The struggle for statehood: through the eyes of children

Israel-Palestine has been on and off the Western agenda for years. After the Brits (quite frankly) collosal screw up, no one has ever been quite sure what to do. It started off with some half hearted attempts by the international arena and often ended in Palestinians taking things into their own hands and losing trust not only in the west, but also in their Arab neighbours. It can therefore be no surprise that the likes of Fatah and Hamas exist and, in response, the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet things have changed since the founding of Hamas and Fatah. Things have undoubtedly got worse. One of my favourite quotes is something Amira Hass said “If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

Life under occupation is, in my opinion, only getting worse which means resistance will only become more futile. We’ve seen two intifadas (some argue more) and the unforgettable campaigns of Operation Summer Rains and Operation Autumn Clouds in 2006,  Operation Hot Winter in 2008, the Gaza War 2008-2009, Operation Returning Echo and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012  and  then Operation Protective Edge in summer of 2011. Most of these operations/conflicts have been  in retaliation to Hamas’s actions and their infamous rocket firing. The latest violence seeing fleets of so called stabbings in the West Bank.

The biggest change: children. I have no doubt some children have always been active in movements – I know Hamas prides itself on having a junior wing. Yet many of these so called stabbings have been primarily children and young people. Why? There is little doubt that they’re getting fed up. Their childhoods are stripped from them – whether it be in the form of having their house knocked down, living without electricity or basic sanitation/infrastructure as well as many commodities in Gaza due to the blockade or the general oppression Israel imposes on them.

Children in conflict is interesting. In the west, we tend to see children as sweet and innocent who don’t know any better and who are simply just caught up in horrible situations. However, children can be used as useful tools in conflict or, can actually formulate their own opinions and anger from a young enough age if put in that sort of environment.

A combination of factors can explain the reaction of children in Palestine: education, life experiences/repression and the lack of international support. Palestine is divided geographically into two smaller entities; the Gaza Strip to West and the West Bank to the East. Experiences of Palestinians in both ‘entities’ are very different yet generally, still very negative. Life in Gaza is undoubtedly worse in many ways due to the blockade yet the West Bank sees settlement building. I’m going to attempt to talk about reasons why young people are losing hope and taking actions into their own hands in both areas.

Lets start with Gaza; a cut off Palestinian entity. Settlements were removed from Gaza in 2005 with complete disengagement being the policy of Ariel Sharon. This meant Gaza became the Palestinian only entity of Palestine. In 2007, Israel and Egypt initiated the blockade of Gaza (by land, sea and air). This blockade occurred when Hamas took power over the Gaza Strip following the formation of the Palestinian Authority by Hamas and Fatah. Fatah took control of the West Bank. Now Israel and Egypt believed that the blockade was necessary as they didn’t think that Hamas would provide adequate security. This can be seen as the beginning of the ‘matrix of control’. This blockade has meant that for the last 10 years, there has been a serious shortage of medical supplies, building supplies and fuel.

The main electricity station in Gaza was bombed by the IDF in 2014 during the 51 day war meaning that power supplies in Gaza are often limited. Its argued that Hamas was storing tanks/weapons etc. at the power plant and that is why the IDF bombed it. Over the past few months, there has been widespread protests in Gaza due to many suffering 12 hour blackouts due to limited supplies of electricity. Gaza has had to rely on donation from Qatar and Turkey in order to get their power plant up and running again.

Furthermore, there is a serious lack of clean water. It is estimated by Oxfam that around 90% of the water in Palestine is not safe to drink. Due to the blockade, there is limited ways to make this water safe and sewage/sanitation has also become a large issue. As you can see, one thing leads into another. Its a vicious cycle – you probably then get sick but of course, the medical supplies needed are also banned in the blockade. Gaza’s economy has also fallen apart – it exports flowers and dates yet is allowed to do little else. Again, the blockade prevents a decent, self sufficient economy from flourishing. Is this matrix of control starting to seem real now?

So then maybe education is the way out? Of course, its incredibly hard to get out of Gaza full stop. The free movement of people is just as much blockaded as goods. You can’t really get in or out. The education system probably won’t allow that anyway. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine provides a significant amount of the schooling in Gaza. There are over 250 schools yet they serve almost a quarter of a million students. Often, schools have to run double shift – one in the morning for one lot of students and another in the afternoon for another lot. The lack of materials for education is very much evident and there is significant issues with propaganda in Palestinian school books – especially those provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA).  There simply isn’t enough classrooms or materials to educate the children of Gaza.

This is no surprise considering there are an estimated 2 million people in Gaza of which half of them are children. Gaza is only 12km in width at its widest point and is becoming one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The UN have declared that by 2020, its going to be unliveable.

So, you have poor access to water, electricity, food, materials and education and the economy is almost non existent. You’re stuck in a densely populated area that you can’t get out of. What could make it worse? Conflict, of course. Israel and Hamas do not exactly have a good relationship – Hamas fires rockets or kidnaps someone or Israel drops some bombs or demolishes some houses – whatever it is, something bad always happens. So these children grow up with pretty much nothing, in an area that is quickly becoming unliveable with absolutely no way out and then every few years they get bombed. And people wonder where the anger comes from?

Now, lets switch over to the West Bank. The biggest problem for Palestinians here is a) Jerusalem, b) Settlements and C) the wall/fence/barrier. Jerusalem is highly contested – both Israel and Palestine lay claim to the city due to the location of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Temple Mount compound. Neither Israel or Palestine will give up control of the area yet Israel keeps pushing the boundaries with building settlements and laying claims of Jerusalem as their capital (it currently sits as Tel Aviv).

Israel’s power and global support (mainly from the USA) means that they are in a stronger position than Palestine (Fatah in the West Bank) and can therefore, get away with more things. This is also linked to settlement building. It has been estimated that there are over 700,000 Israeli settlements of which 400,000 of those are in the West Bank (exc. Jerusalem). This is further allowing Israel to create a matrix of control as they are building settlements in places which isolate Palestinian villages and towns and building Israeli only infrastructure to connect them, cutting off Palestinians and Palestine. This has had a dramatic effect on Palestinians and especially children. Many children now have to walk through Israeli settlements to get to school or to go out and there have been numerous stories of these children being attacked by settlers. At one point, it was event reported that the IDF were having to escort Palestinian children to school.

There’s also demolitions. These are often linked to the building of settlements. At the end of 2016, it was reported that the demolition of Palestinian houses in the West Bank had risen by 25%. Imagine that – one day, you come home from school and your house is gone. It’s been bulldozed by the Israeli government.

Then theres the wall/fence/barrier. Its always been known as the wall yet it’s not always a wall. At some parts its a wall, at others its a fence and again at others its just a barrier. Israel claimed they built it for security – to prevent suicide bombings. Regardless, the aim is to create a separation between Israel and Palestine. Yet the wall actually crosses Palestinian land at points and is over 700km long. This has cut many Palestinians off from society. Again, it has cut some children off from accessing their schools. The UN reported that it limited some peoples access to water. Charities such as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society have said that it has also impacted many children and women’s access to medical supplies. The barrier has been declared illegal by the UN – as have the settlements – yet no one seems to really care. The Palestinians yet again, let down.

Although there is no blockade in the West Bank, the education system still suffers in the same way. The settlements and wall/fence/barrier has made it incredibly difficult for many to access education and there is a shortage of teachers. The lack of support for infrastructure has also made it incredibly hard for young people to have the access to a good education.

2016 was the deadliest year for the past decade to be a child living in the West Bank. The IDF killed over 30 children in various towns and villages in raids, protests and attacks.

So why are young people in Palestine and especially in the West Bank so angry? Really? I mean, as if everything above isn’t enough. I will never condone violence – a lot of the time its innocent civilians caught in the middle (especially in this conflict). But I understand why they are angry. I understand why young people are sadly feeling the need to take things into their own hands. The international community has failed the children of Palestine and the international community continues to do so. These are children who are left without a good education system, without basic supplies to live, with constant (physical) barriers in their life and almost no hope of escaping it.

This statement will never leave me. And we should never allow children to resort to the desperation of this thinking.

“I hope God kills the Israelis when we grow up. We are going to kill them. May God kill all of them. Every last one.” – Summer, age 12, Gaza

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“We prevent hate by educating others” 

I am obsessed with reading. I have probably learnt most of the things I know through reading. In a world where naivety and hatred are prominent, I believe education is vitally important in changing opinions and making people think and reading is a great place to start.  A few of my friends have recently asked for book recommendations, so here we go.

I am an avid reader of political non-fiction books as well as political fiction books. Not everything I read has to be true but it has to be thought provoking. So, below are some of my favourite books from the past year or so and the reasons why.

  1. The Lightless Sky, Gulwali Passarlay 

The quickest I’ve read a book in a long time. This book is a MUST read if you care about refugees, children or just humanity in general. It puts all the horrors refugees and asylum seekers face on their journey to Europe in stone. Its everything you sort of knew but didn’t think you could face, yet you have to. Not only does it talk about the brutality and unfortunate necessity of human smugglers, it faces friendship and heartbreak perfectly. My favourite thing about this book is its so real and every word in it is relatable for far too many people around the world. Also, Gulwali is from Afghanistan – a place that I hold constantly in my thoughts. It explains why (young) people have to leave the country – a state declared technically safe these days – and how parents must make the hardest decision of their lives. It places the perfect disconnect between ‘East’ and ‘West’ and highlights the sheer difference in culture between Afghanistan and Europe. The honesty in this book deserves an award in itself.

The book also mentions my favourite subject – the bureaucracy of systems in the UK. The immigration system, age assessments and dealing with social services, accessing education and, mental health. The biggest mistake people make is realising that just because someone is ‘safe’ now they’re in the UK, doesn’t mean they can miraculously forget everything they’ve seen.

Gulwali is a true inspiration. He’s pretty much the same age as me and I can’t even comprehend going through what he went through and achieving everything he has achieved.

There is one sentence in this book that will sit with me forever: “By sending me away, she definitely saved her son, but she also lost him”. 

Seriously, go read this book. NOW.

2.  The Last Kestrel, Gill McGivering

This book is most certainly a thought provoker – especially for the western centric thinkers. This fiction book based on non-fiction set in Afghanistan is about a journalist called Ellen Thomas whose Afghan Pashto translator, Jalil is suddenly murdered and she is determined to find out why. The book finds itself in the midst of three sides; NATO (British) forces, the Taliban and an innocent Afghan family. The book perfectly voices two different view points to the conflict and the NATO forces. Now, I thought it was going to be a stereotypical western book about Afghanistan. But the ending shocks you. It makes you think – well it certainly made me think – of the Afghan war in a completely different way. It puts a perfect spin on the possibilities of lies and indoctrination, of western propaganda. It represents a mothers revenge that, given events, seems only natural. And I loved every second of it.

3. Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abdulhawa 

I love anything Palestinian and this book was no different. This book kicked the life out of me on more than one occasion. Although it is ‘fiction’ , its technically fact. The book discusses the 1948 Nakba  from a very real, human perspective, making the whole situation almost unimaginable. The book follows a girl Amal, who has two younger brothers – one of whom gets snatched by an Israeli soldier. This brother, grows up thinking he is Israeli until he has an intense run in with his twin brother at a checkpoint. Amal ends up as a refugee from the 1967 war, leaving the Jenin refugee camp that she called home behind and ending up in a girls orphanage in Jerusalem. Susan’s writing is incredible at creating images – I could, and still can, physically see the refugee camp and the orphanage. Amal, eventually moves to America – where she becomes Amy – and lives a completely different life. This book leaves me speechless. It is so so important and so real for so many – it faces losing an identity in so many, multifaceted ways its hard to comprehend.

4. The Blue Between Sky and Water, Susan Abdulhawa 

I said that the last book hit me hard, this one hits you harder. Its pretty brutal from the start as it talks of a families run for survival in 1948 from their village of Beit Daras for a refugee camp in southern Gaza. It vividly describes rape at the hands of Israeli soldiers and the differences between the experiences of the Baraka family depending on their age and awareness. The book starts off following the family who fled to the refugee camp in Gaza before introducing Nur, a Palestinian American who ends up in Gaza to visit her family. This book has one significant difference to any others – its ‘magical’ element in the form of 10 year old Khaled who is the blue between sky and water as you hear his voice before he is born and then when he is dead. Khaled is the spiritual element that ties this book together. This book has constant surprises – it’s s complex, you just have to read it and find out for yourself. I promise you, you won’t regret a thing about it.

Susan Abdulhawa is without a doubt one of my favourite authors of all time. Her ability to bring things to life, spur the imagination and inspire you are things I have never found in another author.

5. Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

I was incredibly confused by the blurb of this book yet it intrigued me to read it. Starting in Nagasaki, this book then goes to India, Turkey, Pakistan, New York and Afghanistan. How? Go read it and you’ll find out. This book follows various people (all of whom are intertwined in some way or another) on their journey in search of identity and belonging. Its hard to say too much about it without giving anything away. Identity and belonging is incredibly important in todays world with many refusing to accept ‘foreigners’, ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’ yet this book frames it so slyly yet prominently as not to hit you straight on. If you want find out about how a child, living in Pakistan that is half Japanese and half Indian ends up in Afghanistan pretending to be a Hazara in a Mujaheddin Pashto training camp, you have to read it.

6. The Orphan Masters Son, Adam Johnson 

Probably the weirdest book I’ve read in the last few years. I was drawn to it as its set in North Korea and Adam Johnson has actually been to North Korea. The book is about a North Korean intelligence officer onboard a fishing ship and everything about it makes it seem like a biography. The book follows Jun Do who grows up in an orphanage yet believes he is the son of the orphan master. The book has a strong theme of propaganda – theres a lot of government discussion – and deceit as well as identity and brutality and politics in North Korea. Yet its also very bizarre. Jun Do somehow ends up working his way up the military and ends up on a trip to America. Jun Do ends up in America because (I’m not quite sure how) he ends up impersonating the famous leader (in terms of the book) Commander Ga, a military hero and then sets up the escape from North Korea of Commander Ga’s family – the famous singer, Sun Moon and her family. Again, this book is written in such a way that you can imagine being there. How an orphan masters apparent son ends up going through all this – who knows. Its such a strange read yet pure brilliance.

The abandoned 

The Western world seem to have gained themselves a pretty decent list of people that they have abandoned. From Afghanistan, to Eritrea, to Syria, to Yemen, we are continuing to let innocent human beings down. My biggest bug bear is the fact that there are numerous atrocities occurring worldwide that are worthy of everyday news attention but they don’t get it due to fear of the audiences becoming bored or not being able to handle the truth. But why should this be the case?

The most recent situation that gets me more than others, is the situation in Syria. In December 2016, the news went through its latest phase with the country where it focused on the children of Syria – especially Aleppo – and the evacuations occurring there as the government quickly tightened its grip, regaining the Eastern parts of the city that had previously been the rebel stronghold. Yet this fad quickly came and went. So what now? Lets be frank. We in the west need to toughen up a bit. By toughen up, I mean we should read things we don’t necessarily like, we should watch things that might make us cry. Why? Because it shows humanity – humans in war zones, political crises or poverty stricken situations – it shows the truth. Once you become emotionally invested to some extent, you simply cannot let yourself walk away. You feel this responsibility or this compassion to help.

I’m not going to pretend that we’re all diplomats who can negotiate peace, or doctors who can go and help in hospitals – but we have voices don’t we? We all spend so much time on the internet, on social media – we can shout about it, we can sign petitions. We can even get off our asses and go out in the streets and shout about it. Tell our governments to make a difference, to make peoples lives count.

I’ve heard it a lot recently – most upsettingly from a Syrian boy. We were talking about Daraa, about Assad, ISIS and the horrors of the civil war. And he asked me, “why do people not care if we live or die? Is our blood cheap? Is Syrian blood cheaper than Western blood?”

Perhaps we can do something. We can at least try to make our voices heard. Make our voices the voice of those the world cannot hear or refuses to hear.