My thoughts this week have been on children and what it must be like to grow up in an occupied land. I grew up in a world that was mostly free of fear and violence. My childhood was what I would hope for children everywhere and included safety, protection and the right to simply “be a kid”.
The world in Palestine is a different place. While parents and communities here attempt attempt to raise and provide for their children like my parents did, they are forced to do so in an occupied land – one full of soldiers, guns, riot gear, restrictions on movement, tear gas, skunk water, rubber bullets, etc, etc, etc. Notwithstanding the physical dangers to children in such a world, these kids will develop and mature psychologically in an environment filled with mistrust, anxiety, fear, violence and to a degree, hate.
I have had the recent opportunity to meet a man named Hasan Breijieh who lives in the village of Al Ma’sara which is just a few km to the south of Bethlehem. Al Ma’sara is faced with a problem that many Palestinian communities around Bethlehem face – the confiscation of Palestinian land for the expansion of the adjacent hilltop “settlements” around them. These settlements breach international humanitarian law and their very existence violates Palestinian human rights in the form of right to property, equality, a decent standard of living and freedom of movement. Some of the inhabitants of these settlements, known simply as “settlers”, can be exceptionally violent and dangerous. The sad fact on the ground is that the military defends and supports even the worst of actions by the settlers, which are typically at the expense of the Palestinians.
Hasan has been carrying out a small non-violent demonstration for about six years now – every Friday at 12:30. At about noon, the Israeli soldiers “roll into town” like clockwork to deal with this demonstration. About a dozen soldiers stand across the village road entrance and form a human “fence” with the requisite semi-automatic rifles at hand. As if on cue, Hasan and about 10 kids/young teenagers march up the street carrying a couple of Palestinian flags. When they meet the road-blocking soldiers, they stop face to face. A kid moves to the left in an attempt to squeeze between two soldiers – the soldiers shuffle in unison to the left to block the pathway. The kid then moves back to the right towards a newly opened breach in the soldiers line – the soldiers quickly shuffle to the right to block this opening. The routine looks much like a “keystone cops” film and goes on for about an hour with Hasan all the while chastising the very young soldiers with “Why are you here?” and “You have no right to be here!”. If the soldiers were allowed to speak, their official response provided from their superiors would be that they are here for “security”. In this case, the security threat is a young girl with a pony-tail, a pink top and an adorable smile.
The serious side of this protest is not lost on me. The concept of non-violent resistance has been used effectively in previous conflicts and struggles around the world. Many are now thinking that this form of protest may play a role in ending the occupation in Palestine as well. However, this work will take time. The Israeli military has no current way of responding to this form of resistance – their world is one of superiority and brute force. Many of the young men in Palestine will also need time to accept this form of resistance as their world is one of either accepting the occupying force/violence or responding to it. The general Palestinian population can quite rightly say that they have struggled and continue to suffer to an intolerable degree – how can they be expected to wait for this potential means of ending the occupation that comes with no guarantee? Additionally, non-violent protest does not make for catchy headlines whereas violent protest does.
The clear hope and reward in such wait would be with the children of today and their children. The hope and desire is that some day, children in Palestine will have the opportunity be able to grow up in an environmnent where they feel unthreatened and safe and doing what kids should be doing at their age – that is simply “being a kid”.