By Renee Bowyer
I visited the family of a twelve year old boy arrested on a Sunday morning. They lived in a small room on the outskirts of Balata refugee camp bordering the city of Nablus. The mother of Salim spoke to me first reminding me how the last time I had visited her, her son Salim had been there. Of course I remembered; he’d greatly enjoyed trying out his few English words with me and had very excitedly told me how he and his mother had been to Ramallah the week before. It was Sunday evening and as I sat with Um Salim she recounted to me how she had woken in the night as Balata camp was invaded. She listened to the sound of tanks and jeeps, of sound bombs detonating at random. But then Um Salim told me how the night-terror became her terror when her front door was pushed in and soldiers were everywhere. They were calling for Salim and Um Salim began to sob as she explained to me how a mother’s worst nightmare began.
Salim was twelve years old but in many ways he was older than his years. He had witnessed an uncle shot and killed by invading Israeli forces and he had not seen his father, a prisoner, for eight years. But this night Salim became the child again. When his name was shouted out Salim in terror rushed behind his mother and fell on the ground. He held the skirt of his mother and cried up to her ‘Mama; save me’. Um Salim told me how her son was ripped out of her arms as he cried for her to protect him. She was pushed to the ground and Salim was dragged from the house.
Six months later I visited Um Salim again. She had not seen Salim since the night he had been dragged from her arms. She still had no idea why he was taken, for how long he would be held or even when there would be a court hearing for him. She said she had learnt to live without him but would never learn to forget the words he had cried out to her when the soldiers had pushed in their door: ‘Mama; save me’. Um Salim looked at me and said ‘I couldn’t protect him. I couldn’t protect my son.’
Last week in Britain; a far cry from the poverty-stricken streets of Balata refugee camp and the occupied territories of the West Bank; Sandra Osborne, MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, secured a debate on the detention of Palestinian children by Israel in the British Parliament. Having worked with Addameer in the West Bank, (a Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association mentioned by Ms Osborne in her presentation) I can appreciate in full the horrifying account Ms Osborne gave of the plight of Palestinian children prisoners. Details of Hebrew confessions signed by children under physical or emotional torture, of solitary confinement, of beatings and threats and months without seeing or hearing from family are all realities that thousands of Palestinian children are facing now. One can only imagine the horror of families whose children have been taken and are being subject to these violations. While working with Addameer I spoke to mother after mother whose child had been imprisoned and every one of them spoke of the constant fear gripping their hearts knowing their child was unprotected in a hostile and violent place and how they knew that no law was governing the treatment of their child.
The taking of Palestinian children by Israeli forces and the terrorizing of them seems to be a calculated policy of Israel in their attempt to destroy the very fabric of Palestinian life. The Occupation of Palestine is much more than a military exercise and as constantly cited by Israeli officials ‘a necessary step to insure Israeli security’. Every aspect of the occupation, from the invasions and assassinations to the humiliating abuses of the soldiers standing at checkpoints is geared towards making Palestinian life unbearable. The strategically placed settlements and the free-reign given to settlers to attack, kill and steal land from the Palestinians, the invasions of villages and the constant curfews imposed on them, the house searches and indiscriminate shooting, the verbal inanities shouted at women and children by soldiers in roaming army jeeps are all focused on grinding down the will to survive and resist that the Palestinian people show.
I cannot recall how many times I asked the question ‘why are you doing this?’ When I was living in the Occupied Territories; watching some ridiculous flying checkpoint being set up on some small mountain path and three or four teenage soldiers smoking and forcing old women to empty their shopping bags on to the dusty road. ‘Why are you doing this?’ as I watched a tank roaming through a village and stopping in front of the village high school for boys and some sun-glassed soldier throwing a sound bomb over the wall. Acts that have no meaning to them except to terrorize and humiliate and make the lives of the Palestinian people harder than they already are.
‘It’s the Wild West’ an anonymous soldier states in Breaking the Silence; ‘serving in the West Bank is like being in the Wild West’.
And this is because the Israeli government has a goal beyond taking land; it seems increasingly obvious that the real agenda of the Israeli government is to ‘cleanse’ the land of Palestinians and the first step to do this is to make the Palestinian people stop resisting; not just with arms but in every other way. There is too much life still being lived under occupation; there is too much will to survive this occupation and siege. There are still festivals and marriages being celebrated in ruined houses alongside the burying of the dead; there are still lessons being taught to children in schools that have been bombed to rubble; there is still music in Palestine. And this is what Israel fears.
There are plenty of times when the reality of life under occupation and siege yields a sense of despair and helplessness among the people of Palestine, but it doesn’t stay; only in the cases of the mothers of child prisoners does it stay. There was a look of desperation and despondency on the face of Um Salim when she told me how Salim had cried to her to protect him that I had not seen before, and when I visited her months later and she had still not heard from her son that look was still there; etched now on her face.
By stealing the children of Palestine and trapping them inside a prison where they have no contact with family, Israel is attempting to systematically destroy the future of Palestine. They are breeding despondency inside Palestine that even invasions and killings did not produce. If this is not Israel’s aim, why else would they go to such lengths to violate every law set in place to protect children from this kind of soul-destroying treatment?
Ms Osborne last week made a plea to the British government to intervene because she was horrified by what she had witnessed in a military court hearing of Palestinian children. (And surely what she witnessed was a toned down version of what normally happens). The plea Ms Osborne made was supported by extensive detail and factual information and clearly exposed the policy of Israel in respect to Palestinian child prisoners and how it seems that the policy of Israel encourages these violations.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, responded to Ms Osborne in the sort of way that western governments are responding to Israeli violations every time they come to prominence: by stating that Israel may have gone too far in some respects but that their security issues necessitate certain actions and that Israel continues to have the full support of these governments. Alistair Burt agreed to raise the issue with Israel and to write to the members of Parliament who had attended the debate. And that is all.
A letter in a month or two explaining that the issue has been raised with Israel?
While Um Salim waits to hear what prison her twelve year old son has been dragged too, while another mother and another are woken in the night to the sound of their child’s name being shouted by soldiers who batter down their doors, and while children shiver alone in prison cells, are forced to sign confessions of guilt in Hebrew and are beaten and shackled; our Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will raise the issue with Israel.
On the 21st November this year two Israeli soldiers were given suspended sentences and demoted for using a Palestinian child as a human shield during their attacks on Gaza on 2008/2009. They scarred the nine year old child for life when they forced him to search for booby traps in the ruins of his town and they were given two months probation and were not sent to prison. At the same time countless Palestinian children are serving sentences in Israeli prisons for throwing stones at tanks.
It is time that our secretaries of state do more than write letters about this. If they as representatives of our governments do not help protect these children than who will?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.