Putting a human face to the tragedy – Re-igniting the call for accountability
On Monday 15th March Channel 4 aired an episode of Dispatches entitled “The Children of Gaza”. It focused on the lives of a few of the children living in that small strip of Palestinian land whose lives were devastated when, 15 months ago, Israel launched its military attack on their homes, killing many of their parents and relatives, and shattering their already fragile existences. It showed how they have bravely tried to deal with their losses and bereavements and have tried to move on with their lives, and simultaneously how Israel has ensured that this is well near impossible as a result of the children’s literal incarceration in Gaza due to Israel’s illegal and ongoing siege. The documentary focused on how they have been struggling to deal with the fallout of their physical injuries as well as their psychological scars which, in all probability, they will never fully recover from. For once, this documentary was an opportunity for the children of Gaza themselves to speak out and to tell their own stories instead of it being told on their behalf by propagandists with a vested interest in how these children are portrayed.
The documentary was incredibly moving and it was enough to bring those with even the hardest of hearts to near tears. Even for those who have never previously taken an interest in politics of the Middle East it would be hard to see how this documentary could not make you sit up and say, what on earth is going on out there? How on earth is a country like Israel getting away with this inhumanity and how is it possible that Israel seems to have no shame in the fact that it is bringing a civilian population to its knees in such a brutal and open way?
However, at the end of it, one thing remains abundantly clear, someone must be held accountable for what these children have and are still going through. The murder of parents and siblings before their very eyes, the physical disabilities and injuries they are living with, the destruction of their homes while they sat inside them and were buried alive under the rubble; each story was more heartrending than the last. However, having watched the report it would be an insult to these children who have shared their stories for us just to listen, shed a few tears and move on. What are we going to do to help them? Not only do they need justice for what has already passed and for the unimaginable losses that they have already endured but they also need help, now. From the girl living with daily nosebleeds and blinding headaches because of the shrapnel embedded into her brain as a direct result of Israeli military violence, and for which Israel will not let her receive medical treatment, to the young girl living in a tent who said that she wants “to die” because “it would be better for me to be martyred than to live like this”. These children are desperate for help and the only way that they will get that help is if someone stands up to Israel on their behalf, compels it to stop its ongoing and daily torture of the citizens of Gaza, and holds them accountable under international law.
The most credible and legitimate attempt to hold Israel accountable for what they have done to the people of Gaza thus far is the UN authorized Goldstone Report and this documentary, without even mentioning the report by name, highlights the importance of seeing that report brought to fruition.
Israel is sentencing young Gazan children to a life of pain, suffering and ultimately, death
One of the most disturbing aspects of this documentary was the inhumane Israeli policy of denying children in Gaza access to medical treatment. One father and mother sat at the bedside of their dying son and asked, in floods of tears, why Israel will not let their son leave Gaza in order to get the life-saving chemotherapy that he so desperately needs in order to treat his leukaemia? Through anguished heaving tears the father asks “Where are the human rights organisations? If you had a small animal you’d spend millions to try and cure it! You’d spend millions. Millions! But a child like this, no one looks at him. Why? They’ve incarcerated us here, why? Aren’t we human?” At the end of the documentary we learn that the young boy, predictably, lost his battle with cancer. He was left to endure a life of suffering and a death that could so easily have been avoided had Israel simply let him leave Gaza instead of trapping him in the world’s largest open air prison in the world.
In another case, a father’s anguish was evident as, between the Egyptian authorities and the Israeli authorities, he and his son had their hopes raised and dashed at border crossings, at which they were ultimately denied access, to get medical treatment for his ailing son. Israel and Egypt have imposed a bureaucratic nightmare on Gazans as another major obstacle to treatment. Even in the rare cases where Israel accepts that a child can leave to get treatment, there is the problem of getting travels permits and documents in order and even then, even when the paper work is up to the level imposed, it is at Egypt’s whim as to whether to open the border crossings or to leave them shut.
In addition to trapping children with life-threatening diseases in Gaza with no prospect of treatments or cures, in hundreds of other cases Israel itself directly caused the physical injuries to the children and now continues to leave them untreated. In the case of 9 year old Amal, for instance, she recounted how, after the murder of her brother and father by Israeli troops during Operation Cast Lead, she was taken by the IDF to a house where other civilians were being held. After being left there for 3 days, terrified and in mourning, with no food or water, the IDF shelled the house and she was left trapped under the rubble for 4 days beside the dead bodies of two of her uncles (one who had half of his head blown off) and many other dead and injured civilians. News footage was shown of her being carried into a hospital on a stretcher, crying out for water. As a result of the Israeli atrocities Amal has shrapnel lodged in her brain and has been suffering from increasingly severe blinding headaches, eye pain and nosebleeds. In what seemed to make her one of the few lucky ones, Israel had said that she could go to Tel-Aviv to be operated on. However, in what seemed to be a cruel game, Israel stalled at the border by not having a permit there for her and then once she finally got to a doctor was told that there was nothing that could be done for her and that she would just have to learn to live with the pieces of shrapnel that she could feel moving around inside her brain.
Angry children at play – Israel has scarred another generation of Palestinian children and is creating its own worst enemy
In the same way that we may have played “Cowboys and Indians” or “cops and robbers” as kids, children in Gaza play “Arabs and Jews”. The “Jews” are the bad guys because the children have seen for themselves what the Jews are capable of doing. The only Jews they have ever met have been driving tanks or holding guns or torturing and murdering their relatives. Furthermore, they make no distinction between a Jew and an Israeli because every Jew they have ever met has been an Israeli and vice versa, so the two are indistinguishable to them. They also play extremely disturbing and very violent games of torture and interrogation in which they take turns to role play being the Israeli torturer and the Palestinian victim. In the West we complain about children watching too much violence on television and then children emulating that in play and then that spilling over into real life. In Gaza however, the violence the children are re-enacting are not from violent scenes they have watched on tv but from violent scenes of torture and extra-judicial executions that they have seen in their own lives in which the Israeli is, without question, the bad guy.
This is only one manifestation of how the children of Gaza express their anger with Israel but play has a way of turning into real action. The toy guns played with by boys the world over, will inevitably graduate onto real guns for these young Gazans at some point and that is what these children are waiting for. As they dream about one day owning a real Kalashnikov this documentary is the first of its kind to set that anger into a context. Whereas Israeli propaganda tries to show the anger of these young Palestinian children who express hatred towards Israel and try to claim that Israel is the victim of this unwarranted hatred and aggression; this documentary showed the real, wider context. The young boy who expressed a desire to one day own a real gun only wanted to do so in order to avenge his father’s murder by Israeli troops. This anger has not spontaneously appeared in a vacuum. Israel itself and its policies of brutality and inhumanity has been the root cause of this hatred and it is continuing to cause the enmity towards itself. As one young boy explained, his feelings have become “more intense.” “Now I hate everyone. Before I used to love all people.” Israel is creating its own enemy and is then using that inevitable hatred as an excuse to continue exacting a collective punishment on the civilian Palestinian population.
As 9 year old Amal sat amidst the rubble of her former home and recounted the death of her brother and father you can only imagine what sort of mental toll this will have on her in the future. Similarly 12 year old Omsyatte recalls seeing things that no child should ever have to witness. She remembers how, during the Israeli attack on Gaza, “suddenly the ceiling opened and a bulldozer was in the room. We started to scream and shout and the bricks started to fall on us. As the tanks passed by us we were very frightened. They would point their cannons at us and start shooting… the Jews were aiming at him (her brother Ibrahim) from a hole in the wall and a bullet hit his waist and his guts started to come out… when the Jews got closer to Ibrahim, they put a gun on the wall and they shot him in the eye. Then I knew he was dead because of the way that he jolted.” It is not surprising why, later on, Omsyatte says that they wishes she was dead rather than continue to live her life, in a tent, in mourning, and under siege. Her father too is haunted by guilt over the death of his son in that he was too scared to even look down and hug his child as he lay dying in his arms because Israeli soldiers were hovering over him and he was afraid that they would kill him as his children surrounded him screaming. “These things torment me” he said crying.
This just reinforces what people like John Ging, UNRWA’s Director of Gaza operations have been saying for a long time now. Children in Gaza are suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as other trauma related psychological ailments. Symptoms of trauma such as nightmares, bed wetting, listlessness and depression are more than common place now, they are the absolute norm. Left untreated and compounded by more unimaginable suffering on a daily basis who knows what sort of serious long term psychological damage is being inflicted on these children every day, willingly and knowingly by Israel.
Counsellors working with the children in Gaza have also said they have noticed an increasing level of violence among the children and that “The children are facing a real psychological crisis after the war.” “They have no desire to even talk to anybody or build social relationships.” One women who was interviewed said, “I think if these children don’t get follow up treatment, we may end up with a very violent generation.”
I think it is important to note at this point that not all children in Gaza run around playing violent war games. This is simply one element that this documentary focused on. For the most part, the children of Gaza are as loving, gentle and kind as the children in your own family. However, it is important to acknowledge Israel’s role and for even one child to have been traumatised by Israel is bad enough but instead they are affectively destroying the childhood of generations of Palestinian children.
The destruction of fishermen’s lives and livelihoods
With the blockade on Gaza having now passed its 1,000 day mark, the people of Gaza are heavily reliant on their fishermen. As the documentary explained, “To the North and East lies Israel, to the South Egypt, and to the West the Sea.” Ibrahim is 11 years old and his family have been fishing off the Gazan coast for generations. According to the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel should be allowing the fisherman to fish up to 20 miles off shore but as Ibrahim explained, the Israelis harass the fishermen every day and when they are as little as 2 miles from shore they are attacked by Israeli gunboats. They are shot at, frequently arrested and often have their boats confiscated and shot to pieces. The documentary later shows Ibrahim’s family’s fishing boat in flames after an unprovoked attack by the IDF. It had its engine shot to pieces and is now irreplaceable. As Ibrahim said, “It says a clear message to me. The Jews want to destroy my dreams and feelings.”
Following the bombing of schools and the blockade which prohibits the import of building materials, children frequently have to attend school in bombed out school grounds full of rubble. However, the striking thing was, not only that the children still even bother to attend school at all in a situation where many adults would simply give up hope and refuse to get out of bed in the morning, but that so many of them do so with such vigour and pride. The school uniforms they wear look neater that many of those in any London junior school and they recite their lessons with energy and passion.
However, there are two unusual elements that the schools in Gaza seem to focus on. The first is that many of their lessons incorporate counselling sessions designed to help the children come to terms with their losses, and so instead of colouring in pictures of rainbows or robots, their pictures recreate the scenes of the Israeli murder of their relatives. They draw Israeli F-16 fighter jets, bombs emblazoned with the Israeli flag and Israeli tanks shelling the homes they grew up in.
The second is the lessons that focus on human rights whereby, having been assaulted and victimised by Israel they are then essentially trained to rise above it and not to equate the actions of Israel with Israeli children who are also not able to control the situation around them.
One key theme that kept repeating itself throughout the documentary was the children’s constant question of, why? “Why are they attacking Gaza?” One young boy asks, “Did we do anything to them? Did we hurt them? Did we kill them?” As Mahmood re-enacts his father’s murder at the front door of his home he points out the patch of dried blood on the floor which still stains the ground where his father lay slain 15 months after the Israelis murdered him and says “My father was a farmer, he didn’t launch rockets or bombs. What did he do to deserve this? And my brother Ahmad, a four year old child.”
Young Mahmood sits on the rubble where his home used to sit and says “This house was inanimate, it didn’t do anything or fire rockets. It did not carry a Kalashnikov or carry anything. So why did they destroy it like that?” – “They did not leave a stone or a person or a tree. They did not leave anything. All that’s left is sand. If they could have taken the sand they would have taken that too.”
Omsyatte similarly asks of the murder of her brother, “I ask myself, why did they do that? Why did they shoot him? What has he done? He wasn’t carrying a weapon. Why did they shoot him? He was a young, innocent nine year old child.” Nine year old Amal with downcast eyes tells us that she saw her father and brother murdered in front of her very eyes. “They deprived me of my father and brother and they wounded me, why?”
Let Israel answer these children. We cannot tell them why these terrible things happened to them because there is no justification in the world. However, the Israeli government has declared Operation Cast Lead to have been a great “success”, so let them answer the children. Our job is to make that happen. Israel must be held accountable for what they have and are still putting these innocent children through. International law must be set into motion so that Israel will, one day, be held to account and asked, why?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.
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