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What Kind of Democracy Kills Children?

Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet its wanton, murderous bombing campaign in Gaza is slaughtering not just civilians, but scores of children.

Palestinians evacuate a building targeted by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City on May 11, 2021. (Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

During a press briefing on Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price discussed Israel’s latest all-out assault on the Gaza Strip — dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls — which had begun the previous day and quickly dispensed with thirty Palestinian lives, including ten children.

Asked by a reporter whether the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli airstrikes was “something to condemn,” Price responded in typical State Department style by verbosely not answering the question:

Well — and I said this yesterday, that the loss of innocent life is something that we would — that is deeply regrettable. It is — of course, Israel has the right to defend itself against those attacking Israel, against Hamas and terrorists responsible, including for the loss of life in Israel, but the loss of civilian life in these operations is something that we deeply regret. It is precisely why we have said that, just as the Israelis do, the Palestinians have every right to live in safety and security.

Obviously, it’s a bit difficult for Palestinians to aspire to safety and security when the imperial power that throws billions of dollars a year at Israel can’t even say that slaughtering kids is bad. Nor is the Palestinian population provided much security considering the Israeli state’s seventy-three-year predilection for ethnic cleansing.

It was Israel’s current ethnic cleansing in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that paved the way for the ongoing attack on Gaza. Forty Palestinians, among them ten children, are being threatened with forcible removal from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, where their families have resided since the 1950s (after first being made refugees when Israel up and declared its “independence” on their land). Their continued presence in the neighborhood is complicating Israeli visions of inundating the area with right-wing Jewish settlers.

The ensuing Palestinian protests have been brutally repressed with rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades, and skunk water. In the face of such immensely emblematic injustice — after all, the whole Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” is basically Sheikh Jarrah writ large — Hamas fired rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip. Israel, for its part, has gone to town flattening buildings in Gaza, extinguishing lives, and engaging in a level of devastation and terrorization that sixty-seven-year-old lawyer Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and a Gaza resident, has described as “the worst I witnessed in my life.”

The death toll in the Palestinian coastal enclave now stands at eighty-seven, eighteen of them children. It’s hardly the first time that the youth of Gaza have been significantly represented in fatality counts. In 2014, Israel’s Operation Protective Edge killed 2,251 Palestinians over fifty days, including 551 children. Operation Cast Lead, which spanned twenty-two days in 2008–9, slaughtered some three hundred children, in addition to 1,100 adults.

To be sure, there are plenty of members of Israeli society who, like Mr Price of the State Department, would find it difficult to categorize the murder of Palestinian kids as “something to condemn.” There are also plenty who would openly applaud it. Recall the Facebook musings of Ayelet Shaked in 2014, the year of Operation Protective Edge and the year before she assumed her post as Israeli justice minister.

Wondering what was “so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy,” Shaked went on to advocate for the obliteration of Palestinian mothers as well as their homes: “Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

The mass killing of Palestinian children by a state that purports to be obsessed with “surgical precision” certainly raises issues for the world’s “most moral army.” But in the end, what more apt way to disappear a Palestinian future than by killing the youth of Palestine?

Not that they all have to be killed, literally: condemning children to a life permeated by death is another fine way to attempt to destroy a people.

According to the United Nations, during the Great March of Return — the overwhelmingly peaceful protests that were launched in March 2018 along the Gazan border (read: prison fence) with Israel — forty-six out of the 214 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military were children. Of the more than 36,100 wounded, nearly 8,800 were children, and the UN predicted that some 22,500 children would suffer mental health problems in connection to the Great March demonstrations.

And yet even 22,500 seems to be an underestimate in a territory of two million inhabitants, as there doesn’t really seem to be a way to avoid mental health issues when you’re trapped in an overcrowded, besieged strip of land where you could be blown to bits at any moment. Former Oxfam spokesman in Gaza, Karl Schembri, reflecting on the children who were visibly traumatized by Operation Cast Lead once posed the question: “How can you talk about post-traumatic stress interventions in Gaza when people are still in a constant state of trauma?”

Back in 2014, following the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, a psychoanalyst in Barcelona passed along to me some photographs of drawings by children in Gaza, which his Palestinian colleague had sent him. The drawings were colorful and shared many of the standard features of children’s artwork: houses, grass, sun, smiling stick people. Upon closer inspection, however, one discovered that the landscapes also included missiles, fighter jets, tanks, and bulldozers.

Now, as Operation Guardian of the Walls takes off and Israel prepares to outdo itself in barbarity, there is still no safe space for the children of the Gaza Strip — not even in their own homes. And that, surely, is “something to condemn.”