I love my 6-year-old friend, Ben. It was spring break here this past week, and Thursday night I had the opportunity for a “sleep-over” at Ben’s house. The evening was spent playing together ~ a fun, carefree time of board games and “dress-up” ~ complete with all of the wonderful imagination that only a 6-year-old boy can muster! Ben told stories of going to the dinosaur museum. He introduced his favourite new dinosaurs one by one ~ But Ben also loves school, and he is looking forward to returning to class this week.
My time with Ben transported me back to last fall in Bethlehem. It was September. My young Palestinian friends were also looking forward to the beginning of school. But their reality is vastly different. A few I know by name, but most remain nameless to me. What I do remember are their faces. What I do know is that a fun, carefree childhood is a concept foreign to them. Their childhood is occupied ~ not occupied with being children, but occupied with Occupation!
I remember monitoring the schools in Tuqu’ village, where children were forced to walk past armed soldiers and army hummers in order to get to school. I remember the day the school closed because youth were protesting the invasion of Gaza, and the army had responded to their non-violent protest with tear gas.
I remember the Bedouin children who feared that the Israeli government would come and demolish their school. I remember the children who returned from school only to find that their home was in ruins ~ flattened by the bulldozers.
I remember Qusai who loves soccer but who lives in Al-Azza refugee camp and has no place to play ~ only small, dirty, narrow alleys. I remember young Dena who broke her leg because she doesn’t get enough calcium to be able to form strong bones. I remember the 8-year-old boy who was literally speechless ~ traumatized by the 16 soldiers who had invaded his home in the middle of the night. I remember the children in Aida refugee camp who, when asked to write about their lives, chose to write about the wall, about their father who was killed by the army, about their brother who was in prison, about their life ~ which is occupation.
And I remember 10-year-old Ali who seemed to live on the street and was grateful for the cookie and sandwich I offered ~ as I sat with him on the curb in front of my house and tried to dissuade him from antagonizing the soldiers who for him are the enemy, the occupiers ~ These are not isolated stories ~ They are representative of the evils of occupation.
On and on it goes … This past week I read the March 28 posting of my Canadian colleague, Jan, who is currently serving with EAPPI in East Jerusalem. Jan writes poignantly about the violence done to Palestinian children who are arrested and detained in Israeli military prisons. She references the recent UNICEF report “Children in Israeli Military Detention” (February 2013) and states that according to Defence for Children International (DCI), in the month of February alone, 236 Palestinian children were imprisoned and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system, the highest monthly total since October 2010. Of that number, 39 were between the ages of 12 and 15 ~ Another example of the evil of occupation.
An incident on Wednesday, March 20, brings this all home! At 7:30 AM, 22 Israeli soldiers arrived at the Hebron Public Elementary School and apprehended 27 minors, ages 7-15. Two of the children were released on the side of a road shortly after being detained, but the remaining 25 were taken to the police station, where they were photographed and had their fingerprints taken. Teachers from the school went to the police station but were not allowed to enter. At 2:00 PM the soldiers released the 8 youngest children but continued to detain the remaining 17, all between the ages of 13 and 15. This incident is in clear violation of international law! And yet we hear nothing of this in our media. (Click here to view a video of the incident as recorded by the Israeli Human Rights Organization, B’Tselem.)
Now in its 46th year, this occupation has gone on far too long. It must end! ~ No child should have to live with the realities of an occupation that steals their childhood and occupies their young lives! ~ Children deserve to be occupied with being children! ~ The memories haunt me still ~ My heart aches ~ Will we stand up and speak out? ~ For the sake of the children?