By Emma Von Lego and Bettina Boye/ Betlehem/
As a child born in Denmark, you eat, sleep, play, go to school, and spend time in the after school club where the boys play football and the girls draw. You do not have anything to worry about, and that is a luxury not every child gets to have. In Palestine, for some children, the playground is replaced with asphalted roads where boys play a game of cat and mouse with the Israeli military. The mice armed with stones, and the cats armed with rifles slash snipers.
“I have experienced tear gas very often. Every time they fire it, tears start streaming down my face,” says Ahmad Braqaa. He is 13 years old, and has lived all his life in Aida refugee Camp north of Bethlehem.
The camp was established in 1950 following the 1947 Nakba (catastrophe), housing people from the Jerusalem and Hebron area. Today, it is located right next to the 7 meter high West Bank wall, making it impossible not to see the tall guard towers from the streets. In the same way, when you are standing on the rooftops of the grey concrete buildings in the camp, you cannot avoid the view of Har Homa and Gilo, two, large Israeli settlements which are illegal under international law.
Ahmad lives in the camp most of the time with his parents and five siblings, except when his brothers are in jail. All of Ahmad’s three big brothers have been arrested, one of them serving up to two years after getting shot in the leg during the clashes in 2014. The youngest is still waiting for the charges.
“When the Israeli military came to arrest my brother, we talked to them, trying to convince them not to take him. I was very angry, but also sad because I knew I was going to miss him.” According to Ahmad some children actually intentionally provoke the Israeli Military because they want to go to jail, so they can see their brothers or friends. ”We miss them, and this is the only way to see them,” he said. Many of Ahmad’s friends already went to jail or detention for throwing stones at the Israeli military. Human rights organizations state that approximately 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 are prosecuted every year through Israeli military courts.
According to several inhabitants in the Aida Camp, when you go to jail, you get stripped of many of your rights. The palestinians can risk to be denied of the right to see a lawyer, the right of knowing what you are being charged for, and often the trial is postponed again and again which results in many months without any contact to family or friends before getting the sentence.
That is why Ahmad wants to be a lawyer when he grow up. He would like to defend the rights of the Palestinian prisoners as a result of all the injustice he has witnessed in his neighborhood.
When living in Aida camp you cannot avoid hearing the sounds of tear gas being thrown or rubber bullets being fired as confrontations between camp residents, many of whom are children, and Israeli military occurs various times during the week. These clashes are a result of the constant military presence, and the unjust Palestinians are feeling. The frustrations are for example grounded in the raids they experience as incursions by Israeli Security Forces (ISF) in the camp happens regularly. According to various people from the camp, it is the way for the Israeli to spread fear among the Palestinians. ”When they come during the day or night, they start throwing everything everywhere to find some specific things as evidence,” Ahmad explained.
Ahmad describes the everyday confrontation in the Aida camp as a game of mouse and cat. It starts by the children bikes the 50 meter way up to the blue gate, where the military is hiding behind, while singing degrading songs and throwing stones as the size of a fist at the gate. The Israeli soldiers open the gate, the children run back in fear, the Israeli go back again, the children appears again, back and forth, until rubber bullets and tear gas is being fired by the military.
Let’s take this example and put it in a Danish context. If a 7th grader started throwing stones at their teacher, the teacher would never even think of just finding a boulder to throw it back at them. Of course there would be consequences, but the child would have to learn through dialogue and understanding and not by tasting their own medicine by violence.
Ahmad says he has never talked to the soldiers besides when they came to their house at night and arrested his brother. He believes that if he talked to a Israeli soldier, he will be perceived as a trader or a spy among his friends. In general, none of the participants engage in any verbal contact with the military, which of course helps to create prejudices and expectations of the mindset of the enemy.
Ahmad used to be on the streets when the military would come, but after a neighbor told his dad about his presence at the clashes, his parents forbade him from going outside, when the soldiers are on the streets in Aida camp. Despite of his father worries, Ahmad is never afraid of going around in Aida camp even though the Israeli military tower always watches the citizens of the camp.
Although he claimed that he is not afraid, Ahmad said “if the Israeli was here and I just come down without knowing it, I will just keep walking, and if they see I am afraid, they will arrest me”.
This conviction shows the consequences of the occupation and the presence of Israeli military. Even though Ahmad tells the world and himself that he is not affected in general in the daily life, it is obvious, how his mindset and concerns are a lot different than children in Denmark. Growing up in fear, this is the moral and ethics the children learn.
You do not only see the consequences of the clashes by talking to the inhabitants in Aida, you can also see it on the streets of Aida, which have evident marks with bullet holes and graffiti on the West Bank wall. It looks more like a war-zone than a family neighborhood. Besides different graffiti including names of the 264 lost children during the 2014 clashes, you also see different faces, painted on the walls including Abed Al-Rahman Shadi Obeidallah. Abed was 13 years old, when he was caught in a crossfire while standing with his friend during one of the bigger clashes in the Aida camp. Neither of the boys had participated in the confrontations, when a Israeli soldier fired three shots in their direction, one of them in Abdel-Rahman’s chest causing his death.
This is not a uncommon example. In the armed conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, many children have been injured or killed by mistake and sometimes even shot by the Israeli military.
In general, the Israeli occupation have a significant impact on the everyday life of the Palestinian children. These children grow up in an environment with unstable public services and where the wall decreases accessibility to education, health care, water and electricity.
According to The World Bank, the mortality rate among children in the West Bank is 6 times as high as in Denmark and 7 times as high as in Israel, and this is despite of the fact that Palestine is not a third world country. This is mainly because of limited access to health care services in Palestine due to the wall, checkpoints and permits. Several human rights organizations report that the Palestinians can find themselves being blocked by military, checkpoints or other things, when they need to go to a hospital. The number of hospitals in the West Bank is also limited because various hospitals were destroyed during the conflict.
You can ask yourself how do we prevent another death of a 13 year-old boy, but another and maybe more relevant question is, how do we prevent an escalation of the cat-and-mouse game? Besides parenting about not throwing stones, it is important to create social communities and activities, so the boys have other things in common than the feeling of unjust and therefore being provocative towards the military. Hobbies, events and activities will all contribute to that the boys will spend their time more efficient than sitting on the street waiting for the next confrontation to happen.
When that is said, as a foreigner, and especially Danish foreigner, you cannot help to wonder why rubber bullets and tear gas is being thrown, because of children throwing stones. Rocks are no real threat against an armed military. When you ask if a rock could injure or kill a soldier wearing a helmet, a bullet proof vest, and army-grade clothing, it is hard to imagine, but a protester dying of tear gas inhalation does occur here from time to time.
According to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, signed by nearly every nation in the world, tear gas is a chemical agent, banned in warfare and is also categorized as a torture method. So how can the Israeli military legitimize the use of tear gas and rubber bullets fired by guns as a respond to stones thrown at a gate?
How does it make sense that if a 14 year-old child throws a stone in the direction of an Israeli soldier, the soldier can respond with violence? How does it make sense that children can be sentenced up to 20 years in prison for throwing a stone? How will the game of cat and mouse ever be fair, when the Palestinians are living under Israeli military law that at every point favors the Israeli soldier? Apparently, this is the logic the conflict is ruled by, even though it is difficult to understand, when you experience the West Bank for the first time.