It’s “Not Back to School” for Palestinian Children
Children continue to be among the chief victims of the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although it is natural to concentrate on the toll in lives taken by the struggle, among its biggest impacts have been psychological and educational.
Over a million and a half Palestinian children live under harsh Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Months into the school year, most still cannot move about freely or attend school. Over a fifth of them are acutely or chronically malnourished, in large part as a result of the Israeli lockdown. UNICEF estimated last summer that 317,000 Palestinian children were in “desperate need of assistance due to financial hardship.”
All this is not to deny the real impact of violence. In the past two years, about 250 Palestinian children and 72 Israeli children have been killed in the conflict, according to Amnesty International. Literally thousands more have been traumatized by the direct experience of violence and by the loss of loved ones.
Palestinian suicide bombers have in some cases clearly chosen targets, such as dance clubs or pizzerias, where they knew many of their Israeli victims would be children. For their part, the Israeli armed forces have begun throwing caution to the wind in their pursuit of Palestinian fighters, injuring many civilians, and have responded with excessive force to the rock-throwing of protesting children.
UNICEF special representative to the Occupied Territories, Pierre Poupard, is worried about another dimension of the conflict. He says that, in contravention of international law, “a generation of Palestinian children is being denied its right to an education.” His organization recently estimated that over 226,000 children and more than 9,300 teachers cannot get to their regular classrooms.
Under the tight Israeli curfew, about 580 schools have been closed. The United Nations noted last summer that “Checkpoints, closures and curfews severely impede access to medical care, education and employment.”
In the first week of October, Palestinian children in Nablus defied the 24-hour curfew imposed by the Israelis last summer to go to school. They risked life and limb to do so. Just before they opened their schools, a 12-year-old boy was critically wounded when Israeli troops opened fire at a taxi-driver who was driving around when he should not have been. A 15-year-old boy was shot dead October 4 in a similar incident.
Curfews have long formed a key part of the repertoire of colonial states attempting to keep local populations under control. Curfews, checkpoints and restrictions on movement were routinely employed by the South African government in application of its racist Apartheid policies. Rhodesia imposed two major curfews in the early 1980s, in its attempt to continue to monopolize the country’s wealth and resources for a small class of white colonialists. Ominously, these curfews served to prevent news from leaking out, of massacres of local populations. Although Israeli policies within Israel are largely democratic, its behavior in the West Bank and Gaza is increasingly that of a colonial power.
Israeli incursions, as at Khan Yunis on October 6, which killed 13 Palestinian civilians, including four children, have been on a much smaller scale and come in response to acts of terrorism. But Israel has violated the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians in occupied territories, as well as the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.
Strict Israeli control of media reporting from the Occupied Territories has had the effect of keeping the full horror of life under curfew from public awareness in the West. It is not hidden to Arabs and Muslims, however. The Kuwaiti men who shot American marines there in October gave as one reason for their rage the loss of innocent life in the Israeli attack at Khan Yunis.
Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorists, by police work. But collective punishment of a whole people, especially of innocent children, is wrong. Can anyone imagine the outcry if the British government had attempted to place the entire Irish population under such a curfew because of terrorist attacks in Belfast?
Now that the Labor Party in Israel has ended its national unity coalition with the far rightwing Likud, its leaders should make every effort to end the policy of military re-occupation and harsh curfews.
Israel cannot hope to win peace by such policies nor by fostering ignorance and poverty in the next generation of its Palestinian neighbors. Nor can the United States government hope to achieve important diplomatic goals in the region if it continues to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with benign neglect.