What do young Palestinians do while living under occupation? Dream, like other children. The circumstances, however, are not only different but unique in terms of isolation, the brutality of Israel’s military occupation and international diplomatic silence.
Young Palestinians Speak: living under occupation (Interlink Books, 2017) is a collection of testimonies interspersed with historical information about Palestine and its fragmentation. The book is aimed at young adult readers, yet it overlaps the gap successfully enough to make it a compelling and harrowing read for adults as well. With children expressing simple wishes for safety and, more poignantly, to live as opposed to merely survive or exist, it is impossible to close the book without pondering how the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the ramifications of Israeli colonialism.
Authors Anthony Young and Anne Marie Robinson conducted many interviews with young Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip; the latter via video link. Early on, it becomes clear that there is a discrepancy between the summarised reports that most people are familiar with, and the tangible reality of living in a permanent state of deprivation.
For readers unfamiliar with the depletion of Palestinian territory, the book provides a concise Palestinian history, including a timeline, as well as the oppression imposed by Israel’s military occupation, particularly as a result of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the illegal (and immoral) blockade of Gaza. The systematic policies aimed at depriving Palestinians of being able to lead a normal life take on an even more sombre dimension when the narrative is provided by children and young adults who have experienced what the rest of the world can only read about. It is one thing to understand colonial violence through international law and policies, but personal testimonies bring out the human aspects which politics always seeks to bludgeon and, eventually, conceal altogether.
An apt observation by Ahmed, one of the interviewees from Sebastiya, summarises Israeli oppression thus: “Breathing is the only thing we don’t need a permit for – yet!” Considering the restrictions on freedom of movement, free speech and assembly, as well as the appropriation of land which has led to loss of livelihood and restrictions on access to basic necessities and resources such as water, the concept of “living” is ambiguous for Palestinians.
If we take into consideration administrative detention, arbitrary arrests and aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, even breathing becomes a precarious endeavour. Israel is ensuring that all avenues are kept beyond Palestinian reach, which leads to social and psychological manifestations of discomfort. Young and Robinson point to the Qalandiya checkpoint as an example of such frustration: “The noise, the fumes and the desperation are palpable. Everybody pushes, looking for advantage where there is none.” Another example is the school route taken by children from Al-Tireh:
Children from this village can only get to school via a drainage pipe that goes under the highway.
State policies that are considered universally as abhorrent forms of human rights violations have become normalised by the occupation. The children’s contributions to this book attest to this fact.
Settler violence is discussed as a routine occurrence, as well as military drills conducted near school and college buildings. Referring to the Israeli group of ex-soldiers known as “Breaking the Silence”, the book refers to a crime committed by an Israeli settler’s child who smashed a brick into the head of a six year old Palestinian girl: “The parents encourage their children to behave this way.” Many children interviewed have brothers, fathers or uncles imprisoned in Israeli jails for participating in resistance activities.
Specialising in science subjects can also result in incarceration. Qamar, from Hebron, mentions a neighbour who was charged “with the intention to make bombs” and imprisoned simply for studying chemistry. Massad, from Ramallah, whose father is a political prisoner, says simply, “Not being able to visit my father is normal for me.” The criminalisation of Palestinian resistance by Israel has also had an impact on Palestinian collective memory, as well as the psychological and sociological expression of the community. This is particularly evident in children.
Dependency upon the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA); the repercussions of choosing to remain on one’s land and suffer isolation; children being detained because other family members have been convicted by Israel’s military courts; and, particularly in Gaza, the trauma of witnessing massacres perpetrated by Israel in the name of “self-defence”, have all led to repression which also emulates the physical environment.
Volunteers working with young children and adults in Gaza interviewed by the authors commented upon the phenomenon. “We do art and self-expression,” they explain. “It helps children, but it doesn’t fix them. It doesn’t make them whole again.” The political climate in Palestine has also affected self-expression, particularly in writing. Several Palestinian youth interviewed for the book express an interest in pursuing writing careers, especially as journalists, but are aware of the power dynamics which restrict criticism of the leadership both in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet writing is perceived as an important skill, particularly among Palestinians in Gaza. Anas, who is from the coastal enclave, declares that writing is “a way the nation can express itself through the people, and children are people with a voice.” It is interesting to note that many of the children express the wish to take up employment which might influence the development of Palestinian society.
Listing careers in education, architecture, healthcare and art, the children interviewed for the book demonstrate vision and awareness of the deficiencies in society due to Israeli oppression. With regard to scholarships at overseas institutions for Palestinians in Gaza, they express the options open to them; they’re either completely inaccessible or, if they are lucky enough to get out of Gaza to take up the place on offer, there is no guarantee that they will be able to go back home due to the blockade.
Young Palestinians Speak: living under occupation shows how these young people are living with constant fluctuations between deprivation and dreams. Despite the many political obstacles, the Palestinian children quoted by the authors portray a remarkable volume of the latter, as there is no limit to their imaginations, or boundaries on what their hearts desire. Robinson and Young have produced a book which not only describes Palestinian reality through the voices of the younger generation, but also touches the reader in a special manner, in particular the realisation that Palestine is – and always will be – exactly what Palestinians want it to be.