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When children are seen as the enemy

Displaced Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip

 

By Charlotte Wiedemann

July 4, 2024

 

“We will only see the full extent of the tragedy in Gaza when the war is over. Then, a horde of traumatised, mutilated children with amputated limbs will await us. And we will have no answer,” writes Charlotte Wiedemann (image: Mohammed Abed/AFP)

It was a sombre, quiet ceremony when the names of more than 10,000 children who were killed in Gaza were read out in Berlin. The memorial ceremony took place close to the New Guardhouse (Neue Wache), Germany’s central memorial to the victims of war and tyranny, which houses a copy of Kathe Kollwitz’s famous Pieta sculpture “Mother with her Dead Son”. The ceremony ended at midnight. It had taken 20 hours to read out all the names.

It is not easy to read out the names of dead children and their ages. I didn’t feel I was up to it. Later, when I posted a photo of the ceremony online, I got reactions like this: firstly, I was told, this was a classic, anti-Semitic child-murder libel trope; secondly, these dead people were not children, but growing terrorists.

The fact that children are not allowed to leave a combat zone is, in itself, unusual. Refugee camps the world over are full of mothers and children who sought to flee armed conflicts. Fortunately, many Ukrainian women and their children found shelter in Germany.

But unlike Ukraine, acts of war are taking place right across all of Gaza. For eight months now, one million children and young people – including 335,000 under the age of five – have been on the move, roaming an area smaller than the city of Cologne in search of shelter. These figures are from UNICEF.
Germany’s acts of compensation

In this as in any war, children are a mirror; their suffering mirrors the failures of those in positions of responsibility. It is no trivial thing to say this. While the humanitarian catastrophe currently looming in Sudan is greater in terms of the number of refugees, Germans are involved in the Gaza War and have supplied weapons and non-material support.

The impulse to close one’s eyes to the consequences is powerful. It is easier not to see the children whom the West could save if the USA and the EU would now join together and say with the utmost clarity “Netanyahu, enough is enough!” (At least a possible deal with Hamas is on the table.)

Instead, Germany wallows in acts of compensation. Does anyone remember the case of the surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta, an eye-witness to the desperation in Gaza? The German government not only denied him entry to Germany, but also imposed a Schengen-wide travel ban on him. A court in Germany overturned the ban. How could it not?

Anyone wanting to cast doubt on the figure of a presumed 14,000–15,000 minors who have lost their lives in the war in Gaza is free to do so, as far as I am concerned. However, in view of the above-mentioned 335,000 children under the age of five, such a statistic does not seem out of proportion to me when one considers that they have spent the last eight months surrounded by rubbish and rubble, many malnourished and suffering from chronic diarrhoea.

When the SOS Children’s Village in Rafah was evacuated to Bethlehem in March and the 68 children in the village sat down to breakfast again, they didn’t touch a thing on the tables in front of them. They couldn’t believe that all that food was for them!
An expulsion from childhood

There can be no doubt that Jewish-Israeli children are also suffering from the war, particularly in those places attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah where the sirens regularly wail. The souls of many others have also been damaged by the fear they have sensed in their parents since 7 October.

Experiencing a parent’s fear and insecurity is a profound experience for any child. In the West Bank, Palestinian children throw stones at military vehicles in the fatal belief that by doing so, they can protect their home or their village. They can be put in prison for ten years for this criminal offence.

It is almost impossible to imagine how it feels to grow up under occupation and to know no other reality. As far as Israeli ethno-nationalists are concerned, there are simply too many Palestinian children. In the foreseeable future, Palestinians will make up the majority in the area of which Netanyahu’s Energy Minister Eli Cohen recently said: “From the river to the sea, there will be one state: The State of Israel.”

Racism against children is often denied, but it does, of course, exist, and racism against Palestinian children is of a very specific kind: they are said to lack innocence, they are said to be dangerous, as if they carry a terror gene inside them from their very earliest days, from their infancy.

Palestinian criminologist Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian calls this the policy of “unchilding”, a kind of expulsion from childhood, something illustrated by the high number of minors in prison.
Occupation policy divides families

In occupied East Jerusalem, parents can often only get their children out of prison by agreeing to keep them under house arrest. Then this kind of thing typically happens: 13-year-old Iyad wants to open the window to the courtyard to speak to his friends, but the window is locked; his father has attached a padlock for fear that the family might breach the conditions imposed by the court. The young boy is angry and hurt; in his pain, he turns against his parents, who now seem like his jailers.

According to Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dividing families is part of occupation policy. During a recent visit to Jerusalem, I wanted to visit her, but she had been detained by police for a short time. Her book – “Unchilding” – had been published by Cambridge University Press.

The racist, distorting view of Palestinian children contributes to an acceptance of the fact that they are dying in their thousands in Gaza. And then there is the typically German cultivation of helplessness: everything is so complicated, what can one say … But what is so difficult about rebelling against the deaths of children? What is so difficult about saying “It must stop. Now!”?

We will only see the full extent of the tragedy in Gaza when the war is over. Then, a horde of traumatised, mutilated children with amputated limbs will await us. And we will have no answer.

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