Forty years ago, Israel's brutal assault against Palestinians prompted a landmark international resolution which called for the protection of children during war. On 19 August 1982, at its emergency special session on the question of Palestine, the UN General Assembly, "appalled at the great number of innocent Palestinian and Lebanese children victims of Israel's acts of aggression", agreed to commemorate 4 June of each year as the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
The day affirms the UN's commitment to protect the rights of children. Its work is guided by the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. Adopted in 1997, the convention signalled the start of a new consensus among member states on the need for dedicated attention, advocacy and coordinated effort by the international community to address the vulnerabilities and violations faced by children in conflict-related situations. And yet, four decades since Israeli aggression sparked world-wide attention and general concern over the protection of children, the apartheid state remains one of the main violators of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Israel's targeting of Palestinian children has become a routine feature of its brutal military occupation. Only two days ago, occupation forces shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, Zaid Ghuneim, in the village of Al-Khader, south of the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. Ghuneim was hit by live gunfire in the back and neck and was rushed to hospital in critical condition where he was pronounced dead. Eyewitnesses reported that Ghuneim was shot by Israeli soldiers who killed him in cold blood.
A week earlier Israeli soldiers used a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, Ahed Mohammad Rida Mereb, as a human shield, placing her in front of one of their military vehicles deployed in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. Gunfire was being exchanged at the time. According to Defence for Children International – Palestine (DCIP), the occupation forces ordered Mereb to stand outside the military vehicle for around two hours while they took refuge within.
Mereb is not the only Palestinian child to be used as a human shield by Israel forces. Occupation soldiers ambushed and detained a Palestinian as young as seven-years during a weekly demonstration in Kafr Qaddum and used him as a human shield in late 2016. Video footage captured by rights organisation B'Tselem showed Muamen Murad Mahmoud Shteiwi being captured and held in front of soldiers as protection.
Israel's killing of Ghuneim and its use of Mereb as a human shield are just two examples of the growing number of attacks against Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank this year. In the first three months of 2022, of the 24 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, five were under the age of 18: Mohammad Abu Salah, 17, from Al-Yamoun in Jenin; Mohammad Salah, 14, from Al-Khadder in Bethlehem; Shadi Najem, 18, from Jenin refugee camp; Nader Rayan, 17, from Balata refugee camp in Nablus; and Sanad Abu Attiya, 17, from Jenin refugee camp. A further 40 children were hospitalised due to injuries inflicted by Israeli forces. The youngest was a six-month-old baby.
The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israel in 2022 is also alarming. Data from the Palestinian Prisoners' Society puts the number of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons at around 4,400 as at the end of February this year, including 160 children. In other words, almost four per cent of all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel are children. While in detention, the children are usually subjected to abuse and even torture in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In its 2021 annual review, DCIP highlighted the depressing plight of Palestinian children. In a year that saw intense Israeli military aggression against the Gaza Strip, the Israeli occupation authorities, armed forces and illegal settlers targeted Palestinian children with assaults, excessive force, arbitrary detention, expulsions and home demolitions, all carried out with impunity. Sixty Palestinian children were killed during Israel's military assault on the besieged strip in May 2021 dubbed "Operation Guardian of the Walls". A further 685 were injured during the military offensive.
Even when Palestinians are not being subjected to daily bombardment by Israeli troops, their children can still expect to suffer terrible injuries, as was the case with Izz Al-Din Nadal. The 14 year old lost his right eye after being shot with a rubber-coated steel bullet fired by Israeli occupation forces. The boy was taken to a hospital in Hebron for emergency treatment before being transferred to St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital for surgery.
Israel's abuse of Palestinian children has increased as a result of the expansion of illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank. Twenty-four Palestinian children between the ages of two and 17 were injured in attacks by illegal settlers last year, according to the DCIP report. Amongst those was 15-year-old Tareq Z who was abducted and assaulted.
The systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children has been documented widely in recent years, with Amnesty International finding that Israeli forces had "tortured and otherwise ill-treated Palestinian detainees, including children, particularly during arrest and interrogation. Such ill treatment included "beating with batons, slapping, throttling, prolonged shackling, stress positions, sleep deprivation and threats."
Given that the UN adopted an international day to raise awareness of the plight of children in conflict situations following Israel aggression in Lebanon, it is hard to believe that concerns over the apartheid state's abuse of Palestinian children remains a major concern 40 years later. This is a further indication of the impunity enjoyed by Israel.
"Unquestionably, the international community's unwillingness to enforce international law when it comes to Israel has only fuelled and emboldened its lawlessness and the culture of impunity in the Government and the occupying forces" said a 2020 report presented to the UN Security Council on the suffering of children. It described Israel's occupation as having "caused exponentially growing suffering for generations of Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation."
The UN report went on to say: "We reiterate that, according to the established criteria and the thorough documentation available to the Security Council, the perpetration of such violations and crimes warrants that Israel, its army and its settlers be put on the list of parties that commit grave violations against children."
Over the past couple of years B'Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all exposed the apartheid nature of the state of Israel. Apartheid is a crime akin to a crime against humanity.
On International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression 2022, if the international community is to retain any degree of credibility when it comes to implementing the laws and conventions that Israel treats with such contempt, then Potgieter's conclusion must be taken seriously and acted upon: "The protection of Palestinian children starts and ends with holding Israel accountable."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.