Challenge to our image of childhood

IN A RECENT article Z.W. Falk, an Emeritus Professor in Family Law of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (‘End the Children’s Crusade,’ The Jerusalem Post, August 3, 1989) points a finger at Arab organizations in the West Bank and Gaza for “the employment of children in the intifada.” He compares their participation in the uprising with the Children’s Crusade in 1212 and sending of “child units to death by the Khomeini regime.”
He even goes so far as to connect the taking part of Palestinian youngsters in the uprising with “values of medieval militarism” in which the “Arab society is still caught up.”
While I agree that children should not take part in hostilities (article 38 of the draft UN Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for this), the situation is different from situations described by Professor Falk in his article. First of all, no valid comparison can be made between the participation of children in the intifada and “children undergoing intensive military training” (as in Lebanon) and subsequently being sent into military action. It is a different situation from the recruitment of child soldiers.
Instances of such deplorable practices may be gleaned from a report issued by the Friends World Committee for Consultation in London. In Afghanistan children under 15 are enlisted into the armed forces and in Iran the legal age of conscription is now 13.
In 1987 I heard Mr. Ernest Rusita, High Commissioner of Uganda in London, speak at the annual meeting of the UK section of Defence for Children International. He told moving stories of how in the past Ugandan children, whose families had been destroyed in the civil war, would hide in the bush or run to whoever would pick them up. If they reached a camp of guerrillas they became child soldiers. A recent Unicef study has documented the tragedy of children forcefully recruited into the Mozambique National Resistance and forced to commit atrocities against civilians, sometimes including their own families.
It is my view that the involvement of children in hostilities, which can vary from the provision of indirect assistance to direct participation in the fighting, should be considered within the context of the nature of the conflict concerned.
The intifada is a conflict (and not a fully-fledged armed conflict) in which a whole population has risen against the Israeli occupation. A very high percentage of this population can be considered minors.
Our image of childhood (“children should be protected”) is being challenged. The Palestinians regard children taking part in the intifada as heroes. Families of the highest reputation have their “martyrs” – children killed by the IDF.
The youngsters arrested see their actions in the light of the struggle for independence and far from being ashamed are proud of their actions. When detained, their status rises in the community. There is a new value in Palestinian society: taking part in the uprising. Youngsters are often more radical than their parents and by acting independently, they have revolutionized the traditional structure of the family.
SOME TIME AGO I visited several organizations in Gaza (the Sub-Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Society for the Care of Handicapped Children in the Gaza Strip, the Gaza Center for Rights and Law and the Save the Children Organization) in order to obtain more background information on children taking part in activities.
Some of the people I met stressed to me that the youngsters in Gaza are not willing to sacrifice their national aspirations, even if this goes against the will of their parents. “Mr. Arafat was asleep in Tunis when our youngsters started the uprising,” somebody told me. I even heard of two sons who accuse their father (who had been imprisoned in Ansar II for several months) of not doing enough for the uprising.
To point a finger at Palestinian society and state that its norms and values are those of the Middle Ages, as Falk does, is to assume that “we” are civilized and the Palestinians are not.
Prof. Falk closes his article with his opinion that “the creation of an Arab state in Palestine would probably hamper chances for modernization and social development.” Here he uses the participation of children in the uprising to reach a conclusion (that there should not be a Palestinian state) which has nothing to do with the protection of children.
Betzelem, the Israel Centre for Human Rights in the occupied territories, in an analysis of data of the spokesman of the IDF and Palestinian sources, shows that in August alone 30 Palestinians were killed, of whom four were below the age of 12, and 10 were aged 13-16.
That is to say: 46 per cent of those killed were minors. Up till now it has been between 15-20 per cent.
In conclusion, it seems that in the case of the intifada the “rights of the child perspective” calls for the special protection of children.
Although it is difficult for both sides in a situation in which children are perceived as enemies or heroes, everybody should be reminded constantly that all actions on the part of adults should take into account the special vulnerability of children.
It is the task of organizations for children’s rights to stress to all sides the vulnerability of children and the special rights which must consequently be accorded to them.
At the beginning of last month, significant progress in this respect was achieved by the removal of education from the struggle. The authorities permitted the reopening of the schools in the West Bank and the unified leadership of the uprising insisted that the schools should be left out of the confrontations. Hopefully the subsequent closure of a few schools will not establish a new pattern. Reopening the schools is a positive step on the part of both sides in the direction of acting in accordance with accepted international standards for the protection of children.
This example illustrates that the rights of children can sometimes have a powerful appeal which transcends political and ideological boundaries.

Jerusalem Post – Jerusalem
Author: Philip E; Veerman
Date: Sep 24, 1989

The writer is coordinator of the Israel Section of Defence for Children International.

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