During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza and its 1.8 million inhabitants, Palestinian poet Khaled Juma penned a moving poem titled “Oh Rascal Children of Gaza”. The first few lines were about the chaos and mischief that the children had perpetrated in their neighborhoods before the war, but the wistful ending laments, “Come back/and scream as you want/and break all the vases./Steal all the flowers./Come back./Just come back…”
These sad lines point to the devastating losses in children’s lives from the war, which was unfolding exactly two years ago. The United Nations has indicated that Israel’s military killed 2,251 Palestinians in Gaza in 2014; of these, 551 casualties were children. Thousands more were wounded and will have physical disabilities and psychological scars for the rest of their lives. More than 300,000 need psycho-social support at present.
Many children in Gaza have lived through three wars (2008-2009, 2012, and 2014), with the threat of another war seemingly always on the horizon. These young victims of Israeli state violence have received little attention by those outside Palestine.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA), as a result of Israel’s 2014 offensive more than 1,500 children in Gaza became orphans, the homes of 27,000 were destroyed, and 44,000 children became internally displaced. Most are exposed to the dangers of unexploded ordnance and have few safe places to play.
A multimedia web documentary, Obliterated Families, was launched in July, telling the stories of 142 families who lost three or more members during Israel’s 2014 assault. In one installment, a short film titled Gaza: An Open Wound, one father talks about losing his children: “What was it about the small kids? The oldest was a fourteen-year-old, the others were nine and 10 years old. What could they be guilty of for Israel to target them with such rockets?” Another, a boy whose brothers were killed during the offensive, tells the interviewer, “I cannot sleep. I remember my brothers, when we used to play together, football and everything. I spend nights remembering them. I cannot sleep.”
Gaza’s children experience serious mental health issues as a result of such profound losses and of the unstable and dangerous situation they are in now. When asked how to ameliorate these children’s psychological problems, a leading mental health professional answered, “stop the blockade.”
Indeed, the land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza has entered its tenth year. Israel imposes restrictions on what enters and exits Gaza, attacks farmers and fishermen, and severely restricts movement in and out of the enclave. Egypt and Jordan have also enforced their own strict border regulations, leaving the people of Gaza virtually imprisoned in their territory. The ramifications of this situation for children are very serious, including food and medicine and fuel shortages, no materials or resources to reconstruct homes and schools destroyed during the wars, and 90 percent of the water unfit for human consumption.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has described the blockade of Gaza as collective punishment and said that it “Suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts.” He added that there must be accountability for such collective punishment. But is Israel being held accountable for its unprecedented and horrific actions in Gaza?
“Having no justice… shows that the world works according to the logic of power, it proves that Israel is above the law. We need… people from around the world to raise…the voice of the wretched and oppressed, to ask why innocent people, like my daughter Asil, were killed,” said Saleh Abu Mohsen to Amnesty International (AI) last May. Scores of families continue to wait for some kind of justice, some resolution for the killing of innocent family members during the 2014 war. As for Israel’s response, AI reports that Israel’s Military Advocate General (MAG), who oversees investigations of military conduct in war, does not deal with “military orders, rules of engagement, or policy decisions that led to the deaths and injuries of Palestinian civilians and extensive destruction of homes and infrastructure.” This is, for example, why the families of the four Bakr boys (ages between nine and eleven years), who were playing on the beach and were killed by the infamous Israeli air strike, will receive no justice—the MAG actually absolved the Israeli military of responsibility for their deaths.
In June, 20 members of Congress sent President Obama a letter suggesting that he appoint a “special envoy for Palestinian youth” who would keep track of the Israeli government’s systematic violations of the human rights of Palestinian children. They were mostly referring to the lack of rights of Palestinian children who are arrested and placed in military and administrative detention in the occupied territories, and urging for these children’s protection. The children of Gaza would also benefit greatly from such an appointment. It is vital for Obama to act on this important idea as soon as possible.
Israeli soldiers and police continue to kill Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—including many children—unlawfully, some of whom appeared to be victims of extrajudicial executions. This increases the insecurity, fear, and sense of hopelessness of all Palestinian children. Considering the troubling and arduous situation in which they live every day, the world is placing unrealistic expectations on this young and vulnerable population. For example, during Ban Ki-Moon’s visit to Gaza last June, he addressed young members of UNRWA’s School Parliament in Central Gaza. After listening to their opinions and hopes, he said, “The environment you are living in may be very, very hard and difficult. You may not have electricity, you may not have water, you may not have textbooks. At the same time, I know that you are hungry for learning, you are thirsty for better knowledge and more knowledge and a better future.”
The UN Secretary General’s admonition may have meant to assuage the pain of the youth in Gaza, but his words may have exacerbated it instead. Without electricity and water and textbooks, and without security and justice for themselves and their families, how can Gaza’s children be expected to live and thrive?
Zeina Azzam is the executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center in Washington, DC. Views expressed are her own.