If there is no justification for violence against innocent civilians, it is even more reprehensible when it affects the most innocent among them: children. Children do not vote, they do not participate in the decisions that lead to wars being started, attacks being committed, cities being bombed or territories being occupied. It is worth remembering this. In Three Wishes. Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, a series of interviews conducted by Canadian author and activist Deborah Ellis with children from both communities in 2004 during the Second Intifada, young people reveal their reflections and their daily suffering. “I don’t know any Israelis other than the soldiers and they are all very nasty and harsh,” says Nora, a 12-year-old Palestinian Muslim, who is late for school every day because of Israeli checkpoints and unable to visit her grandparents in the West Bank for the same reason. “I don’t know why the Palestinians are so angry with us,” wonders Danielle, an eight-year-old Israeli girl. “We are good people. I don’t know any Palestinians. If I could meet a Palestinian girl my age, we could play together.” And she confesses: “The bombs scare me the most. I don’t know when they will explode. They might go off when I’m buying shoes or on a bus.” Michael, an 11-year-old Palestinian Christian who attends a boarding school far from his father, explains: “I don’t know much about the war, other than that it means we Palestinians have to live apart from each other.” And he adds: “When I see Jewish kids my age, they look at me, and I look at them, but we don’t say anything; I don’t know anything about them, and they don’t know anything about me.”
Since October 7, according to the United Nations, nearly 4,000 Palestinian children and more than 30 Israeli children have been killed in the war in Gaza. Pending a full report on this year, the latest Secretary-General Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict provides details for 2022, a year that was not exceptionally violent in the region. However, the U.N. verified “3,133 grave violations against 1,139 Palestinian children (1,057 boys, 82 girls) and 8 Israeli children (5 boys, 3 girls) in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Israel.” The report also finds that “524 children (517 Palestinians, 7 Israelis; 462 boys, 62 girls) were maimed and 563 (548 boys, 15 girls) required medical assistance after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces.” Throughout the year, “123 attacks on schools (9) and hospitals (114), including on protected persons in relation to schools and/or hospitals (88),” were also recorded.
The report also highlights the denial of humanitarian access by Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In particular, it refers to requests for permission submitted to Israeli authorities to allow some children to leave through the Erez crossing for specialized medical care. A total of 4,106 applications were approved, but 1,861 were not approved or not within the necessary timeframe, resulting in the deaths of five minors.
The U.N. figures highlight the overwhelming disproportion in the number of Palestinian children who were victims of violence compared to Israeli children in a year which, it must be reiterated, was not exceptional. It is necessary to underline this disproportion. The violence suffered by Palestinian children is tangible, of a daily nature and often with fatal consequences, in an environment they perceive as unsafe due to the presence of Israeli forces. The violence suffered by Israeli children is more diffuse, but equally harmful. The latent threat of attack in a seemingly safe environment generates permanent fear and anxiety, and children who witness or lose someone close to them in a terrorist attack will most likely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which will affect their development and mental health.
The testimonies collected by Ellis reveal, among other things, the profound disconnect that has existed between Israeli and Palestinian children for decades. Growing up fearing or hating the other, without the possibility to feel and understand their suffering, perpetuates the cycle of violence, creating adults who are insensitive to the pain of others (and even their own) who, in turn, will most likely pass this insensitivity on to their children. “They [Israeli children] may be good children like me at first, but then they will change,” Nora stated. That could equally have been said about Palestinian children by an Israeli girl. It is necessary to remember, once again, even if it seems futile in the current context, that to break this cycle of violence, it is essential to respect the rights of children, from their right to life to their right to an education in an environment of tolerance and empathy.
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