Among the hundreds already dead in the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas, very many are children. And despite the killing of children being invoked by both sides as evidence of their enemy’s brutality, the death toll will no doubt continue to rise.
Because for decades now, neither Israel nor Hamas has shown any willingness to abide by a basic principle of international humanitarian law – that at times of conflict, every effort should be made to spare the young.
This aspect of the conflict rarely receives the attention it deserves from politicians or the media. And even charities working in the region often don’t address the issue as they’d like to. However, researchers such as myself have been able to highlight how significantly children’s lives are affected.
The indiscriminate launch of rockets into Israel has exposed children there to trauma, injury and death. Meanwhile, countless Palestinian children die in bombardments of the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the killing of Palestinian children is a frequent occurrence that invariably goes unpunished.
Yet a 1977 addition to the Geneva conventions (article 77) states that: “Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault.”
It goes on to say that the opposing sides should provide children with “the care and aid they require”. But there is scant evidence of this care being shown by either Hamas or Israel.
We also see a complete disregard for international law in the abduction of children by enemy forces. Following the recent Hamas attack on Israel, shocking reports have emerged of Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas and transported into the Gaza Strip alone or with their parents.
Also shocking is the longstanding and routine abduction of Palestinian children, some as young as 12. Evidence gathered by UK charity Save The Children and others shows that these children are held in prisons, often with adults, and are commonly assaulted by guards.
Administrative detention often lasts for months, with release offered only after signing a confession, typically for throwing stones. But those confessions are reportedly obtained under threat of continued imprisonment should the child refuse.
Such violations continue with impunity and without comment or intervention. The mainstream media rarely report on violations of Palestinian children’s basic rights, while political leaders have proven reluctant to engage.
Charity workers on the ground, many of whom I have interviewed in the occupied territories, feel unable to speak out. Although keenly aware of the violence visited upon Palestinian children, they feel constrained by governmental donors eager not to alienate Israel’s political and business elites. Even when there is a major outbreak of violence, these organisations have little power to demand accordance with international law.
That said, Save the Children has condemned the current violence, saying the scale of the attacks in Israel and Gaza is causing damage that will endure long after the immediate crisis.
The sort of damage they are referring to was the subject of a recent study in which my colleagues and I explored the protection of refugee children in the Gaza Strip and Jordan. We looked at the threats they were exposed to, and how those threats could be reduced.
We found the situations in the two places to be markedly different. In Jordan, daily life was tough, but somehow families managed. In the Gaza Strip, children were routinely exposed to mortal danger which rained down from the skies at any time. The helplessness of Palestinian parents was regularly laid bare.
As one mother in Gaza told us: “Honestly, […] I never feel safe, and I am always terrified that something bad might happen and hurt my children. They never feel safe or comfortable. They are not mentally or physically healthy.”
That interview was conducted a few months after a major outbreak of military violence in 2021 in which 66 Palestinian children were killed. Two years later even greater hostilities are occurring.
Compounding the threat to children’s survival, Israel has announced that the 16 year blockade of Gaza will become even more punitive with the withholding of food, water, electricity and fuel. Meanwhile, major donors to the Palestinians, including the European Commission and the governments of Germany and Austria, are considering the suspension of aid.
The ability of Palestinian parents to protect their children is being comprehensively undermined as never before. And it seems that international law counts for nothing.
Jason Hart, Professor of Humanitarianism and Development, University of Bath
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.