On my recent trip to Israel-Palestine with Interfaith Peacebuilders (June, 2014), we met many Palestinian children while connecting with peace groups throughout the country. These lovely and lively young ones gave me hope. On the surface, they reminded me of our own children. As we scratched under that surface, though, we saw that they live under the constant shadow of occupation; this darkness is a burden that most of us can’t even imagine.
After a tour through the ancient city of Nablus, where walls everywhere are postered with photographs of martyrs, many of them young boys, we got to meet the “Human Supporters Association”, started by a group of paramedics to reach out to children and teens experiencing daily trauma under occupation.  They treated us to a joyous performance by their youth of Dakba dance, a spirited traditional Palestinian dance that boys and girls perform together. They were much like our teens, self-conscious until they got going, then – completely focused – they danced their pieces and finished, all sweaty and smiling. Practising and performing create moments when these young people can feel unburdened, without the constant reminder that they live under military occupation. They don’t have rights; they don’t have equality. If they push against that reality in any way, they risk arrest, jail, and possibly death.
Israel is so tiny – only 2/3 the size of Vancouver Island – with the fourth largest military in the world and a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons. The military presence is everywhere in the occupied territories.
Silwan is a Palestinian neighbourhood of Jerusalem, population 10,000. There we met the local sheikh, a 10th generation Jerusalemite, who still has the keys to his family home. He told us of his community’s struggle under the occupation since 1967. They are currently resisting a demolition order for the destruction of 90 homes, displacement of 1,500 people and loss of over 20 acres of urban land for a “City of David” complex, a Talmudic garden with pools and a tourist centre.  During archeological excavations four years ago, a Silwan schoolroom collapsed injuring 20 girls. The damage was never fixed. (Palestinians resident in Jerusalem by the way, pay 40% of city taxes and receive 5-10% of services. You can tell when you’re entering a Palestinian area because the sidewalks end and all the rooftops have black plastic water containers on their roofs due to constant water cut-offs).
In the Sheikh’s words, “We have defended and resisted, so we have many martyrs and prisoners”. He and his 3 children have all been arrested. One son has been arrested 17 times since the age of 9, and at 14 is again in jail, now one of 100 hunger strikers protesting being held without charge under “administrative detention” at Offer Prison. (Many leaders’ children are targeted by Israeli military, arrested and held in prison without charge, in an attempt to deter their parents’ activism.)
In the previous 2 weeks, the Sheikh had two relatives killed in Nablus and Ramallah and experienced a house demolition down the street. The State of Israel wants this land; it is relentlessly squeezing Palestinians out of Jerusalem. As this leader said, “Israel goes in the shadow of a lion (the US). We don’t hate the Jews, but I hate anyone who would remove me from my land, even if he comes from Mecca! My house (over 150 years old) is my world, my life. I talk from my heart, the house is not only stones, also memories…. I put an agony of 45 years in a few minutes to make the story short”.
His heartfelt tale of anguish was followed by a loud and wonderful performance by the Silwan youth snare drum ensemble, composed of girls and boys from 5 to 18. It reminded me of performances at the Community Hall by our own children on the Gulf Islands, some shy, some in their very element, loved and supported by their parents as they bring their irrepressible energy to their community’s cultural life. Like our children, these young ones are very precious and are cherished by their communities.
In Ramallah, at a talk with Randa Wahbe, advocacy officer from the Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association, Addameer, we learned that many arrests of children take place during home raids in the night. Children are taken, shackled, held incommunicado, interrogated and threatened, unable to speak even with their parents, let alone a lawyer. Many of the children arrested in Hebron are 6 or 7 years of age, although the legally permissible age of arrest for a child is 12. These children can be held for up to a year without charge or hearing; most (over 80%) are arrested for the suspected crime of stone throwing on settler-only roads. Stone throwing and children – pastime? Resistance? Outlet for helplessness and a mountain of anger? When the military tribunal hearing finally comes, we were told the evidence may be: “he threw stones three times between May and August”. The military conviction rate is approximately 97%, and a sentence for throwing stones at a stationary object can be up to ten years’ imprisonment; for a moving object, 20 years.
I think of my two sons – passionate, principled, loyal to their home, family and community – and know that had they grown up non-Jewish in Israel-Palestine, they would have been arrested and jailed many times during their teen years. If they were lucky enough to grow to adulthood (nearly 1500 Palestinian children have been killed by the Israeli army since 2000; this number does not include attacks by settlers), they would most likely be part of the resistance movement, either inside or outside the country.
Non-violent resistance does not mean a person will be safe from the Israeli army. In fact, the very power of non-violence seems to be a threat that warrants an increasingly violent response from the military. On the dirt road to the site of Bil’in’s weekly non-violent demonstrations, we saw hundreds of tear gas canisters (made in Pennsylvania) and rubber bullet casings (there are steel bullets inside these casings – these bullets can kill, they just don’t exit the body the way live bullets do). The Popular Committee in Bil’in thoroughly trains its communities and assists other villages in the ways of non-violent resistance. This means no stone throwing, despite regular provocation from the army.
According to military testimony, the army spends $50,000 US per week on tear gas and other weapons at the Bil’in demonstrations.  (Bil’in is the village featured in the film, “Five Broken Cameras”, a must-see documentary which tells the tale of this people’s “sumud”, steadfastness in the face of oppression.)
Despite the seemingly endless nature of the occupation, people we met in Bil’in and many other places have a strong sense of purpose. They are weary and like many others, told us the situation is getting worse, but they will never give up. They want a life for themselves and their children – a life of equality and freedom. Because they are values-driven, they seem able to laugh, love and enjoy their lives, hard as their daily grind can be. Several young boys wanting to show off a little on their bikes reminded me of our kids at home, only to have one crash into a tangled mass of barbed wire extending along the front of the 30 foot high Separation Wall dividing them from much of their land. This is their playground, this obscene Wall, all they have known.
Palestinians are rightly famous for their warm hospitality. We were treated to countless cups of mint tea or tiny cups of intense Arab coffee, often served to us by shy, smiling children. The poverty stemming from the “economic occupation”, state policies which deprive Palestinians of their livelihood, has made some children more aggressive in trying to sell wares to visitors in cities like Hebron, one of the most tense and disturbing areas we visited. Still, I never once worried about being robbed, or felt unsafe in the presence of Palestinians. 1/3 of our group was Jewish; no one reported concern for their safety despite seeing urgent warning signs posted by the State of Israel instilling fear upon those entering Palestinian territories.
In Jenin Refugee Camp, with nearly 16,000 Palestinian refugees, almost ½ of whom are under 18, we met Palestinian youth involved with the Freedom Theatre. Its 3 year Theatre School program was started in 2007 to “stimulate our culture and political identity”. Besides a program of drama therapy to help young people deal with trauma, and the production of 3-4 plays a year, this young group tours the Occupied Territories in its “Freedom Bus”, performing and interacting in areas most damaged by the occupation, for people badly in need of theatre’s healing magic. We saw a video the School had made, testimony to the power of creativity to transform. One young student said, “Before I just wanted to be a martyr. Now I want to live and die a natural death!” Encountering an exuberant spirit like this brings smiles and tears in equal measure.
A few days later, we waited in the cattle holding pen that is Qalandiya checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, only ten miles away. The atmosphere was thick with tension, the place dirty, dark and garbage-strewn, with Israeli military eyes watching us (“Do NOT take any photographs of military!” we were cautioned) – from watchtowers, from surveillance cameras mounted above and around us, from inside the booths where young military joked and laughed with one another – these also could have been my sons, had they been born Jewish Israelis. What a failure as a parent and guide I’d have been, had I raised such callous youth, blind to the daily suffering of people waiting long hours to pass through their station simply to go to the doctor, to go see a relative, to get to work. There are no bathrooms in this line-up, no place to rest for the elderly, no turning back once you are in the narrow cattle-pen enclosure with its harsh and clanging metal turnstiles. I would be ashamed to have my children be party to such abusive power and control, subjecting a dignified people to daily humiliation at checkpoints.
How have Israeli parents and leadership failed their youth so terribly? We learned from several young “refuseniks” who spoke to our group in Jerusalem that children “learn the holocaust” as young as age 5 in Israel. They learn to count by viewing pictures of tanks interfaced with doves. They learn to live in fear of “the enemy all around us”. There is a hardness in the expression of these young military that is very troubling to see.
Now in July, after the tragic kidnapping and deaths of three settler youth, and Netanyahu’s perverse public call for revenge, “Operation Brother’s Keeper” is underway. This vengeful attitude is echoed by many Israeli politicians, as well as high level religious leaders calling for blood, not tears. It has shown its ugly face in many Facebook posts by Israeli teen girls in seductive poses saying “Death to Arabs” and “Hating Arabs isn’t racism. It’s values”. It has led to racist marches through Jerusalem and through Rome, with Palestinians being beaten and hospitalized. It has led to Palestinian children being kidnapped, tortured and killed. Are these children’s lives any less valuable than the lives of Israeli children?
When will the international community say “enough of this madness”?
Sally Campbell is a mediator and conflict specialist who lives on Hornby Island, BC.