Israel is founded on violence, and exists by virtue of it. As discussed in an earlier post, it has to be this way, for it is a regime rooted in the need to dominate, the need to curtail the full existence of an entire people – Palestinians. By definition, this stance prompts modes of engagement – violence in all its forms – that can never cease so long as Palestinians remain in the land bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
And it is Palestinian children, particularly in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, that bear the burden of this need to dominate, to undermine, to control. Precisely because children represent and embody ideas and aspirations about the future, that children are, quite literally, the future, Israel must stymie and distort their very existence. For the Israeli state cannot abide the prospect of Palestinian growth and flourishing. It must unchild Palestinian children.
Unchilding is the term coined by Professor Nudera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who argues that Israel treats Palestinian children as nobodies, unworthy of global children’s rights and as dangerous and killable bodies needing to be caged and dismembered physically and mentally.
Implied in the idea of unchilding is that it is systematic, intended. It is not simply the violation of norms and rules by individual soldiers or police in specific instances. It is a mode of being, forms of engagement, encoded in the very ethos of the Israeli state.
Thus it is that children must see and bear the constant presence of armed soldiers, fully kitted out and inherently menacing. The realisation of that menace daily actualised in the raids and takeovers of family homes; the killing of kids by live fire. The army’s oft-used justification for those deaths being that these youngsters were throwing stones.
Even I needed to stop to read that last sentence again for in truth it is surreal. So normalised has the unchilding of children become for Israel, that this form of justification – death and disabling injury for throwing stones – makes sense to them. Has, presumably, for them, some sort of moral saliency.
What, then, are the limits in behaviour that this militarised state adheres to, what moral compunctions constrain it? Judging by the death toll of kids – yes, ‘kids’, some are playing outside my London window now, not an armed soldier in sight – any formal guidelines must be uncommonly slack. Another way of putting this, is that the Israeli army acts with impunity, does what it will.
The following table drawn up by Defence of Children Palestine charts the killing of Palestinian children (aged up to 16/17) in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2000:
Killing of Palestinian children (aged up to 16/17) in Gaza, the West Bank & East Jerusalem since 2000
This gives a grand total of 2224 deaths so far. The 2022 figure does not include the number killed in operation ‘Breaking Dawn’ (August).
A taste for irony?
On the 3 July 1990 Israel signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified on 4 August 1991. The convention defines a child as a person below the age of 18 years. It’s worth looking at a couple of the Convention’s Articles:
1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.
2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.
Consider now Article 6 in the light of the actions of the Israeli state. Above, I have barely touched on the range and persistence of the Israeli state’s calculated unchilding of Palestinian children.
USA Today reported on Professor Jess Ghannam’s findings. He specialises in the health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological effects of armed conflict on children.
Childhoods marked by trauma
In places untouched by war, childhood is marked by milestones. For children growing up in conflict zones, childhood is marked by trauma.
Consider also Article 31 of the Convention:
States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
Play, surely, is one of the hallmarks of childhood. This is not a trivial matter. Play is fundamental to a child’s well-being in the here and now, as the playing child, but also in terms of his or her development, physically, of course, but massively in relation to their present and future mental health. However, Jennifer Leaning, a senior research fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard said in the USA Today:
Young children aren’t spending enough time playing, which is central to healthy growth. They aren’t building social emotional skills with their peers. Their lives are defined by fear, often concerning the safety and permanence of their caregivers….”The kids have great difficulty expressing their feelings…They’ll be silent, and sullen, many of them will get very depressed…
In the light of all that has been set out above it will be no surprise that a 2010 UNICEF assessment of Israel’s compliance with the Conventions:
[criticised] Israel for holding that the Convention does not apply in the West Bank and for defining Palestinians under the age of sixteen in the occupied territories as children, even though Israeli law defines a child as being under 18, in line with the Convention.
Israel has been explicit: it says, that for Israel, the Convention does not apply in the West Bank and Palestinian children under eighteen are not children. An Israeli kid, of course, will be a child to the age of eighteen and they will, formally, have the protection of Convention rights. Thus, does the Israeli state encase the unchilding of Palestinian children in its policies and practices. They will necessarily be brutal. They are brutal.
Destruction of homes and damage to schools, streets and other public facilities…gross violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and international humanitarian law.
It also criticized Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel, which traumatized Israeli children, calling on all parties to protect children.
Pay no heed
Israel, of course, will pay this and other critical reports no heed. And that indifference will be echoed by, in particular, the West: USA, EU and UK. Though no doubt somewhere in the annals of honeyed words and vacuous statements an diligent searcher will find phrases offering a simulacrum of concern. Dead words. Dead children.
Nudera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at the Faculty of Law-Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem