hundt, 2001:8)

Michael Freeman (1998: 434) is among those who argue that child rights cannot be applied without a contextual understanding of a particular social order and the ways in which childhood is used as a strategy to propound versions of social cohesion. He notes that childhood is not a natural phenomenon, rather it is a social construct (with its limits) and the meaning of childhood is essentially contested. Undoubtedly, there are risks involved in dealing with children in political conflicts based on Western based essentialist assumptions about childhood experiences and perceptions about their needs. (Boyden 1994, Burman 1994, Dawes & Cairns, 1998). Social, historical, political, cultural and economic contexts help identify the diversity of children's responses and local resources build capacity in finding durable solutions.

Though "universal childhood" is a myth, Abdullahi An Naim argues that normative consensus can be pragmatically achieved through procedural universality resulting from the dynamic interplay between changing folk models and international standards. Internal discourse and cross cultural dialogue can provide for minimum safeguards protect the "best interests of the child" from the abuse of the cultural card (An Naim: 1994). Sadly, child rights receive little attention within the Middle East and from outside. So little is known about the world of the Palestinian child beyond the headlines that conceptions about their conditions, interests and priorities - as well as the factors responsible for their propensity towards violence- are driven largely by Western assumptions and Arab compromises and contingencies.

 

 

 

 

 

DEMONIZING THE PALESTINIAN CHILD

"[The Palestinian children] are taught to hate, fight, kill and destroy" "(Naveh, 2003). The Palestinian child is presented simply as a product of an alien process. Though both Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict, Israeli Jewish children as seen proper innocent victims of terrorism in contrast to Palestinian children who are often perceived as dangerous props of irresponsible parents, a conniving Palestinian Authority and desperate militant groups. A rightwing think tank queries "How did these children come to be exposed to danger? Why are Palestinian children allowed to confront a military force? Why are they present among rioters, snipers, and terrorists? And how is the press always in the right place to photograph such acts of false heroism" (Prism Group, 2003).

The relationship between increased political activities of Palestinian children and the child casualties through IDF's military offensive is unclear. The level or type of engagement by Palestinian children cannot be generalized given the variables of age, maturity, peer group, extent of politicization, geographic location and often simply the sweep of IDF operations. Only a small and unknown percentage of children are involved in protests. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestine concludes that "most of the children killed or injured by the IDF were not engaged in confrontational demonstrations, but were victims of shelling by tanks and helicopter gunships, while they were engaged in normal peaceful pursuits" (UN Special Rapporteur 2002: para 41). A recent Amnesty report addressing both Israeli and Palestinian children supports these findings "the overwhelming majority of Palestinian children have been killed in the Occupied Territories when members of the IDF responded to demonstrations and stone-throwing incidents with excessive and disproportionate use of force, and as a result of the IDFs reckless shooting, shelling and aerial bombardments of residential areas. Palestinian children have also been killed as bystanders during Israel's extrajudicial execution of targeted activists, or were killed when their homes were demolished. Others died because they were denied access to medical care by the IDF. At least three Palestinian children have been killed by armed Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories". (Amnesty 2002:1)

While most Palestinian commentators hold the opinion that the IDF shoot at children with impunity, James Graff argues that the Israel does not have a deliberate policy of killing Palestinian children though neither greatly concerned about injuring them. The Israeli policy, as a settler and occupying force, is to subjugate the indigenous population and consequently adopts a hardline approach towards the youth seen as inscrutable and dangerous. (Graff 1997: 167). The IDF have not disclosed their current regulations on the use of firearms, particularly with respect to children (Veerman and Levine 2001:75) but Amnesty (2002) argues that "the fact that most children killed or injured were hit in the head or upper body shows that in their use of firearms against Palestinian children, the IDF have consistently breached international standards regulating the use of force and firearms".

Children caught in the conflict "appear to be a powerful counter to Israeli version of events", therefore Western media "often include the Israeli-induced spin... portraying the victims as the aggressors... most journalists and editors are so accustomed to the image of Palestinians as terrorists that they do not even question that stereotype" (Hanley, 2001:52). However, such images are reinforced by a farewell note from fourteen year old aspirant to become a suicide bomber Youssef Zaqout "O mother, please be happy with me. I ask you to pray to God to make my martyrdom a success. I am giving my soul for God and the homeland". (MacAskill, 2002). Recurring themes of young lives sacrificed for the family, God and homeland provoke suspicions about motivations and support structures for such deliberate savage and unchildlike acts.

The official Israeli position is that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for "inciting children and educating them in hate, anti-Semitism and carrying out acts of violence and murder"(Naveh, 2003). Though the PA is not a "State" and its security capacity and authority has been decimated by the IDF it still has the obligation to take all necessary measures possible to prevent children from becoming suicide bombers. However, methodical studies rebut the claim that the Palestinian school curriculum is incendiary. UNWRA which runs the schools in West Bank and Gaza its emphasizes in on "non-violent conflict resolution and human rights". A George Washington University study of the Palestinian curriculum concludes that the PA "should be credited with removing racist and anti-Semitic material from the curriculum, not for maintaining it. .... The Palestinian books strive to create a strong sense of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim identity in students. The books do not treat Jewish history in any comprehensive manner, positively or negatively.....(however) the books do not encourage violence" (Brown, 2001).

Some news reports allege Palestinian militant groups indoctrinate, exploit and train children and adolescents through special camps. However, there is no evidence of the PA or even the Palestinian armed groups systematically recruiting children. In April 2002, the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, banned the "children's sacrifices" and called upon teachers and religious leaders to spread the message of restraint among young Palestinians. It continues to support adult suicide bombers as the only military strategy against an overwhelmingly superior militarized occupier. However, lack of distinction between military objectives and civilian targets from Palestinian militants does incur child casualties on the Israeli side which in turn robs the Palestinians of moral outrage when their own children are victims. A strange moral equivalence at the expense of children on both sides. The militants' recourse to Islamic justifications is highly specious since children are to be kept out as combatants or in jihad and protected as civilians by Islamic principles. (Elahi, 1988; Kuper, 1997:75). Islam has a developed child rights approach (Sait, 2000) and political references to jihad or martyrdom represent a cynical exploitation of religion.

The disoriented Palestinian family does not exert the commonly assumed influence over its children during the intifada. The graphic media coverage and the expressions of anger and hostility among Palestinian adults toward Israelis and Jews are no doubt being absorbed by children but this is not necessarily a conscious schooling of children. As with other independence movements, the family does becomes politicized as "a center of resistance" with "all members of the family participating, children as well as parents, men as well as women"(Fernea 1995:12). There is no doubt that the Arab society, indeed the family, celebrates and values it children as any other. However, what is captured by the Israeli and Western media is the post-facto parental consolation or public response to their dead children as martyrs for God and homeland, which is not the same as encouragement for violence, before the violence.

Most families are said to be unaware of their child's deadly adventure until the public hears of it. Adolescents defy their family through their political ideology. Abu Aisheh, from al-Najah university at Nablus, who blew herself up at a military checkpoint had extensive Socratic debates with her uncle on the rightness or wrongness of suicide bombing. "To each argument (the uncle) made against killing civilians and one's self, Abu Aisheh answered with questions: Aren't we being shot down like dogs? Do you feel like a human being when Israelis control your every move? Do you believe we have a future? If I am going to die at their hands anyway, why shouldn't I take some of them with me". Abu Aisheh left a suicide note recalling the death of her cousin and Mohammed Durra, the young boy who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while walking with his father in Gaza (Williams, 2002). Even the Isrealis officially acknowledge that these youth are capable of rationalizing their targets as suicide bombers (Levy, 2002).

Lack of empirical or academic studies on the phenomenon of child suicide bombers and violent protestors has led to the Western media commonly projecting the responses of Palestinian children as unnatural, irrational and even "evil". In doing so they exhibit little understanding of either the numbers (the small percentage of those involved) as well as the Israeli repressive policies towards children which, instead of intimidating them, have mobilized participation of children at various levels. Children are not insulated from reaction to Israeli brutality, for example, of teenagers who apparently sought to attack Jewish setters shot down and then pulped by Israeli tanks (Fisk, 2002). The posters of these "martyrs" are leading to a cult of violence. The recent phenomenon of Palestinians child suicide bombers turns out almost a self fulfilling prophecy of Israeli depiction of Palestinian children as uncivilised outlaws.

 

 

 

 

 

THE TRAUMATISED PALESTINIAN CHILD

Motivation for violent protests among children "lies in the very roots of the conflict, in the predominant macro social, economic and political issues defining their lives" (Cohen & Goodwin-Gill, 1994:23). The outlook for Palestinian children under Israeli occupation "is grim as children's rights continue to be violated ...their reality is poverty, poor education, inadequate healthcare, and fear for their loved ones. The occupation, the tanks, the checkpoints and the Israeli soldiers have incarcerated their dreams". (Halileh, 2002) The UN Special Rapporteur reports that Palestinian children have turned "increasingly aggressive as a psychological consequence of the constant shelling, gunfire and presence of a hostile occupying army". (UN Special Rapporteur, 2002: para 42). UNICEF records that ‘The psychological and social impact of this conflict on children in the Middle East is incalculable. Traumatic events like the death or injury of family and friends, house-to-house searches, and the humiliating round-up and detention of fathers and brothers is causing irreparable damage to children‘s confidence in adults. Children come to accept violence as a good method for resolving problems and all hopes for the future fade' (UNICEF, 2002)

Documenting medical and health patterns such as the drop in immunisation levels, infant mortality levels, widespread diseases or increased anemia during the conflict may appear straightforward. However, there have been concerns about using Westernised pyschometric instruments to measure Arab children living under conditions of military occupation (Miller, 1999: 371, Thabet & Vostanis, 1999). Researching troubled children in the conflict zone is often a logistical nightmare with Israeli blockades (Miller et al., 1999:369).

A series of general population epidemiological surveys have demonstrated significant emotional and behavioural problems among Palestinian children, particularly high prevalence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other related mental health problems. (Punamaki & Suleiman 1990, Baker, 1990, Qouta & El Sarraj 1992, Khamis 1993, Elbedour et al, 1993. Gabrino & Kostelny1996). Thabet & Vostanis (1999) find that 72.8% of the Palestinian children exposed to war trauma experienced have PTSD. Another study finds that the commonest types of trauma exposure for children for all ages were being ‘tear gassed', ‘house searched with damage', watching shooting, fighting or explosions and ‘saw family members being arrested or humiliated'. Child respondents overwhelmingly identified the military activities of the IDF as being responsible for their trauma. (Miller et al., 1999: 372).

A typical narrative regarding a family living in what becomes an area of IDF operations is told this way. "Um Mahmood (mother) said that when being exposed to the tear gas, her nine-month-old child begins coughing and does not stop until becoming unconscious. As soon as the confrontations begin, Bader, (her) five-year-old child, begins yelling and crying for continuous hours, even after the ceasing of these encounters. Bader has lately refused to play and go anywhere. He does not want to be away from (the mother); he keeps holding the edge of (his mother's dress). During the night, Bader wakes up saying that he has seen the soldiers entering from the windows, although their house is located in the third floor. And when he wakes up in the morning, Bader begins looking for his plastic gun and asks (the mother) to fill it with bullets in order to kill the soldiers when they come to our house." Once, when Bader heard his parents' discussion regarding doing shopping for the house, he shouted "No, don't use the money to buy such things, instead buy a gun for each one of us; we want to defend ourselves." (YMCA, 2000:1)

UNICEF reports that "available data indicates the lives, behaviour and attitudes of Palestinian children have changed dramatically since the onset of the current conflict. These include nightmares, bed-wetting, insomnia, and irregular sleeping patterns. Fear is also common - Fear of darkness, fear of sleeping alone, leaving the house, strangers, loud noises and sudden movements. Children find it difficult to concentrate. Some are more anxious and irritable. Children are experiencing psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomach cramps and skin problems. And others are withdrawing from friends and family, rebelling or becoming aggressive themselves." (UNICEF, 2001). While most children are conscious of their vulnerability and exhibit low self esteem, others react more aggressively. Dr Eyad el-Sarraj who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme explains "To get rid of fear you engage it, to get rid of the fear of dying you engage death. These children are playing an exciting and addictive game with death, and addictive is just what it is." (Brittain, 2001). A Palestinian NGO, LAW notes that "it is not uncommon in the Palestinian territories to witness Palestinian children playing a game where pretend they have been killed" (LAW, 2002).

El Sarraj regards the current phenomenon as directly related to the breakdown of parental authority in face of Israeli excesses. Children play in the streets, pretending to be Arabs and Jews trying to kill each other. "The children have switched their identification from their father to the Israelis. They prefer to play the Jew in the game because he is the powerful one. They have seen how their own fathers have lost the symbol of power." (Brittain, 2001). Children are also responding to peer pressure to become a "hero", under the belief that if they do not throw stones they will be attacked or even be considered as Israeli collaborators (Cohen & Goodwin-Gill, 1994:40). In the scenario of despair, war does give "child participants a mission in life, order, hierarchy, physical fitness, a sense of importance, of being essential to both a particular goal and an abstract idea" - though there is no doubting its damage (Roger Rosenblatt c.f. Cohen & Goodwin-Gill, 1994:97). ). Political street activism, then, needs to be understood as arising out of "lack of alternative spaces which Palestinian youth may occupy" (Chatty & Hundt, 2001: 4). The physical and mental abuse of Palestinian children by Israeli action is material to their responses and unless that pattern of child rights violations is stopped, few Palestinian children can be weaned away from violent protests.

 

 

 

 

 

CHILDRENS RIGHTS FOR THE PALESTINIAN CHILD

Israel recognizes the cost of the conflict for its own children living under the fear of attacks (Ornan and Ziv 1997; Seliktar 1980). Its society generally gives considerable importance to its children and there are attempts on the Arab side to exploit the Anne Frank icon to seek better Israeli understanding of the suffering of Palestinian children. Thus, the prison diaries of a fifteen year old Saud Ghazal tortured and held by the Israelis for two years on a accusation of assaulting a settler (Yusuf Agha, 2002) or the commentary of another fifteen year Reem Saleh as the Israelis moved into her house at the Jenin refugee camp (Giovanni, 2002). However, given the child casualties on both sides, protection of Palestinian children is approached by the Israeli government through political discretion and military judgement rather than a set of binding legal obligations.

The scale of human rights violations by Israel has been brought out not just through NGO reports and UN resolutions but findings of mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights. These range from experts on arbitrary detention, disappearances, arbitrary executions, food, housing, human rights defenders to torture and violence against women. Israel has ratified all major international human rights instruments - on civil and political rights, on economic, social and cultural rights, on racial discrimination, on torture, on women and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In May 1997, the UN Committee against Torture criticized Israel's interrogation techniques. Several other Israeli reports are due for consideration in the near future. The most significant report has come from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the CRC, in October 2002 (after discussion of Israel's February 2002 State Report) which censured Israel for its treatment of Palestinian children on numerous fronts.

The CRC is the world's most widely accepted human rights agreement which Israel ratified in 1991, without any reservations. The PA has also signed it in 1995. It contains fifty four articles which are to apply to every child within a State's jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind (Article 2). Among the guiding principles of the CRC are that the "best interests of the child" which should be a primary consideration in all decision and procedures related to the child (Article 3), the children‘s rights to survival and development be prioritized (article 6) and guarantees of protection from all forms of violence, whatever the reason, whoever the perpetrator.

Though Israel is obliged to extend to Palestinian children the same rights and protection as Israeli children (Halabi, 1991; Veerman and Gross, 1995), it refused to discuss Palestinian children in the Occupied Territories in its report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Rejecting this and embarking on a whole range of issues concerning Palestinian children, this independent non-political committee of experts started by stating.

Amidst continuing acts of terror on both sides, especially the deliberate and indiscriminate targeting and killing of Israeli civilians, including children, by Palestinian suicide bombers, the Committee recognizes the climate of fear which persists and (Israel's) right to live in peace and security. At the same time, the Committee recognizes that the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, the bombing of civilian areas, extrajudicial killings, the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces, the demolition of homes, the destruction of infrastructure, mobility restrictions and the daily humiliation of Palestinians continue to contribute to the cycle of violence.

The Committee's conclusions are corroborated by the findings of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, Mr. John Dugard. A full treatment of issues dealt by the Committee or the Rapporteur is beyond the scope of this article. Consider the blocking of access to education and juvenile justice. "Some schools have been commandeered by the IDF for use as military outposts; others have been bombed; over a hundred have come under fire, both in the daytime when the schools are in session and at night. Children are afraid and unable to concentrate. It is impossible to assess the long-term psychological harm caused to children by these assaults on their schools, the killing and wounding of their friends and the growing poverty they experience at home. Many have simply lost their childhood" [UN Special Rapporteur 2002:44-45. See also Giacaman et al, 2003].

Equally troubling is the Rapporteur's finding on Israeli juvenile justice regarding Palestinian children

 

About 1,000 children under the age of 18 have been arrested and detained since September 2000 in connection with crimes relating to the Palestinian uprising. Most -over 90 per cent - have been arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Children are tried in Israeli military courts. Interrogation in order to secure a confession continues for several days and is accompanied by beating, shaking, threats, sleep deprivation, isolation, blindfolding and handcuffing. The Israeli Supreme Court, in its 1999 decision outlawing physical methods of interrogation, accepted that inhuman methods of interrogation qualifying as torture might be employed in a case of "necessity" -where it is imperative to obtain information urgently about the "ticking bomb". This alleged exception to the prohibition on torture is clearly inapplicable where the aim of the interrogation is not to extract information about a ticking bomb but about stone-throwing by children. (UN Special Rapporteur 2002: 49-50)

The international community watches disinterestedly or helplessly as Israel moves with impunity against Palestinian children as demonstrated by recent IDF operations, including the Jenin incident in which children were most affected. UNICEF, mandated by the UN General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children's rights globally, has been also concerned about the Palestinian child rights. On one hand is the pattern of collective punishments and general measures - from house demolitions and closures to family separation - which have a disproportionate impact on children. At the same time, the lack of access of UN humanitarian agencies to affected Palestinian communities make it nearly impossible to deliver crucial aid to vulnerable communities suffering under curfews and military incursions.‘ (UNICEF 2002).

Cohen and Goodwin-Gill point out the difficulty in construing the legal status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The intifada does not qualify as ‘hostilities' as that term is generally used in international humanitarian law, and children are not being recruited as such. The situation is governed by law, however, specifically the fourth Geneva Convention" (Cohen and Goodwin Gill 1994:60). Palestinian children are not child soldiers as such and they have special and heightened protection as child civilians in armed conflict (Kuper 1997). Moreover, a child rights perspective helps clarify that Israel cannot deny children their rights merely because some of them protest the Israeli occupation. Beyond prevention, protection and provision, the CRC also guarantees participation rights (Article 12), which sets out the principle that children should be listened to on any matter which concerns them, and their views given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity (Lucker Babel 1995:396-7).

In the case of the Palestinian children, there appears to be a conflict between their right to protection from violence and their right to self-expression through demonstrations. Veerman and Levine, noting the need to clarify legal protection concepts in fluid situations, call for "a careful, calibrated international response which will result in the best possible equilibrium between these conflicting rights, while taking the basic security of all parties into account" (Veerman and Levine 2001:86). However, Israel's refusal to apply international humanitarian law and basic human rights standards to Palestinian children challenges not only the effectiveness of international human rights regime but makes a mockery of the project of universal application of child rights norms.

 

 

 

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

In contrast to the role of the children in the first intifada which was credited with bringing about the Oslo peace process, the present escalation of violence with children in a deadly and tragic cast of characters does not appear to have resulted in rethinking the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. The hundreds of Palestinian children killed or thousands injured have not stopped the cycle of violence. It may instead have provoked "a macabre competition between Arab and Jew to claim the youngest victim of the revolt" (Goldenberg, 2001). This is a strange moral equivalence. Children are being used not to argue for peace and justice but to rationalize acts of oppression, state terrorism and terrorism that target or condone targeting of children. A human rights approach, however, demands that both parties distinguish their targets and spare children as required by international humanitarian law.

As the long tortuous journey using the "road map" begins, the lack of a child centered perspective leaves the Palestinian child traumatized, demonized and legally discounted. They are vulnerable without protection and easily provoked into participation resulting in attempted derogation of their inalienable rights. Like all other Palestinian rights, child rights too seem contingent on passivity and reform. What is demanded, then, of the Palestinian society is a reconfiguration of the Palestinian family and child hood itself while the conflict rages and destabilizes families. Most Western commentators, policy makes and even lay people ponder why Palestinian children cannot behave like a "normal" child, say in Michigan or Manchester. To fail to acknowledge the reality of the pressures and limitations of Palestinian childhood is to refuse to comprehend and deal with the symptomatic deviancies.

The distress of Palestinian children -as victims, bystanders and participants- points to serious long-term effects on their psycho-social development. Surely, "if today‘s generation does not have the opportunity to grow up in an atmosphere of trust, tolerance and justice, there can be little hope for stability in the region" (UNICEF, 2002). Palestinian children have difficulties in envisaging a future based on rights. Only two of the 120 children interviewed by in a recent study in the occupied territories said that they could imagine a Palestinian state in the next decade. Almost all the rest envisaged poverty and violence. (Save the Children, 2002). These children desperately need hope and normalcy - and protection. Both the Israelis and Palestinians must not only take into consideration the "best interests" of all children but also talk to the Palestinian children, recognizing their legitimate status as participants not outlaws. Respect for child participatory rights is the only way of communicating to children their responsibilities to prevent abuse of their rights.

There is no dearth of evidence regarding the magnitude or multiple levels of human rights violations of Palestinian children. In addition to the cries of Palestinian activists or credible NGOs there are now authoritative reports from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Special Rapporteur. Israel is legally obliged to widely distribute and debate these findings. This ability to convert the human rights discourse into effective child protection strategies would however depend on pressure that can be exerted on all sides, particularly Israel.

The question for not just Israel but the rest of the world is whether Palestinian children are entitled to equal rights as Israeli children or their own children. Are they entitled to special protection as children living under occupation or discarded because they do not subscribe to the oppression. It is the responsibility of both Israeli and Palestinian adults to denounce violence and move toward peaceful solutions that offer real hope to their children and to future generations. It is easy to dismiss child rights as a bunch of ideas without the prospect of enforcement. However, if the world's most widely ratified international instrument cannot come up with a strategy to protect the Palestinian children, it will no doubt make a mockery of the legitimacy of the child rights regime itself .REFERENCES

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* Senior Lecturer in Law & Human Rights

University of East London

Siraj Sait is working in the areas of human rights, Islamic jurisprudence and migration issues. He teaches courses on human rights, law of torture and immigration law on the LLB and law and development and refugee law on the LLM. He is the co-ordinator of the LLM International Legal Studies. He has worked as a State Prosecutor on human rights, Supreme Court Commissioner on Bonded labour and as an associate in the office of the Solicitor-General in India. He is a member of the Encountering Legal Cultures research group.

A paper presented at: "The Palestinian Children's week" 17-25/2003

Organized by: The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC)- London 2003

 

Short Link : https://prc.org.uk/en/post/86