Those of us who advocate for a just Israeli-Palestinian peace (however defined) make a point of clarifying that each side has seen enormous suffering, and we’re right to do so. There are no angels and very few innocents in this war–there’s far more ugly dehumanization, bloodletting, and endless, inconsolable mourning.
But surely if anyone’s innocent, if anyone has a right to claim our non-ideological attention, it’s Israeli and Palestinian children, people born into a conflict not of their making, and thrust into violence through no fault of their own. Shalhevet Pass was only 10 months old when she was killed; Abir Aramin 10 years. Shalhevet was shot in her stroller in Hebron; Abir was shot when the Israeli border patrol opened fire on suspected stone-throwers. The facts surrounding these children’s deaths cannot mitigate them in any way; these are two little girls buried in the ground. There is no excuse or absolution.
But when we talk about each side’s enormous suffering–when I name two children, one Israeli, one Palestinian–and leave it at that, we make it sound as if the scales weigh equally, as if the suffering can be effectively compared. But that’s simply not true.
One dead child is one too many. Period. But we’re lying to ourselves if we think that it doesn’t matter that in the past 12 years, 90 Israeli children have died at the hands of Palestinians, while Israel has been responsible for the deaths of 1,331 Palestinian children (note that this figure doesn’t include those killed in airstrikes this month).
And death and bereavement are hardly the only troubles that this conflict brings to a Palestinian childhood.
Since September 2000, Israel has arrested some 7,000 Palestinian children and prosecuted them in military courts. 62% were arrested in the middle of the night, between the hours of midnight and 5 am; 87% were subjected to physical violence. Whereas Israeli law stipulates that Israeli children under the age of 14 may not be imprisoned, and must be allowed to see a lawyer within 48 hours, Military Order 1651 states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility for Palestinian children is 12, and children may be held for as long as three months without legal representation.
One example: In January, 7 year old Muhammad Ali Dirbas was arrested after a stone-throwing incident in the Palestinian village of Issawiya in East Jerusalem. Muhammad was detained by riot police at 4:00 pm, held and interrogated without a parent present for five hours (despite the fact that his father had learned of the arrest and arrived at the police station by 6:00). The 7 year old was finally allowed to see his father at 9:00 pm, when the two were questioned further. They were finally released two hours later.
Then there are things like this: In East Jerusalem–where Israel holds 100% of the administrative and governmental control–84% of children live below the poverty line. There is a chronic shortage of some 1,000 classrooms on that side of the city, and only six preschools, compared to 66 in Jewish Jerusalem. When it comes to amenities such as public parks, libraries, and playgrounds, Jewish Jerusalem receives 95.5%, 92.3%, and 99% of the city’s budget allocation, respectively. Indeed, in February of this year, the Israeli Parks Authority demolished the only community center and playground available to non-Jewish children in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan.
Do the Palestinian leadership and people share some of the responsibility for–if not conditions in Jerusalem–those 7,000 arrests and 1,331 deaths? They certainly do, just as the Israeli leadership and people share some of the responsibility for the minors involved in a recent “price tag” attack on a mosque, and the 90 dead Israeli children. People who act on notions of vengeance, or advance hate, or choose to make war rather than aggressively seek peace, all share in the responsibility when children are caught up in the maelstrom.
But they are not, ultimately, the responsible parties. Those who pull the trigger, let loose the rocket, drop the bomb are responsible–or, more to the point: The leaders who tell them to do so.
As an exercise, let’s switch some nouns: 1,331 Israeli children killed; 7,000 Israeli children arrested by Palestinian security forces, some as young as 7, most subjected to violence; 84% of Jewish kids living in poverty in Jerusalem; 1% of that city’s budget going to Jewish playgrounds.
What would we do? How would we feel? Would we be more, or less, likely to lean toward trust and reconciliation?
I understand that this conflict is complex. I understand that when two nationalities clash, there can only be suffering. I understand that groping our way toward a shared justice will never be easy, nor will it be perfect.
But I also know that if I had grown up under those conditions, I might not be of a mind to make it any easier.
Since September 2000, at least 1,421 Israeli and Palestinian children have been killed. Neither side is served by those graves, nor by the broken hearts that are left behind.