Palestinian Youth in Conflict

Palestinian Youth in Conflict
A Childhood Denied

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Children Looking Through the Window

Children looking through the window in Jenin Palestinian Refugee Camp during the First Intifada.

The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Joss Dray Photographs
Joss Dray

Ever since the first Palestinian uprisings against the massive emigration of Jews to Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel after violent fighting in 1948, Palestinian civilians have been paying a heavy price. From then on, each generation has had to face particularly difficult living conditions, without respite for those living in refugee camps, and during recurring crises for all those living in occupied Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and, more recently, in Syria. The Palestinian children of today are the heirs of this long history of life in exile, occupation, or forced displacement, which has shaped their identity and made them participants in a conflict that subjects them to violence every day. They have become the custodians of this memory and the witnesses of the humiliation repeatedly suffered by their parents, generation after generation.

With the intifada, Palestinian children find themselves for the first time occupying center stage in this conflict – for the first time they are no longer only victims of the violence but are also actively participating in a popular uprising. The politicization of these “children of the stones” has surprised even their parents and teachers; however, while it strengthens their resilience, it also cuts their childhood short. Their commitment to the Palestinian cause has exacted a heavy toll. From December 1987 to June 1989, at least 22.3 percent of the Palestinian protesters shot dead by Israeli forces were no older than 16 years. Hundreds of children were injured and remain handicapped for life; schools (including even elementary schools) were closed for years by the occupation forces. Living in conditions of chronic instability, many children have developed psychological problems, which have been extensively documented in the publications of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.

Then have followed successive periods during which Palestinian children suffered either from acute trauma, especially during the second intifada and during Israeli military attacks (Gaza, the siege of Jenin), or from an accumulation of insidious trauma and the permanent violations of their most basic rights. These violations are regularly documented in the reports of United Nations agencies (UNICEF, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA]), and in particular in the report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is compiled in collaboration with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Defence of Children International-Palestine. From 2000 to 2014, at least 1,402 Palestinian children 17 years old or younger were killed by the Israeli army or by Jewish settlers. Moreover, the army sometimes puts Palestinian children at risk by using them as human shields.

Not only is their right to life compromised, but also their right to health: because of the roadblocks restricting movement, Palestinian children face difficulties in getting medical care, and they also have difficulty receiving proper nourishment, particularly in a context where, in 2011, 38 percent of Gaza families and 18 percent of West Bank families lived under the poverty threshold, not to mention the problems created by the blockade of the Gaza strip.

Palestinian children in the occupied territories have little sense of security. Residency restrictions enforced by Israeli measures frequently make it impossible for husbands and wives to live together as a family, and so children must adapt to the stress of not seeing a parent. Family members can be arbitrarily imprisoned for indefinite terms without trial.

Home demolitions are unfortunately all too common an experience for Palestinian children, whether by bombardment, as in the Gaza Strip, by demolition for lacking the correct (often impossible to secure) building permits, or as collective punishment for a family member’s resistance. Some 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the occupied territories since 1967. East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Jordan Valley, Area C in general, Bedouin camps in the Negev, and even in Israel are the areas that have been most affected by the demolition of housing, resulting in forced displacement. In 2013, Israeli authorities demolished ninety-eight buildings in East Jerusalem, whereby 298 people – of which 153 were children – lost their homes. In Gaza alone, 18,000 housing units were destroyed by Israel's aerial bombardments during its assault in 2014, leaving around 108,000 persons homeless.

The consequences this has had for the mental health of families, in particular of children, have been described for the West Bank and Gaza (withdrawal, anxiety, somatic symptoms, problems of attention, violent behavior); and one can imagine only too well what the consequences must be for the children in the refugee camp of Yarmuk in Syria, for example. The UNRWA has reported that in April 2014, 63 percent of Palestinian refugees in Syria were displaced.

The right to education is also threatened with the demolition of schools, Israeli army attacks against educational establishments, and the difficulties in accessing centers of learning. The annual report of 2013 by European Union diplomats posted in the West Bank mentions that every day more than 2,000 school children and 250 teachers of East Jerusalem have to get past Israeli army roadblocks to get to school. For the children of Hebron and surrounding villages, the way to school often means being subjected to the abuses of settlers. Furthermore, the quality of the education provided in government and UNRWA schools is compromised from lack of a recurrent budget in Palestine, Lebanon, or Jordan. Palestinian refugee children from Syria, who are living in Jordan or Lebanon, often receive no education at all due to the lack of resources. In Israel the education system discriminates against Palestinian Israeli children.

Finally, the imprisonment of Palestinian children by the Israeli army is documented every month. Most of the time they are suspected of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or settlers, for which they can go to prison for months or even years. Over half (53 percent) of the children are arrested at home between midnight and 5 a.m.; they are systematically mistreated during the first forty-eight hours after their arrest. They have no access to a lawyer before their interrogation and are judged by military tribunal. Over the last decade, the Israeli army has arrested and brought to court some 7,000 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 18 years. At the end of March 2014, 181 Palestinian children were being held in military prisons or detention centers, most often in Israel where their families cannot visit them.

The living conditions of the Palestinian children in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the various countries where they have gone as refugees constitute an accumulation of risk factors likely to compromise their cognitive and emotional development. Some of these children, who have suffered severe trauma, might develop serious psychological problems that require psychiatric care; others often display an increased frequency of behavioral disorders (hyperactivity, aggressiveness, irritability), emotional disorders (insomnia, anxiety, different types of fear, depression, psychosomatic problems), and learning disorders (difficulties with concentration, school failure). These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. In addition to the concerned ministries in Palestine, the large international NGOs, and UN agencies, the local NGOs have been the most active on the ground in providing appropriate support: the Palestinian Counseling Centre, Guidance and Training Center for the Child and Family, Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. The UNRWA addresses mental health needs not only in Palestine but also in Lebanon, where it works in collaboration with the Family Guidance Centres, Najdeh, and the Ghassan Kanafani Foundation. Nevertheless, the psychological and social needs of Palestinian children remain enormous.

Selected Bibliography: 

Defence for Children International Palestine. “How Was 2014 for Palestinian Children?” 31 December 2014, at dci-palestine.org, accessed 25 February 2015.

Defence for Children International Palestine. “Palestinian Children Victims of Israeli Abuse Designed to Coerce Confessions.” 10 February 2015, at dci-palestine.org, accessed 25 February 2015.

Mansour, Sylvie. “A Week in Jenin: Assessing Mental Health Needs Amid the Ruins.” Journal of Palestine Studies 31, no.4 (Summer 2002): 35-43.

Palestinian Counselling Centre, Save the Children-UK, and Welfare Association. Broken Homes: Addressing the Impact of House Demolitions on Palestinian Children & Families. Jerusalem: Authors, 2009, at savethechildren.org.uk, accessed 10 February 2015.

UNICEF, State of Palestine. Children Affected by Armed Conflict (CAAC) Reports. Various years, at unicef.org, accessed 10 February 2015.

UNICEF. The Situation of Palestinian Children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon: An Assessment Based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Amman, Jordan: Author, 2011, at unicef.org, accessed February 10, 2015.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territories. Fragmented Lives: Humanitarian Overview 2013. Jerusalem: Author, March 2014, at ochaopt.org, accessed February 10, 2015.

Zureik, Elia, Jim Graff, and Farid Ohan. “Two Years of the Intifada: A Statistical Profile of Palestinian Victims.” Third World Quarterly 12, no.3-4 (1990): 97–123.