For Palestinian Kids, the Terror of Occupation Is a Daily Reality
For Palestinian children living in the West Bank, the threatening presence of Israeli soldiers and settlers serves as a constant reminder of the "continuous oppression and dispossession" of occupation.
A Palestinian school girl is arrested and taken away by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Beit Ummar. Photo by Anna Ferensowicz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
After her arrest late last year, 17-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi dominated headlines on the conflict between Palestine and Israel for months. In December 2016, the then-16-year-old was taken into Israeli custody after video footage of her slapping an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier in her front yard went viral. In the moments leading up to the incident, Ahed had received news that her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed Tamimi had been shot in the head by the IDF, shattering the left side of his skull.
Today Ahed remains inside an Israeli jail, where she’s carrying out an eight-month sentence as part of a plea deal reached in March. Although she’s locked away from the public, her image remains ubiquitous among those who support the Palestinian cause: From Uruguay to London, supporters have plastered bus stops and buildings with murals and posters depicting her face, and demonstrations calling for her release have sprung up throughout the world. Meanwhile, far-right Zionists have called her a threat to national security, with one such journalist Ben Caspit proposing that Israel “should exact a price [on her] at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.”
But Ahed’s case is unique only in the attention it garnered from the media. Each year, Israel detains between 500 to 700 Palestinian children, most commonly for stone-throwing. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, these children are tried in Israeli military courts, which exclusively prosecute Palestinians and self-report a near-100 percent conviction rate. (Israelis, conversely, are tried in Israeli civilian court, even when they reside in occupied Palestinian territories or commit an offense behind the green line that forms a de facto border between Israel and the remainder of historic Palestine.) According to Human Rights Watch, between 2013 and 2016, Israeli police closed 91.8 percent of reported cases of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians without indicting a single person.
According to Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Palestinian law professor based in Jerusalem whose research focuses on trauma and abuse of power in settler colonial contexts, the horror of occupation is unavoidable for Palestinian children. “It's in their educational spaces, their walk to school, their home and neighborhood spaces—these are the spaces, the very intimate and important spaces, that are being really violated,” she says.
Every morning between 7:00 and 8:00 AM, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian walks a group of Palestinian children from her neighborhood to school in the Old City of Jerusalem. Along the way, she witnesses what she calls “the everydayness of invasion” and its effects on the schoolchildren she walks with. It is not unusual, she says, for young children to be strip-searched , with rifles pointed at them, before they’ve begun their school day. A few days before we spoke, she tells me, an 11-year-old girl had her veil ripped off and her backpack taken during a body search by Israeli forces on her way to school.
Even when the children aren’t approached by soldiers, the military’s presence is palpable, she says. “If you walk you see soldiers standing with rifles, with big rifles, or standing in places where they're sending a message that your life and your body are policed—that your space is ordered by our power.”
"They're sending a message that your life and your body are policed—that your space is ordered by our power.”
But it’s not only the IDF’s presence that serves as an inescapable reminder of occupation and the violence that it brings. In 2015, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat encouraged Israeli civilians to openly carry their firearms. “Given the current escalation [of violence] in the security situation, those with a licensed firearm who know what to do with it must go out with [their weapon]—it's an imperative,” he said. “In a way, it's like military reserve duty.”
By Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s accounts of living in Jerusalem, the mayor’s call was effective. “Everybody carries rifles, all the settlers in the Old City… we see them carrying their rifles, protecting their own kids from our kids,” she says.
“The walk to school every morning has showed me how kids are threatened and terrorized by the state's apparatus, whether [that’s by] soldiers, settlers, or border patrol.” In the face of this trauma, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian argues, Palestinian children in occupied territories have few options.“In trauma studies, we say, fight, freeze, or flee,” she says. “The kids are reacting in different modes, but they are reacting—there is no other way.”
She shares a scene she witnessed on her walk to school on the morning we spoke:
At one point, you see a group of settlers coming with their rifles protecting, somehow, their kids while walking in the street. And you see two little [Palestinian] boys with their backs on the wall. They stood there without movement, frozen, until the group of settlers passed. So [afterwards] I said, “Shifa what happened? Are they scary?” And one of the boys said, "No, it's too early in the morning to start dealing with them." That's what he answered me. There are different modes of reaction. Sometimes the kids will look at the situation and see that arrogant mode of [soldiers and settlers] walking in their own neighborhoods, beside their own homes, looking in anger, and therefore react [by] screaming or shouting. Some other times, like the boys today, they just froze on the wall for a minute.
When the occupation showed up on Ahed Tamimi’s front yard in December, she chose to fight. This time—like the times before, when she was 11 and 15—she chose not to be complacent, instead confronting the soldiers who shot her cousin and had been terrorizing her neighborhood since before she was born. (Several members of the Tamimi family have been detained and killed by Israeli forces).
Her story inspired a slew of think-pieces and analyses of the incident and the conflict at large. The wildly different interpretations characterize the international response to the occupation of Palestine well: An article in the Atlantic, which called Ahed “a symbol of the Palestinian resistance,” received criticism from Zionists for painting a ‘terrorist’ as a hero,” while a Newsweek tweet that focused on Ahed's "history of assault against police and soldiers" was criticized for victim-blaming.
The terrorist-versus-hero narrative is one that has attached itself to the faces of resistance movements across the world, but none more stubbornly than Palestinian liberation. In the case of the Palestinians, as with Ahed, the far-right has often extended the “terrorist” label beyond violent armed fighters to describe those who resist occupation in any capacity, from children throwing stones at military tanks to the 62 Palestinians killed at the hands of an Israeli massacre earlier this week (in which there were zero Israeli casualties).
“The daily terrorism of the state is what should be framed as terrorism, not the reactions or the actions of the different children."
According to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, this pervasive narrative about Palestinians, including children, who are resisting occupation often obscures the big picture. “The problem,” she says, “is divorcing the entire context of the continuous oppression and dispossession and racism of the state to one moment, whereby [Ahed] is standing there [hitting the soldier]... It's a structural oppression, it's a history of oppression, it's a legacy. And the only way a kid can survive is by making sure that they are there [saying], 'This is my space' and telling and claiming and staking it in different ways.”
Israeli forces and courts, predictably, have very low tolerance for Palestinian resistance. In 2015, the Israeli Knesset approved a 20-year standard sentence for those caught throwing stones. Even before that, in 2013, a UN study concluded that the abuse of Palestinian minors in the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalised.”
“The daily terrorism of the state is what should be framed as terrorism,” says Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “not the reactions or the actions of the different children that are trying to find a safe mode of accessing home, of protecting home, of protecting school and their neighborhoods.”
Or, as she later put it, “The question is not whether the child threw a stone on a military car. The question is, what is a military car doing in Palestinian neighborhoods?”