Within Western media and in the utterances of politicians, Israel/the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is conventionally portrayed as a situation of conflict in need of a negotiated peace settlement. However, insofar as "conflict" is understood as implying enmity between two more or less equal parties, it is a misleading label and unhelpful to our understanding of the threats faced by Palestinian children within their daily lives. The control exercised over Palestinian society by Israel and the ability of its forces to enter even the most intimate spaces of domestic life at will and with impunity give rise to an array of dangers and obstacles in the lives of children. The report by Richard Falk and the article by JURIST Guest Columnist Rifat Kassis highlight a particular aspect of the violations experienced by Palestinian children as a result of Israeli control over their lives: namely their treatment within the military justice system. Such maltreatment is only one element of a set of practices that have long been routine and which constitute serious dereliction of Israel's obligations under international law to protect children living in territory that it has occupied through military conquest.
UN and international humanitarian organizations seeking to ensure the realization of children's rights in the oPt face innumerable challenges. The so-called "Four Ps" of child rights protection, provision, prevention and participation are all threatened in systematic manner by policies that deny freedom of movement, inhibit economic life and appropriate land and natural resources for the exclusive use of settler colonies. Yet, humanitarians must not only negotiate a range of practical challenges in order to assist Palestinian children. In this highly politicized setting they need also to balance their institutional mandates with the agendas of governments that fund their operations. Political elites in the US, Canada and the EU member states have commonly minimized expressions of disquiet with Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, variously prioritizing economic and political interests over adherence to human rights standards and the rule of law.
Constrained in their ability to directly address the causes of harm to Palestinian children resulting from occupation, humanitarian organizations focus largely on efforts to reduce suffering and strengthen the ability of children and their caregivers to cope. With these aims in view, extensive "psychosocial" programs commonly constitute much of the protection portfolio of UN and international agencies. In addition, numerous humanitarians are engaged in compiling evidence of Israeli violations, sending reports up through their organizational hierarchies to head offices in Brussels, London, New York and Washington, DC. The consequences of such extensive reporting are hard to discern; certainly Palestinian children remain vulnerable to serious harm in various ways due to the occupation and ongoing efforts aimed at colonization.
Many young Palestinians have expressed frustration at the perceived failure of the "international community" to act on the extensive knowledge available of Israeli violations. At a 2010 conference in Bethlehem on children's protection and participation organized by Defense for Children International, a teenager in the audience articulated his frustration in the following words: "In the past Israel was able to hide its crimes against children. ... Nowadays it's sure that the international community knows what is happening inside Israeli prisons to the children ... but I've never seen any real efforts to stop these crimes." (author's translation)
Richard Falk's recent report is a further source of such knowledge for UN member states and operational agencies. It remains to be seen whether the information he has provided will lead to any increase in efforts to call Israel to account over its breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Past experience does not give much cause for hope. Furthermore, bodies intended to monitor the adherence of states parties to the legal instruments that they have ratified, such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, have proven unequal to the task of ensuring that Israel cease its routine violations.
Continued inaction, however, is not without its risks for both humanitarians and governments. As the details of Israel's violations are articulated in one report after another, the standing of child protection organizations that fail to act in accord with their own stated principles becomes vulnerable to scrutiny. In such circumstances, silence justified in the name of neutrality looks ever more like complicity. Moreover, concerns that humanitarians are functioning as a fig leaf for the failure and shortcomings of foreign policy amongst Western governments are liable to gain further traction. Those same governments' failure to act in response to information about violations publicly conveyed also carries self-defeating risks. The agenda of human rights, rule of law and good governance pursued by many European and North American states in various countries in the Middle East, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, is widely heralded. As yet one more damning report reveals Israeli disregard for such matters, the distrust and resentment of young Palestinians and their peers around the Arab world towards governments that continue to offer vast, unconditional support to Israel can only increase.
Jason Hart is a Lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences of the University of Bath. Holding a PhD in social anthropology, his research has focused on children living in situations of political violence and forced displacement. Hart was previously a lecturer at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. He is co-author of a recent briefing paper published by the University of Oxford, "Protecting Palestinian children from political violence: the role of the international community."
Suggested citation: Jason Hart, Violations of Palestinian Children's Rights Raises Serious Risks, JURIST - Hotline, Dec. 3, 2011, http://jurist.org/hotline/2011/12/jason-hart-palestinian-children.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Leah Kathryn Sell, an assistant editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org