Where is accountability for Gaza’s children?

Israel ‘oppresses Palestinians and Palestinian children in all impunity’ despite Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Farah Baker's posts on Twitter made the 16-year-old a social media sensation during the Gaza war [Reuters]

Before Israel’s invasion of Gaza last July, Farah Baker was an ordinary Palestinian teenager growing up in the besieged strip of land by the Mediterranean Sea. But a compelling Twitter feed catapulted her to international fame.

I’m the modern Anne Frank Gaza-Palestine, 16 years old,” is the description of Baker’s Twitter account. The teen has garnered 209,000 followers, and has more than 8,200 tweets to her name.

On August 23, she tweeted, “How is it like to live freely and peacefully without occupation? I never experienced that! Is it so beautiful?” More than 1,000 people re-tweeted her message. Each day she tweets multiple times, articulating her worries and dreams, especially during the war. Her home, situated near Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, provides extraordinary insight – beyond her years – into life during war.

This is perhaps Farah’s attempt to cope with the bombardment and destruction in Gaza, explains Michael Wessells, a professor at Columbia University’s Program on Forced Migration and Health who studies the effects of war on children.  

Through tweeting she connects with large numbers of people, ending the feelings of being alone and isolation that are often part of the psychosocial burden of children living in active war zones.

by - Michael Wessells, Columbia University

“Through tweeting,” he told Al Jazeera, “she connects with large numbers of people, ending the feelings of being alone and isolation that are often part of the psychosocial burden of children living in active war zones. Also, tweeting is active and affords self-efficacy, which is key for psychosocial wellbeing. It gives her a sense of actively doing something – educating others about the situation of children – rather than being passive or lapsing into feelings of helplessness.”

Human shields, and shielding children

When Ahmad Abu Raida – then also 16 years old – and his family tried to flee the Israeli ground invasion in southern Gaza, soldiers captured and used him as a human shield for five days. He recounts physical and psychological abuse as he was interrogated, shot at, and forced to search and dig for tunnels.

Indeed, children represent one of the most vulnerable populations during war. The Gaza war has seared into the world’s consciousness images of children targeted in playgrounds and schools, on the beach, and in United Nations shelters.

According to the UN’s Gaza Emergency Situation Report, the war claimed 495 children’s lives, out of 2,104 Palestinians killed. More than 3,100 children were wounded with up to 1,000 having a permanent disability. Almost 1,500 children were orphaned.

The report also states: “At least 373,000 children require direct and specialised psychosocial support [PSS]. Children are showing symptoms of increasing distress, including bed wetting, clinging to parents and nightmares.”

Convention on the Rights of the Child

The international agreement that lists children’s rights in exhaustive detail is the UN’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). One of 194 countries to sign this document, Israel also ratified it in 1991, which binds it legally.

For example, Article 38, no. 4 states: “In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.”

Al Jazeera asked Aaron Sagui, spokesman of the Embassy of Israel in Washington, to respond to the allegation that Israel is violating the CRC. 

“I would hope that Al Jazeera English would focus its investigative reporting on the war crimes committed by Hamas, who embeds its rockets in homes, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Hamas is both targeting civilians, and launching rockets while hiding behind civilians. That’s a double war crime, and therefore all civilian deaths, as regrettable as they are, fall on their shoulders.”

When asked about Israel’s alleged violations of the CRC during its invasion of Gaza, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Al Jazeera, “I think throughout this conflict we repeatedly voiced our concern for civilians, including children. And we also made clear that we thought that Israel should take additional steps to prevent and reduce – prevent really is the most important term here – civilian casualties.”

Even still, the United States remains opposed to Palestinians taking their grievances against Israel before an international forum.

“Going through international bodies at this point in time is not, perhaps, the most productive step,” Psaki said.

Israeli accountability, US protection

The CRC builds on the 1924 League of Nations’ Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which outlined the fundamental rights of children, who “must be the first to receive relief in times of distress”.

“Israel, as an occupying power … is obligated, under the Geneva Conventions, to ensure the wellbeing of the Palestinian population, including the children,” said Alex Abuata, communications and advocacy officer with War Child International Network, a coalition of independent humanitarian organisations that help children affected by war.

He said Gaza is still considered occupied territory under international law because Israel continues to control its borders, airspace, and territorial waters, as well as all activity of goods and people. “Yet Israel … systematically oppresses Palestinians and Palestinian children in all impunity,” Abuata told Al Jazeera.

Almost 500 children were killed in Gaza [Al Jazeera]

The question of accountability is crucial, said Brad Parker from rights group Defence for Children International (DCI)-Palestine. He said Israel has consistently violated international laws with impunity, often with US government protection in international fora. From 1972 to 2011, the United States exercised its veto power 41 times in the UN Security Council, voting against resolutions that attempted to hold Israel accountable for violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Most recently, Washington – which provides nearly $3bn in US aid to Israel annually – cast the only negative vote on a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council to create an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations in the territories. The council also condemned “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” arising from the Israeli military operations. The resolution passed despite the US veto.

‘Damaged generation’

“Children bear the brunt of this violence,” said Parker at a Capitol Hill briefing. “[They] are arrested from their homes in the middle of the night by heavily armed soldiers … blindfolded … hands tied with plastic cords behind their backs.”

Nearly three out of four children arrested by Israeli forces experience some form of physical violence during arrest, transfer or interrogation.

Parker said although in 2011 Israel’s Military Order 1676 raised the age of adulthood in military courts from 16 to 18 years, Palestinian children aged 16 and 17 can still be sentenced as adults. No such limitation applies to Israeli children, including those who live in settlements in the occupied territories.

I'm 16 years old and have survived three wars and Intifada! I am lucky and I don't want to live through a fourth war #Gaza.

by - Farah Baker, Gazan girl

Further, military law sanctions trying Palestinian children as young as 12 in military courts and provides guidance on maximum penalties.

“Minor offenses, like throwing a stone, can lead to several years in prison,” said Abuata. “Israeli children are tried in civil courts, where the sentences are much lighter.”

“I’m deeply worried that after three wars in six years [in Gaza], we have created a permanently damaged generation,” says Bill Corcoran, president and CEO of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), a non-governmental organisation that works with people in the territories, Lebanon, and Jordan. “In their own way, the children of Gaza voice that they have no future,” he said.

Professor Wessells noted fearing for their lives can create a pattern common in war zones, where “children will likely become more inclined to join in a militant struggle against Israel, thereby continuing cycles of violence”.

At the announcement of the ceasefire on August 26, Farah Baker tweeted, “I’m 16 years old and have survived three wars and Intifada! I am lucky and I don’t want to live through a fourth war #Gaza.”

Later in the day she wrote: “The modern Anne Frank [me] is luckier than the real Anne Frank bc the modern one could survive the war.”

Source: Al Jazeera