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On Children – Keith Simmonds

Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel – February 2, 2020

I’m told writing something about children might be helpful and I’m not really sure where to begin. There’s so much I’m sure you already know. I have only bits and pieces to put together. I hope these are of some use. If they are not, please set them in the back corner somewhere, where the cobwebs gather and sometimes a stray sunbeam where a cat might curl and bask.

I haven’t been here long, just over a month. I’ve seen a lot of children, spoken with a few, not much beyond ‘how are you?’ or ‘what’s your name?’ or ‘where are you from?’. Usually they are on their way to or from school and I’m an old guy in a vest walking beside much more interesting people (young women, also in vests). All of us obviously from somewhere else, here for a few months, then gone like the last group. And the one before that. And so on…

EAs have been coming here since time immemorial, as far as these kids are concerned. Long before they were born. Before the wall went up and they could no longer help on the farm, in the olive groves, or herd sheep and goats over the dry hills. In some of the villages we go to over ninety percent of villagers worked the land. As their ancestors had been doing for thousands of years before them. Many have deeds to property going back to the Ottoman Empire, perhaps the first to regularly require and record them as property owners in their own right.[1]

That hasn’t seemed to matter much in the face of the illegal settlements put here by the Government of Israel, or to the settlers who have come along with them[2]. Villagers are told to move. Told they don’t belong here.

“Get out, this is not your land,” say the settlers. Rocks are thrown at houses, windows broken, car tires slashed. A father in one village goes to the hospital, wounded by dogs a settler has set upon him, for grazing his sheep where his ancestors did. Cars drive through the same village at high rates of speed, a sign settlers may fear rocks from the hands of villagers. Villagers are injured as the cars try to occupy their space as well as their land. [3],[4]

People in Palestine do not generally talk about mental health. They will tell you that children as old as 14 wet the bed, have night terrors, suffer from traumas some call Post Traumatic Stress[5] and others just call ongoing, rolling stress that never stops.

The stress of facing armed soldiers every day at school. Soldiers who sometimes enter the school with teargas, smoke bombs and sound bombs[6]. Demanding the school surrender children who threw rocks. Former soldiers ‘breaking the silence’ tell us any kid will do[7].

The stress of knowing your neighbour next door and in class was arrested at age 13 the first time, 15 the second time, 17 the third time, charged with throwing rocks at soldiers. The first time because his scarf is the same as the one around the head of the figure in the pictures the soldiers took.

They broke into his house at 3am, arrested him at gunpoint, while his parents and siblings were held at bay for an hour or so until they took him away. You hear after that they tied his wrists with electric zip ties, one on each, so tight his family saw the marks the next day. Joined them with a third. Blindfolded him and pushed him to the floor of the jeep, at the base of the benches where the soldiers could keep him down with their feet[8]. They kept him for 22 days the first time. That’s when he dropped out of school. Seven months the second. Nobody knows where he is, or how long they will keep him this time[9].

You know kids almost always confess because they are almost always convicted no matter what they say[10]. You’re pretty sure you’d fight, but secretly you wonder if you’d confess too. They threaten your mother and your sister with unspeakable things. Your father will lose his permission to work in Israel (he already pays half his salary in fees to permit sellers[11]). You want to fight.

The images of the boys that did are everywhere in the community. The last one died in a clash two years ago, when Donald Trump declared Jerusalem would always be Israel’s and never your people’s. He was 17, shot three times in the chest. Someone from your class drew a picture of the Israeli army carrying his body away.[12] They keep the bodies in custody for months, sometimes forever.[13] They don’t want a big martyrs funeral for the boys that are killed in clashes.

Everyday you hear news of the Occupation getting closer. Of farmer’s equipment confiscated, fields burned, whole Olive groves, hundreds of trees, mown down.[14] Springs confiscated and water sold back to the communities that used to own them[15]. Roads blocked, identification demanded[16]. The right to see the mosque in Jerusalem denied[17]. More land confiscated. Children hurt on the roadways[18] while buses to settlement regularly pass by, empty as the promises of reconciliation and statehood for Palestine.

What is it like to grow up in Palestine, where all of this is normal? Where these events are daily, where schools are demolished by the Occupation because they are in the way or built without the almost unobtainable permission of the Occupying Army?[19] Where your home can be demolished because it too was built without permission, or it is in the way of the military, or it is too close to an illegal settlement.[20] [21]What is it like to have that as your normal life? Normal as the strangers in vests who come, watch and disappear in batches of three or four.

Teachers, counsellors, social workers, headmasters, and non governmental organizations like Wi’am[22]; Defense of Children International Palestine[23], Military Court Watch[24], SOS Children’s Society[25], Palestinian Medical Relief Society[26], the Red Cross/Red Crescent Society[27], the YMCA[28], Wings of Hope for Trauma[29] and others, ask for support for children. Support to have Palestinian children in the West Bank treated the same as Israeli children in the West Bank.

That they might be tried as children, have real access to real legal help, be tried in their own courts, jailed in their own country. That those suffering from rolling trauma be given something besides rocks and stones of retribution to work it out on. That their teachers and social workers be trained in trauma informed counselling. That they have access to programs in the arts, in music, fine arts, poetry and prose. Practical hands on courses for those that wish to create new structures with hand and mind and body. That they might have other outlets for their processing than the vague promise of a better future through higher education.[30]

In reality the most common future the Occupation seems willing to allow a fortunate few is that of almost indentured labour[31], building cities in Israel from who’s steeples it trumpets its self as a democratic, rights based, freedom loving bastion of truth and justice for all.

What is it like growing up in Palestine today? To most kids this is life. Normalized oppression, normalized rebellion, normalized defeat. One would think they would be lost in hopelessness. But that has not been normalized. Children here still hope for a better future, for a way forward, for peace and prosperity in their time, in the land of their ancestors.[32] Although many, with keen insight into the political situation they face, cannot imagine how.[33]

They base their hope in you and me and how we call upon our governments to act. To see them as human. To live up to the promises we’ve made, the assertions we’ve given. Some have.[34]

If we could ask anything of our Parliament it would be to free Palestinians from Oppression and give them the state that was promised before Israel was created[35]. If we cannot do that then perhaps we can at least do as the Norwegians are doing, put some funding into helping kids, teachers and families cope[36]. Even more, put some programming into Palestinian schools that give kids another outlet. Practical classes shaping visionary futures. Arts and music, shops and programming.

If we cannot ask Israel to treat Palestinian children as their own, as International Law insists they do[37], perhaps we should.

We might insist on the rights of the child to life free from harassment, fear, intimidation, to an equal access education unobstructed by Military or government, to freedom from incarceration, to a fair, just and equitable legal system [38]. All and more covered in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed and ratified by both Canada and Israel.

We might. After all we are Canadians and the world believes we care about those values. That we stand for them and will stand up for them where they are trampled. Perhaps it is time we did.


[1] See the story of “Tent of Nations” a family farm, peace center and children’s summer peace camp at: http//www.tentofnations.org/about/dahers-vinyard-land-history

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/01/chapter-3-israeli-settlements-and-international-law/

[3] Testimony of villagers to Ecumenical Accompaniers as reported in EA incident reports December 2019 and January 2020

[4] https://www.ochaopt.org/content/high-level-violence-israeli-settlers-rise-israeli-fatalities

[5] “Finally, and of particular interest to those concerned with mental health, Dr. Iskafi notes the psychosocial problems of the occupation, especially among children. One major problem is that symptoms of psychosocial problems, such as nightmares or bed-wetting, go largely unrecognized as such by parents—who tend to think of these things as normal.

 Unfortunately, the occurrence of PTSD among children is actually “normal”, numerically speaking, in Palestine. For example, one study conducted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank found that 54.7% of children studied had experienced at least one lifetime trauma and PTSD was diagnosed in 34.1% of the children (N=1000).

A study of the impacts of the Apartheid Wall found that 40.8% of children studied had noctiphobia (fear of the night) on a permanent basis. It also found that children between age 6 to 12 have become increasingly aggressive, per parent reports.

Regarding mental health, Dr. Iskafi says that a major task is to educate parents that these symptoms are not, in fact, “normal” within the trajectory of development. The growing mental health program of PMRS has in fact begun working to this end.”

http://www.pmrs.ps/details.php?id=q1duk2a2074ybe2zvb0pe

[6] https://www.ochaopt.org/content/right-education-deeply-impacted-ongoing-interference-schools

[7] https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Children_and_Youth_Soldiers_Testimonies_2005_2011_Eng.pdf

[8] http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/page.php?id=VsnK4U5iSza5706A2gS4PWZ1lz

[9] EA Incident Report on Child Arrest January 2020

[10] http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/page.php?id=bcrFYuzCKHa8559AZKJwgDnwzz

[11] http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/page.php?id=KyBZRvUXc3a7608A8t6fUik50F

[12] image of child killed by Israeli Military as drawn by students at Tuqu’ school

[13] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/supreme-court-allows-israel-withhold-bodies-palestinians

[14] https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/gdsapp2015d1_en.pdf impact of occupation on Palestinian Agriculture

[15] https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-206852/ impact of occupation on Palestinian Water rights

[16] https://www.ochaopt.org/content/over-700-road-obstacles-control-palestinian-movement-within-west-bank

[17] https://www.refworld.org/docid/5621053ee.html?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=1717914b0a80cf717ec5c543c55583cf1c8ff2f1-1580930408-0-AZS9iSlPLCFOSl_Tu5yieRRqB-YtgxXMhzWD0YPhZARRbiAGdC0NUn-dKH_b-otozcKS_sSBmhE4YyiQepvrJZTz_YQAEkXzdU4z5wwfSdP96FMy-322tvPBMNM787dqE11xSGxkapP_zEzuho8jkdVhHvGpFj8cw2MgVlx5YKxNUTxg7c_HLIfHvBhfEsxYRoR1XwIYMSc6GTwVIWtv3FbbGs1rzzQL_7z6AX55nIR1TDDLg7APZtYBve59zk_feKCU9W90C-FL30LRfzizTDcZrZLaMJUbiOPLxHCOHQ4X UN 2014 report on religious freedom in the Occupied Territories. Some specifics have changed, many continue

[18] EAPPI incident report January 2020 17 year old girl injured by Settler Car. Second incident in two weeks (first also reported)

[19] https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/25/israel-army-demolishing-west-bank-schools

[20] https://www.ochaopt.org/theme/destruction-of-property

[21] https://www.btselem.org/planning_and_building/statistics

[22] http://www.alaslah.org/trauma-coping/                                   

[23] https://www.dci-palestine.org/tags/news

[24] http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/page.php?id=MmNuAkpGrsa613395AWw2bO0pT3K

[25] https://www.sos-childrensvillages.org/our-work/advocate-for-childrens-rights

[26] http://www.pmrs.ps/details.php?id=gtnl6ia1710yjczm21bqv

[27] https://www.icrc.org/en/where-we-work/middle-east/israel-and-occupied-territories

[28] https://www.ej-ymca.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=47&Itemid=165 children ex detainee program

[29] https://www.woh-for-trauma.com/index.php/what-we-do/our-permanent-programs/traumatology-training

[30] From EA interviews with teachers and social workers in Bethlehem area schools.

[31] https://www.interpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018-IP-case-study-Palestine-v3.pdf

[32] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/nakba-70-years-later-what-young-palestinians-hope-future

[33] https://www.birzeit.edu/en/news/how-does-future-look-eyes-palestines-youth

[34] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-09/24/c_138419182.htm

[35] http://www.balfourproject.org/the-contradictory-promises/

[36] https://www.nrc.no/countries/middle-east/palestine/

[37] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=12&ved=2ahUKEwj2-ruJpLvnAhXBJVAKHVyLAYQQFjALegQIARAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ohchr.org%2FEN%2FHRBodies%2FHRC%2FRegularSessions%2FSession37%2FDocuments%2FA_HRC_37_75_EN.docx&usg=AOvVaw0o6hyu90UHZeGIIIPPZr1H UN Special Rapportuer on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories with a special focus on children March 2018

[38] https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

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