Israel murders Palestinian children as a matter of state policy. This claim can be demonstrated easily and is supported by the latest findings of a Human Rights Watch report. The question is: why?
When the police or army shoot a child anywhere in the world, it can usually be argued, at least in theory, that the killing was an unfortunate and tragic mistake. But when thousands of children are killed and wounded in a systematic, “routine” and comparable method within a relatively short period of time, there has to be something very deliberate about it.
In a recent report — “West Bank: Spike in Israeli Killings of Palestinian Children” — HRW reaches a strong conclusion based on an exhaustive examination of medical data, eyewitness accounts, video footage and field research, the latter pertaining to four specific cases.
One is the case of Mahmoud Al-Sadi, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy from the Jenin Refugee Camp. He was killed last November, 320 metres away from fighting between invading Israeli forces and Jenin resistance fighters. Mahmoud was on his way to school and carried nothing that could be seen, from the soldiers’ point of view, as threatening or suspicious.
The story of the Jenin boy is typical and is repeated often throughout the occupied West Bank, sometimes daily. The predictable outcome, as HRW puts it, is that these killings are followed with “virtually no recourse for accountability”.
As of 22 August, 34 Palestinian children in the West Bank have been killed in 2023, adding yet more tragic numbers to a foreboding year that promises to be the most violent since 2005. This year “already surpasses 2022 annual figures, and the highest figure since 2005,” in terms of casualties, reported Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East, during a UN briefing on 21 August.
These statistics, among other factors — including the expansion of illegal Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank — “threatens to worsen the plight of the most vulnerable Palestinians,” according to Wennesland.
Those “most vulnerable Palestinians”, however, exist beyond the realm of statistics. When Israeli soldiers killed 2-year-old toddler Mohammed Tamimi on 5 June, the little boy’s name was added to an ever-expanding roll call of shame. The memory of the infant, however, like the memory of all other Palestinian children, is etched into the collective consciousness of all Palestinians. It deepens their pain, but also compels their struggle and their resistance.
For Palestinians, the killing of their children is not a random act of a military that lacks discipline and fears no repercussions. Palestinians know that the Israeli war on children is an intrinsic component of the larger Israeli war on every single one of them.
Of course, Israel does not declare officially that it is targeting Palestinian children on purpose. That would be a public relations disaster. Some Israeli officials in the past, however, have let their guard down, offering a strange and troubling logic.
Palestinian children are “little snakes”, wrote Israeli politician Ayelet Shaked in 2015. In a Facebook post, published in the Washington Post, Shaked called for the killing of “the mothers of the [Palestinian] martyrs.” In doing so, she declared war on all Palestinians. “They should follow their sons,” she wrote, “nothing could be more just.” Shortly afterwards, Shaked rather ironically became Israel’s justice minister.
But not all Israeli officials are candid about the killing of Palestinian children, and even their mothers. Data collected by international rights groups, however, leaves no doubt that the nature of the killings is part of a comprehensive strategy developed by the Israeli military. “In all cases,” recently investigated by HRW, “Israeli forces shot the children’s upper bodies.” This was done without the “issuing of warnings or using common, less lethal measures.”
Specifically, the killing of Palestinian children is a centralised and deliberate Israeli military strategy. The same twisted logic, now applied to the West Bank, has already been used in the besieged Gaza Strip. UN figures show that, in the Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2008-9, 333 Palestinian children were killed; other estimates put the figure at 410. In the 2012 Israeli offensive against Gaza, 47 children were killed; in 2014, there were 578 killed; in 2021 it was 66; and in 2022 17 children were killed in the besieged territory by Israeli soldiers.
Between 2018 and 2020, 59 Palestinian children were killed in what was known as the “March of Return” protests that took place at the fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip. All the children were killed from a distance by Israeli snipers.
When the numbers of dead and wounded children are tallied, they are in the thousands. According to the UN, there were precisely 8,700 Palestinian child casualties between 2015 and 2022.
Even the callous and often dehumanising term “collateral damage” cannot justify such statistics. And although the war on Palestinian children is clearly intentional, protracted and ongoing, not a single Israeli military or government official has ever been held accountable in an international court. Moreover, the UN “List of Shame for Killing Children” has never branded Israel, although other countries have been “named and shamed” for far fewer crimes against children.
As the killing of children is perceived — according to the twisted logic of the likes of Shaked — to be functional for Israel, given the absence of any accountability, the occupation state finds no reason or urgency to end its war on Palestinian children. And with the constant loosening of the rules of military engagement in Israel, and the terrifyingly genocidal language used by its extreme far-right ministers and their massive constituency, more Palestinian children are likely to lose their lives in the near future.
Despite this, the most that UN officials and rights groups seem to be able to do now is to count the alarming number of child casualties. Alas, no number is large enough to dissuade Israel from killing Palestinians, including children.
The problem for Palestinians is not just that of Israel’s violence, but also the lack of international will to hold Israel accountable. Accountability requires unity, decisiveness of will and action. This task should be a priority for all countries that genuinely care about Palestinians and universal human rights. Without such collective action, Palestinian children will continue to be killed in large numbers and in the most brutal ways, a tragedy that will continue to pain, in fact, shame, us all.
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