by EA Sophie – 9 min read
‘During my stay in the West Bank I have heard children of all ages talk about how much they love Palestine and how much they want the occupation to end. At Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, children from 7 years to 14 years of age talked about performing traditional Palestinian dance as a means to keep their culture and tradition alive and resist losing hope in the face of occupation. At Khallet Athaba School and As Simiya School in the South Hebron Hills, pupils spoke of their determination to carry on their education even when their school buildings are demolished.
‘For others, it means supporting their communities in their efforts to rebuild the schools, knowing they could be demolished again at any moment. Young people in At Tuwani sang songs about how wonderful Palestinian life is, whilst planting fields of olive trees. And at the Sumud Story House in Bethlehem I was introduced to many accounts by children of their active resistance to occupation as they strive to make life happy and dignified in the face of hardships.’ (EA, Mike)
Soldiers stationed at a primary school in Bethlehem
Education is highly valued in Palestinian culture, yet getting to school every day can be a challenging and scary experience for many Palestinian children. Many experience harassment on their way to school from the Israeli military, which can range from delaying students or searching their bags to physical harassment by soldiers (Unicef). Those who have to pass Israeli settlements also face intimidation and physical violence from settlers, either children or adults. Defence for Children International documented one such incident where a child in Hebron had her hair set on fire by settlers as she travelled home from school.
Children have their bags searched on their way to school in Hebron
Child going through a checkpoint on his way to school
According to UNOCHA, there are 705 permanent obstacles across the West Bank restricting or controlling Palestinian movement. Many children have to pass through military checkpoints on the way to school, adding not just delays, but further risks of harassment. Road closures and lack of passable roads mean that as of 2015, around 1,700 children had to walk five or more kilometres to school each day (Human Rights Watch).
Although schools should be places where every child feels safe, attacks on schools in the occupied West Bank by the Israeli military are common. In 2018 alone, the UN recorded 111 incidents where the Israeli military launched attacks schools, affecting over 19,000 children. More than half of the incidents ‘involved live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades fired into or near schools by Israeli forces’.
Attacks on schools are identified by the UN as a grave violation of children’s rights. They place children in immediate danger of being hit by rubber bullets or live fire, or breathing difficulties resulting from tear gas exposure, as well as having an enduring impact on children’s mental health.
Schoolchildren passing a military checkpoint in Hebron
One of the most basic and critical elements of having an education is having a school to go to. But for many children in occupied Palestine this is not a certainty. Although the Israeli authorities control planning and building in most of the West Bank, they rarely issue permits for Palestinian buildings, despite natural growth in the population. Because of this, many buildings in the West Bank (including schools) are built without permits and are at threat of demolition. As of November 2020, 44 schools remain at risk of full or partial demolition. These demolitions stop children from accessing their education, or lead to children needing to navigate long journeys alone to get to school.
A Palestinian child standing by the remains of his demolished school
‘Right to education’ graffiti at Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem
According to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, children should only ever be arrested or detained as a last resort. Yet since 2000, an estimated 10,000 Palestinian children have been detained by Israeli authorities from the occupied West Bank and held in the Israeli military detention system. As of September 2020, more than 150 children were being detained in Israeli military jails, some as young as 12-years-old. In more than eighty percent of cases the charge is ‘stone throwing’ or ‘suspected stone throwing’.
Children arrested in Hebron hold hands
All charges filed by Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank take place in a military court – including against children. Under international law, Israel is entitled to set up military courts in temporarily occupied territory, but it is the only country in the world that systematically sends children to them. Furthermore, there are multiple human rights abuses reported under this system, without any recourse for justice.
Palestinian children often experience poor treatment from the moment of arrest. Many children experience physical violence at the hands of soldiers, whether this is during their arrest, during transfer or interrogation. More than half are detained in the middle of the night. It is not clear why this is the case, though the experience is often traumatising for children, and makes families feel vulnerable and unsafe. After their arrest, children are taken to military bases to be interrogated, which are often inside Israeli settlements.
Palestinian children arrested in Hebron
A Palestinian teenager is stop-searched in Hebron