The world’s gaze is once again on Palestine, where three teenage Israeli settlers were killed, and a young Palestinian was lynched and burned alive in an apparent act of revenge. From social media announcing that “Hating Arabs is not racism, it’s values!” to news outlets declaring that “there is absolutely no need to feel guilty about. . . killing or wounding enemy civilians,” Israelis are calling for violent “reprisal” against Palestinians, though no evidence showing who killed the youths has been provided.
These developments bring into sharp relief the fate of the young in the region, particularly because Israel has used the deaths to legitimize yet another round of bombing the Gaza Strip, to murder Palestinians in the West Bank, and to subject Palestinians to collective punishment and other war crimes.
Palestinian children are subject to brutal violence far more frequently and on a far wider scale than are young Israelis. Such violence is official state policy. And the governments of Canada and the United States either tacitly or overtly back it. Over 1,400 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers since 2000, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI), a group with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe. Yet the much larger volume of violence endured by Palestinian children receives far less media attention than did the disappearance of the young Israelis.
Take as a case study the New York Times. The paper ran thirty-three articles on the captured teens from the time they went missing until July 2, the day after news that their bodies were found became public. But recent documentations of extreme violence against Palestinian children go virtually unnoticed.
The Times ran no articles on an August 2012 booklet that the Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence published about Israeli treatment of Palestinian youth. In the anthology, Israeli soldiers testify that “physical violence is often exerted against children, whether in response to accusations of stone-throwing or, more often, arbitrarily.” The book describes “cruel and indifferent treatment of children in custody,” “the wounding and killing of children in the West Bank and Gaza, whether by ignoring them at the scene of events, or by targeted shooting,” and the use of children as human shields.
A February 2013 publication from UNICEF did warrant mention in one Times article: a ninety-nine word wire report that appeared on page A11. That report describes a process in which Palestinian children held in Israeli military detention are systematically denied legal rights and subject to physical and psychological violence:
In the past ten years, an estimated 7,000 children have been detained, interrogated, prosecuted and/or imprisoned within the Israeli military justice system — an average of two children each day. The analysis of the cases monitored by UNICEF identified examples of practices that amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture.
The interrogation of Palestinian children in Israeli military facilities “mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess . . . Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member.”
Some children have been held in solitary confinement, for a period ranging from two days up to one month before the court hearing as well as after sentencing . . . The detrimental impact of solitary confinement on the psychological well-being of a child has prompted the Committee on the Rights of the Child to advise strict prohibition of such treatment, a call echoed by the Special Rapporteur on Torture in a report to the United Nations General Assembly in October 2011.
And UNICEF finds that the child detainees are subject to “use of painful restraints [and] lack of access to water, food, toilet facilities, and medical care.”
Furthermore, when the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights released its October 2013 “Briefing on Children in Gaza,” it did not receive attention in a single Times article. But one can imagine the amount of attention the Times would give to Israeli youth experiencing anything comparable to the violence that Al Mezan found Gaza’s young endure: “Children make up the largest category of the victims of Israeli attacks on Gaza, including during Operation Cast Lead (2008–9) (OCL) and Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2013) (OPD). Al Mezan’s documentation points out a significant proportion of children were killed in direct military attack.”
The briefing also notes that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, a gruesome form of systemic violence, “puts children’s right to health at a grave risk as access to health services and care inside Gaza is hampered by lack of equipment, expertise, and medicines, while access to care outside of Gaza is largely restricted.”
So why does violence against and abduction of Palestinian children garner so much less attention and sympathy than the far fewer cases in which Israeli youth experience such things? Part of the answer is that, as Amjad Iraqi writes:
The killing of a Palestinian youth is seen as a common occurrence; a frequent feature of the conflict that is hardly cause for deep sorrow because of its “ordinariness.” A young Palestinian can be abducted, arrested, and tortured, and the incident will still be considered routine. The killing of an Israeli youth, however, is an atrocity, a rarity, an event that demands swift retribution.
The disparity is also the result of the entrenched racism that Susan Abulhawa describes wherein “Palestinian life is cheap and disposable” and where Israeli terror against Palestinians is “cloaked in the legitimacy of uniforms and technological death machines. Israeli violence, no matter how vulgar, is inevitably couched as a heroic, ironic violence that Western media frames as ‘response.’” Such racism is the inevitable product of colonial practices that classify some people as human and others as non-human.
Violence against youth matters when it is politically useful for it to matter. The dead Israeli teens have been eminently useful for attacking Hamas. The killings have also been useful for a media-political power configuration keen to paint Palestinians — as well as Arabs and Muslims more generally — as savages whose supposed collective barbarism is a major reason for Western support of the Zionist project.
In contrast, Israeli violence against Palestinian youth is not politically useful to the American media establishment — quite the opposite — so outrage over such acts is either comparatively muted or non-existent. Neither the Breaking the Silence booklet nor the briefing by Al Mezan merited mention in Times articles. However, the paper did run multiple stories in 2010 on two Israeli soldiers who were tried in Israel for using a Palestinian boy as a human shield and were ultimately convicted — though they were only given suspended sentences.
It is only in cases like these that violence against Palestinian children is useful, because such cases suggest that the perpetrators are deviants in an otherwise civilized society. The drama of judgment and punishment reinforces that morality play. In that way, Israel’s justness is supposedly proven by its willingness to deal with its wayward soldiers. We know from the documents provided by Breaking the Silence, UNICEF, and Al Mezan that this image is false and that Israeli violence against Palestinian youth is deliberate and institutionalized.
The real aberration is when Israelis are punished at all for inflicting violence on Palestinians.
That is because violence is constitutive of Zionism and all settler-colonial projects, such as those of Israel’s dearest allies, Canada and the United States. As Frantz Fanon reminds us, “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.” And that colonialist violence does not differentiate between combatants and civilians — or between adults and children.