When I feel my children are getting too complacent about the easy blessings of life (even in a pandemic there are many), I sometimes remind them about the children of Palestine. And then together we wonder what the children in Palestine are doing.
This is the lunar month of Ramadan, an occasion for month-long spiritual experiences and character-building for the 1.8 billion strong Muslims around the world.
I cannot think of a better way of celebrating this cultural highlight than thinking about how it goes for the children of Palestine.
A War-Torn Land
Today, Palestine comprises two areas separated by Israel. One is the narrow Gaza strip, just 365 square kilometers long, nursing 2 million people. The larger area called the West Bank is squeezed between Israel and Jordan, most of which is under military occupation by Israel.
The United Nations recognizes the Israeli settlements in Palestine as illegal and considers them a mechanism of war crimes in the area. In recent years, the latest U.S. government’s rhetoric encouraged Israel to announce over six thousand new settlements in the forcefully occupied West Gaza strip, with additional planned settlements near Ramallah. In the words of a director at Amnesty International:
“The flurry of recent announcements signals that the Israeli government, emboldened by the Trump administration, feels no need to hide its brazen violations of the rights of the occupied Palestinian population.”
A Turbulent History
The modern troubles of the Palestine region began with the British war and occupation starting in 1915 and the subsequent revolts by the Arab locals. The British left after WWII when the United Nations resolved to separate the region into Jewish and Arab states. The problem was that the Jews were dispersed throughout Palestine and were overall only a third of the total population, which was predominantly Arab. The conflict of how the alleged “division” should take place erupted into the 1948 Arab-Israeli civil war. Urban Palestine was completely erased, and up to 600 villages were destroyed. This led to the infamous exodus (nakba in Arabic), where millions of Palestinians, including women and children, were expelled in military operations or fled their homes to save their lives.
Nearly 80% of the Arab inhabitants of what would become Israel were displaced. After the Lausanne Conference of 1949, the Israeli government passed a quick succession of laws ensuring that there would be no returnees to claim back their homes. The reason was the root cause of the conflict: Arabs were the rightful majority, and to allow the return would mean a Jewish minority with more Arab votes in any democratic process.
All displaced people are refugees to this day. There are over 7 million of them now.
The Israeli army successfully captured the Arab-possessed areas of Palestine during the Six-Day War of 1967. That’s when the policy of forcibly creating Israeli settlements in Arab-inhabited territories began. The sad part is that this was after the U.N. reaffirmed a two-state solution to the conflict, inclusive of the rights of the displaced Arabs. After several years of protests and riots over this policy and the continuing displacement, the Palestinian Intifada forged a Declaration of Independence for the State of Palestine in 1988 – the one that was supposed to happen in 1948 by the U.N.’s decree.
Read the detailed report put together by Israeli journalist Haga Shezaf on how the Israeli governments have systematically erased historic records of this displacement.
Today the matter of these displaced Palestinians – while some are refugees, some remain in Israeli territories but still lost their homes – remains at the core of the military tension and conflict in the area and defines the politics of the entire Arab region.
In December 1948, the United Nations resolved [194(III)] that:
- the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date
- compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property
These and later resolutions to support the return of the displaced stem from the basic laws recognized by the U.N. in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli position on the matter of the displaced couldn’t be clearer, as mentioned above.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip live in terrible conditions. They are barricaded on one side by the State of Israel and on the other by strict Egyptian restrictions. That means they depend entirely on humanitarian aid. Israeli military posted by the barricade regularly fire live ammunition into defenseless protestors on the other side. As for the Palestinians inside the State of Israel and the forcefully occupied territories, conditions aren’t much better. The picture below, for instance, is of a mobile home razed to the ground by Israeli forces because it was made without a permit, which is rarely, if ever, issued to Arabs.
Israeli prisons hold thousands of Palestinians for non-violent protests after trials in military courts with 100% conviction rates. The criminal charges for which the 185 Palestinian children detained in Israel include “stone-throwing” and “picking wild vegetables”.
Flowers of War
Children of Palestine share hopeful stories of going to school, celebrating birthdays, riding horses, and going on rides on the beach. But Sister Bridget Tighe, who lives in the Gaza Strip and helps with local hospitals, had this to say about their lives in Gaza:
“There is no time for school, and no time for play. Children know nothing about peace or what it means to have a normal and happy childhood. Some have already survived three major wars and have lived through horrors no child should ever know.”
In 2009, BAFTA-winning filmmaker Jezza Neumann went to Palestine to film the aftermath of the ceasefire that had just taken place between Israel and Hamas. He followed four children, all of which had just lost family members in the war, including a girl named Amal who was living with bomb shrapnel in her brain. Disturbing clips from Jezza’s documentary can be seen on the TrueVision webpage with copies on DVD available for purchase.
In 2014, an Israeli operation dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” bombed 138 schools, 89 of which were being run by the U.N.’s Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). The operation killed more than 300 children and left around 2,000 injured. A 16-year-old, Farah Baker, live-tweeted one bombing while scared for her life.
The situation is not much different today. Only last year, Brad Parker, attorney at Defense for Children International Palestine had this to say about the problem of military detention in the occupied areas of Palestine:
“Despite sustained engagement by [U.N. Children’s Fund] UNICEF and repeated calls to end night arrests and ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention, Israeli authorities have persistently failed to implement practical changes to stop violence against Palestinian child detainees”
Growing Out from Rocky Craigs
Kirsi Peltonen is a child psychologist at the University of Tampere. She studied the earliest memories of nearly 250 Palestinian children, ages 10-12:
- 30% recalled their earliest memories as involving trauma or accident.
- Experiencing war trauma was directly linked to higher chances of having a traumatic earliest memory.
- Fortunately, it did not affect subsequent mental health or adjustment above and beyond their war zone reality.
- The results were considered optimistic since Western studies regularly find a quarter of studied children reporting traumatic earlier memories.
- According to the authors, one explanation is the extraordinary attachment of Palestinian mothers.
- The greater the exposure of mothers to war trauma, the higher the parental investment into the kids, thus seemingly creating a buffer necessary for the children’s survival.
One study focused on children’s adjustment to absent fathers jailed for protesting the military occupation. This study conducted in-depth interviews with 16 teenage children. The following themes emerged:
- Very young children either had no memories of growing up with their fathers and would satisfy their curiosity by asking questions to the rest of the family.
- Some young children assumed their fathers were “at work” when they met him on prison visits, and would only understand what was really happening as they grew older.
- Children coped with sadness by remembering or cherishing their few experiences with their fathers by pretending “he is here with us”, or by going off to play with friends to ward off the sadness.
- Children were distracted from their fathers’ absences because of the greater responsibility of contributing to the family chores or helping with housework or babysitting.
- But, this had its caveats. Sometimes children liked the responsibilities and sometimes they found it unfair or too much.
- One older brother reported that younger kids mistook him to be the father of his younger brother. He didn’t like that.
How to Spend Ramadan in a War Zone?
For decades, the people of Palestine have maintained their spirit of Ramadan. Children would light up homes with colorful lanterns, while families would exchange gifts for children. Recently, however, poverty is so widespread that even these simple celebrations are beyond affordability for most residents. When even the basic essentials are on the line and they spend every day on edge, who can spare time or energy for cultural observances?
And yet, people not only observe Ramadan yearly, but they try to keep up the good cheer and benevolent spirit of Ramadan. Military checkpoints are lined up every Friday, with people trying to reach the mosques for the congregational prayers (see below). In Ramallah and other city centers, people gather with lights around Iftar, the time to break fast.
When the TRT World photographer Ben Khaled was walking around the streets of Gaza to capture the optimistic aspects of these children’s lives, one little kid stopped him to ask: “Hey, mister, why don’t you take a picture of me?” He melted and took the sublime shot below.