By Joharah Baker
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the June, 1967 War, which began the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. As the Palestinians look back at four decades of military rule, which has impacted all Palestinians, big and small, it seems only right to focus on the most vulnerable sector of society – our children.
As in any conflict, the most marginalized sectors of society are also the most affected. Among the Palestinians, children have had to endure an amalgam of hardships, both directly and indirectly resulting from the ongoing Israeli occupation. Typical of any developing nation, children comprise a large part of Palestinian society. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 2.1 million children, or 52 percent of the population, live in the occupied territories.
That is a big chunk of society, and one which has been hit particularly hard throughout these 40 years and even before. In the 1948 War, harrowing images of Palestinians fleeing their homes in terror showed small children tightly clutching their parents’ hands or being toted on adult hips to expedite their speedy escape from the horrors of the Israeli atrocities that had transpired. Again, in the exodus of 1967, children followed their parents, fleeing their homes in search of safety.
According to Save the Children, almost half of all UNRWA registered refugees in the camps of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are children under 18 years of age.
Being a refugee is not merely a statistic, obviously. With this title comes poverty, lack of proper education, health care and job opportunities. While UNRWA has provided its services to Palestinian refugees since the problem was created after the 1948 War, the agency was founded on a temporary basis and has faced difficulties keeping up with the growing refugee population vis-à-vis providing adequate services given that it has been forced to operate for over 60 years with no end in sight.
Still, while refugees constitute a major sector of Palestinian society, children from all sectors and geographical locations have suffered under the burden of Israel’s military occupation. For one, these children have known nothing else – even many of their parents were born after the inception of the occupation, so for them, this has been their reality from day one.
This reality includes unemployment, poverty [according to World Bank estimates, approximately two-thirds of the Palestinian population live under the poverty line of $2/day], insufficient medical and educational services and the constant threat of Israeli military aggression.
Obviously, the right to life is the most basic and essential universal human right and one which Palestinians, including children, can never take for granted. According to Save the Children, since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September, 2000, 864 Palestinian children have been killed as a result of Israeli military or settler violence.
Children in the occupied Palestinian territories are constantly at risk of Israeli military operations in which they could lose their lives or their loved ones. Many children have witnessed the demolition of their homes, the violent death or arrest of a family member or even their own arrest. Defense for Children International reported that 398 Palestinian children below the age of 18 are currently being held in Israeli detention facilities.
Another urgent concern among Palestinian children is lack of proper nutrition. The international economic embargo being imposed on the Palestinian territories has had far-reaching ramifications among all sectors of society. Direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority has been halted since the new government under Hamas was formed last year, and Israel’s increasingly tightened “security” measures in the West Bank and Gaza including the separation wall, have resulted in lack of access to farmland, medical services and jobs. Additionally, the intermittent civil servant strike in protest of delayed salaries has paralyzed large swathes of society, plunging scores of families into poverty.
Thus, children, along with their parents, suffer from a lack of income, which inevitably leads to a lack of proper nutrition. Save the Children has reported that chronic malnutrition among Palestinian children currently stands at 10 percent, a staggering 13.9 percent in Gaza alone.
The list is practically endless – children living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem must endure sporadic Israeli-imposed closures which prevent them from reaching their schools or medical facilities. They are constantly harassed by Israeli soldiers manning the 540-some military checkpoints peppered throughout the territories, sometimes having to pull up their shirts or pull down their pants as part of Israel’s perpetually bizarre world of “state security.”
Furthermore, because they are constantly being reminded that they were not born free and independent, children often take on the adult tasks of emancipation. As Palestinians, we must be equally concerned with the rate at which our children become involved in Palestinian political factions, some barely in their teen years. Coupled with the oppressive atmosphere of the Israeli occupation, this sense of duty to join the ranks of the resistance has also stripped our children of a healthy childhood.
Having said all of this, there is one fundamental point which must be driven home. While it is extremely tempting to package the hardship and suffering of our children in the ready-made wrapping paper of an “urgent humanitarian cause”, this is where we must make a clear-cut distinction between the Palestinian situation and that of impoverished children in Southeast Asia or Africa for example.
Yes, our children lack some very basic humanitarian needs such as proper education, nutrition and protection from harm. Still, while these are important components of the problem, which should by no means be disregarded, it is the political quagmire that trumps all other issues.
This is to say that once the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is eradicated and an independent, viable and competent Palestinian state is established, the proper channels would have been set up for these issues to be properly addressed and resolved. This is a point that the international community, no matter how well-intended it may seem – must take to heart and actively work towards achieving.
Perhaps this is beginning to happen. In its press release on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the 1967 War, Save the Children stated, “All parties should contribute proactively to peace negotiations in order to provide a comprehensive and final settlement to the conflict and a safe future for the children living in the Middle East region.”
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com. (This article was first published by www.Miftah.org, June 6, 2007)