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9-23-02: News Abroad

How Israel’s Occupation Affects Palestinian Children

By Juan Cole

Mr. Cole is professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002). His website is: www.juancole.com.

Over one in five Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza (22.5 percent) now suffers from chronic or acute malnutrition. About one in five is anemic. This mass of hungry humanity amounts to a population the size of Minneapolis, about 380,000 kids.

Malnutrition in children makes them more likely to contract life-threatening diseases. It permanently reduces intelligence and vastly increases the rate of attention deficit disorder. Women who were malnourished in their youths have increased rates of premature birth and high blood pressure in pregnancy.

The occupying power in the territories, Israel, enjoys a per capita income of some $17,000 per year, higher than Spain. In contrast, half of Palestinian families must now borrow money just to buy food.

Palestinian terrorists certainly bear a great deal of the blame for this tragedy, insofar as their horrific actions against innocent Israeli civilians have understandably led Israel to close its borders to Palestinian laborers. Unemployment is a prime source of the problem.

Yet, while the scourge of terrorism in Israel has been unspeakable, none of it has been committed by toddlers or infants. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s current lockdown of the entire population of the West Bank is a massive form of collective punishment that has worsened the problem. As the occupying power, Israel cannot escape responsibility for seeing that its colonial subjects are at least fed.

The specter of a rich occupying country presiding over a famished subject population is not unusual in history. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has pointed out that colonial and other undemocratic governments often allow hunger and famines, since they are insulated from popular protest.

Famously, even in the midst of the Great Hunger in Ireland of 1845 through 1850, eight ships a day left Ireland carrying exports of wheat, barley, oats, beef, pork, butter and eggs, sent abroad by British landlords while their peasants starved.

The French, who ruled Algeria 1830 to 1962, claimed to be on a “civilizing mission” to their subjects. Yet their policies of selling grain reserves on the world market led to a massive famine in the late 1860s when droughts produced starvation and pestilence.

Only the intervention of the French colonial authorities could have forestalled the deaths of thousands, but such officials have often maintained in history that they bear no responsibility for averting famine deaths. Some 300,000 Algerians died of hunger or of the consequent disease outbreaks.

In Sen’s classic case, the British civil service in India failed to stop the starvation of three million Bengalis in 1943. He argues that famine is not caused by lack of food, but by an increased inability of the poor to afford it. Only government intervention, he argues, can stop such a tragedy.

That Palestinian children are not going so far as actually to die from their hunger in great numbers has helped conceal the depth of the crisis. Israel has ruled the West Bank and Gaza since it conquered them in 1967, and cannot disclaim responsibility for a population still under its military rule. A Palestinian Authority constantly under attack and immobilized cannot be expected to do hunger relief.

A wealthy and militarily powerful Israel is responsible under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to see that persons living under its occupation are not harmed. Letting 380,000 children go chronically or acutely hungry is a serious violation of international law.

Since the United States still gives Israel billions of dollars every year and has acquiesced in the current West Bank reoccupation and curfew, it also bears a responsibility for this tragedy. The Palestine issue has dropped out of news coverage, and even when it is noticed the focus is on strutting adult male politicians and military men. Will anyone speak for the children?

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