A decade ago, the West Bank would have seemed a dark and unfriendly place to visit. Food and water would have often been scarce, and the electricity would regularly have been cut for long periods. It would have been one year into the Second Intifada, a bloody episode that would eventually drag on for four more terrible years.
During the Second Intifada, a minority of desperate Palestinians carried out atrocious acts of terrorism, leaving many Israeli families devastated at their losses. In turn, the I.D.F. (Israel Defence Forces) would ruthlessly crush the slightest sign of resistance, leaving heaped rubble and broken homes in its wake.
Since the end of the intifada, largely due to increased international support, the infrastructure of the West Bank has improved greatly. The electricity generally stays on and there is food in the shops; houses have been rebuilt and many children go to school. Terrorist attacks by Palestinians are rare, and a naïve tourist in the comparatively liberal Bethlehem could almost be forgiven for believing that the atrocities committed by members of both sides were a thing of the past.
However, this fantasy would easily be shattered by a casual stroll through the bustling streets of Hebron. Residing directly in the centre of the Palestinian city, approximately five hundred radically illiberal Orthodox settlers are permanently accompanied by an even greater number of I.D.F. soldiers. The (hereditary, U.N.-recognised) owners of the land have illegally been driven out, and those few that remain regularly have stones, rubbish, and acid thrown at them by hostile settlers. Even the children are armed in these settlements, and anti-Arab slogans are sprayed on the walls.
Young settlers such as these are often brought up to believe that they are superior to other races and that they have a divine right to the land that they occupy. Despite it being illegal, they are allowed, even encouraged, to throw stones at Palestinian civilians. Moreover, the I.D.F. rarely interferes in the stone throwing unless the Palestinians react angrily, in which case they are sometimes imprisoned and occasionally shot.
Whilst the settlers are free to throw stones at Arab women and children, it is considered a crime for Palestinian youths to throw stones themselves. Israel regularly imprisons Palestinian children as young as twelve on charges of “Stone Throwing”, seemingly indifferent to its blatant hypocrisy. Because it is illegal in Israel to charge or imprison anyone under the age of fourteen in civilian courts, military courts are often been used instead.
A recent study published by the Israel-based organisation Btselem shows that over eight-hundred minors from the West Bank were tried for Stone Throwing between 2005 and 2010. Twelve-year-old children have routinely been imprisoned for up to two months, and there have been further reports of even younger children being taken, many of them simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Amnesty International reports that in such cases, confessions ‘obtained under duress were accepted as evidence in Israeli military and civilian courts’, casting the guilt of these youths into further doubt.
Israel is fighting a psychological war on children, on two fronts. To the east, it imprisons the Arab youth of Palestine, generating hatred and resentment on a huge scale. Even those who are not imprisoned are damaged; seeing their neighbours’ houses raided and their friends taken at random inevitably leads to deep psychological strain, scarring them for life in a land where they cannot get the treatment they need.
Closer to home, Israel is waging a different kind of psychological warfare against its own children. Bombarding them with propaganda and perversions of religious doctrines from birth, many Israeli children are brainwashed into believing that they have a divine licence to destroy Palestine entirely if that is what it takes to reclaim the land promised by God. Israel’s youth are eventually deprived of all innocence due to the systematic conscription into the I.D.F. which forces them to choose between prison and actively participating in the atrocities themselves.
If it is not stopped, Israel’s institutionalised war on children will have even more terrible consequences. The horrific treatment of Palestinian children will breed a new generation of martyrs and fuel further distrust of Israel throughout the world. Simultaneously, the brainwashing of its own youth will make them less liberal and more suspicious; a generation of paranoid religious extremists with access to a huge defence budget still bizarrely supplied by the U.S.A.
There is perhaps still time to change the self-destructive policies that allow this strange war on children to continue, and I would look to the secular Jews worldwide and the liberals of Israel to help stop their far-right brethren’s vicious campaign. It can no longer be ignored that, despite its liberal portrayal in the corporate-media, Israel’s elite is showing little sign of wanting to embrace the liberal values that many of its founding fathers upheld.